Mortified may be the first dramatic work based on unrivaled embarrassment. The outline for each performance began when original creator David Nadelberg found an awkward love letter he had never sent to a girl in middle school, and began sharing it with friends. The show that exists now, based on Nadelberg’s original late-‘90s realization that past humiliation makes for enjoyable current theater,
is described as a “comic excavation of teen angst artifacts.”
Throughout the individual reminiscences of pre-teen misery that make up a single performance of Mortified, old diaries are read, yearbook photographs are assessed, and home movies are viewed, all with the excruciating explanation by the person (actors and civilians alike) featured.
Co-producer of the show, Karen Corday, explains what kind of person would be masochistic enough to retread middle school territory: “We try to have a theme. We have what we call ‘shoebox sessions.’ A lot of people have an old shoebox full of stuff that they keep in the back of their closet or under their bed. So we encourage them to pull out that shoebox, sometimes literally, and go through their stuff. And we structure it by asking them, ‘What was your goal? Were you trying to get a boyfriend? Were you trying to write the next great American novel?’”
Because what 13-year-old didn’t attempt to write the next great American novel, am I right?!
As it turns out, there are certain universal things that tweens write about in diaries, for which their adult selves will totally make fun of them later. “There are themes that recur: love, wanting love, losing love, people struggling with their parents, people thinking they’re a horrible person,” says Corday. “But there’s always a little twist. There’s always something that makes this person a little different than the next person. We try to find that connection between ‘This is relatable’ and ‘But this is what makes this person special.’”
After having co-produced the show for two years, Corday has heard some particularly memorable moments of schadenfreude. One of her favorite pieces involved a woman raised in a very Christian household that only allowed her to watch the channel American Movie Classics. “She got really obsessed with old time movie stars, and was particularly interested in Katharine Hepburn. And she found out that Katharine Hepburn was a very old woman at this time, but still alive. So she started writing her letters. Not just fan letters, but also letters encouraging her to accept Jesus as her personal savior before she died to keep her from going to hell.”
Despite the potential reopening of old psychological wounds, there’s no doubt that something therapeutic lies in the retelling of cringe-worthy adolescent moments. For performers, it’s that the audience is “laughing with them” as Corday puts it.
And for the audience, it’s knowing that as ridiculous as our teen years were, at least we don’t have to get on stage and talk about them.
2 ARROW ST.