Freaks and Geeks
A hush falls over the boozed-up crowd at the Make-Out Room as I take the stage, one teetering cigarette-heeled foot after the other. The clunk of those slutty shoes against the cheap wooden stage is the loudest sound in the room. It’s a few volume cranks higher than the buzz of dozens of whispers, the errant clinks of beer bottles against each other, against teeth.
“Hello, I’m Sara Faith,” I stammer into the microphone. “When I was 14 years old, I had few friends, no hope of a boyfriend, and pretty much no extracurricular privileges except for jazz choir rehearsal. I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom, living in kind of a fantasy world while my classmates were doing normal things like dating and going to football games and sneaking wine coolers out of their parents’ refrigerators. As an outlet for my status as complete and utter outcast, I invented a nameless boyfriend and wrote letters to him. And, um, here they are.”
And I open my most sacred and private possession – my navy blue diary with the sparkly dragon on the cover, the one that I kept from 1994–1999 – and begin to read it aloud.
Am I a masochistic exhibitionist? Maybe. Am I taking part in a cultural phenomenon? Definitely.
When I first learned about Mortified, a live stage show wherein ballsy grown-ups share the most intimate artifacts of their teenage angst with an audience of strangers, I couldn’t wait to see it. Founder and executive producer David Nadelberg struck nostalgic pop culture gold when he came up with the idea for this event. What’s more cringe-worthy than listening to earnest declarations of true love and lust, frustrated rants about rules and restrictions imposed by authority figures, world-weary poetry and cynical song lyrics, all streamed through the lens of teenage perspective?
I mean, I didn’t want to read my writings about my most guarded thoughts and feelings in front of a crowd. But I was definitely up for throwing back a few whiskeys and having a laugh at people who are far braver than I.
Famous last words. Cue the record screech, and cut to five years later. I’ve seen Mortified, I’ve gone through my own teenage diaries (including said tome featuring said sparkly dragon), and I’ve thought to myself, “Oh hell. Why not? It’ll be fun to get a laugh out of these things.”
Sitting in a red vinyl booth at the side of the Make-Out Room, I wait nervously for my turn to go up on stage. I feel a bit like a (sexy) prisoner on a pirate ship, who’s about to walk the plank at the behest of a (sexy) pirate captain.
Tonight, I’m on a roster of brave readers that includes Jennifer, whose teenage obsessions included boys and playing the snare drum in her high school band; Rachel, an Irish national who struggled to fit in when her parents uprooted the family to move to the U.S.; Patty, staunchly antidrugs and alcohol until the counterculture movement of the 1960s introduced her to the Technicolor wonders of … drugs and alcohol; Chris, whose long hair and soft-spoken confidence make it easy to picture him sitting alone in his room, listening to The Cure and scribbling his dark and indignant poetry.
As I watch them read, I think about how much their diaries sound like mine. Their adolescent feelings of fury and sadness and loneliness and holy-shit-why-can’t-I-just-be-coolness are very familiar. When I was a teenager, I always felt like a loner, like a loser. I didn’t think anyone understood me, or even wanted to. And now, I’m hearing people of various ages from different parts of the world reveal, through their diaries, those same sentiments.
It’s comforting, in a wistful sort of way.
I’m thinking about how I wish I could go back in time and give my teenage self a hug or an anti-depressant or a subscription to Tiger Beat when one of the show’s coproducers, Scott Lifton (the other is his wife, Heather Van Atta), hands me two drink tickets. This is probably in the hopes that liquid courage will cease my leg from shaking.
This isn’t my first time performing at Mortified, but it doesn’t matter. My nerves reset themselves before every show. Tonight, like every night that I read, I’m thinking, “What if people don’t laugh because they don’t see the irony of my teen diaries? What if it doesn’t seem so absurd that I was once a friendless and awkward lump of zits and hips, because people still see me that way?”
Rachel gets off stage, and between chugs of a Manhattan, tells me that she always gets nervous when she shares her diary. She worries that her teenage thoughts aren’t that funny or interesting or relatable. Jennifer adjusts her hipster nerd glasses (that have actual prescription lenses in them, she makes it a point to tell me) and reveals that she feels the same way. Patty’s busy taking deep, restorative breaths next to her husband. Chris, still on stage, reads a poem about how the color gray is an asshole because it doesn’t even have the decency to be black.
And then it’s my turn.
My first love letter to a fictional boy reads like an ode to the three-syllable words from the 1995 PSAT practice test:
I have to write this down or I’ll explode. This writhing inside of me has been festering, and now, it consumes me. I can’t even structure my thoughts about you; they just flow.
Funny – as soon as I wrote that, I became lost for words.
I’ve been inspired by a lot of things; geographic locations that surrounded me with physical beauty. I’ve sung with pine trees at the top of mountains, welcoming the morning mist. I’ve floated in oceans at 2 a.m., gazing at thousands of dizzying stars. I’ve drunk sunshine with my hair, tainted snow banks with my toes. But, I’ve never before been inspired by an animate object; a living, breathing, tangible, responsive SOUL. You inspire me more than any arbitrary star in the sky, more than iridescent snowflakes that linger in my eyelashes. Your presence fills me with the desire to create, to speak in prose and trace masterpieces with my pinkie. To say that I love you would be the most devastatingly shallow understatement ever to escape my lips.
Much to my immense relief, the audience laughs. A lot. It’s a strange and cathartic feeling putting your raw emotions out there for entertainment purposes. But the crowd at the Make-Out Room isn’t laughing to make fun of me; they’re relating to me. I hope.
I immediately move on to my next letter, a sappy diatribe about feelings and how I feel about them. My fictional relationship plays out like a Lifetime movie. I am blissfully in love, then I feel used, then I get dumped. That’s right – who has two thumbs and created a fantasy world wherein they are cheated on by their luuuuvah? This guy.
I finish my final letter and close the dragon diary, relieved and pleased and proud of myself for offering up my rawest emotions from my most awkward stage for social dissection.
Zach, a ponytailed Jew who transformed his Naughty by Nature idolatry into homemade gangsta raps about drugs, bitches, and his balls, gives me a low high five as I pass him on my way off stage. He is a stand-up comedian and is used to performing multiple times a week in front of cheering and jeering crowds. Earlier in the evening, he told me that Mortified still makes him nervous – because he’s performing as himself without jokes to hide behind.
“I represent what? My nuts, son, my genitals. Them two’s brothers, like the muthafuckin’ Chemicals.”
To think, little Zachary wrote those words in earnest and then performed them in front of his entire Jewish day school as part of an African-American Awareness assembly. And now, 15 years later, he gets to perform them again, only in a completely different context.
This is the crux of Mortified. We embrace and expose our inner turdburgers and freaks and lovelorn losers. We acknowledge our most cringe-worthy phases, not as black marks on our social records, but as building blocks. They’re all roughly cut stepping-stones along the path from teenager to adult.
And, as Scott proclaims before the readers’ final bows, despite all of the angst and anger and unrequited love and fumbling sexual exploits, we all survived.
Mortified has multiple chapters in cities across the country and is always looking for new readers. In San Francisco, Mortified happens once a month at the Make-Out Room. Visit http://www.getmortified.com to find out how to participate in an upcoming show, or, if you’re just not there yet, to buy tickets so you can judge and giggle anonymously from the audience.
You can also support the show by chipping in to the Kickstarter campaign for Mortified’s upcoming concert film, funded entirely by fans like you and, clearly, me.