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Literary Wed Mar 16 2011

The Mortified Experience

A few months ago, I had the experience of watching people get on stage and sing songs, read journal entries, poems, and one person read a selection from 125 handwritten pages of a story based on the film Jurassic Park. What these pieces shared in common was that they were all written when the readers were under 21 years old. This prompted me to think -- I've got boxes of old spiral-bound notebooks, composition books, and cloth-bound journals from my youth, all moldering in my basement; what would happen if I cracked them open?

Mortified is a reading series that plumbs the depths of our youth at our angstiest, our most unintentionally hilarious, and our most impressionable, before we learned the nuances of the adult world and how to navigate it. Based in L.A., Shay DeGrandis directs the Chicago chapter of Mortified, which started in 2006. When she's not directing Mortified, DeGrandis works at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she schedules classes, among other things. "LA and NY seem to have a more consistent stream of applicants than we do here," she says, "I imagine it's because of their high per capita actor ratio -- they have a lot of willing people who desire an audience. People in Chicago have amazing stories to tell but it's harder to get them to participate, to be vulnerable, to get on stage and bear their most private moments. But when they do, they touch the audience's heart as well as their funny bone... and sometimes other places, too."

The Mortified process is unique in that nobody gets turned away, potential readers meet with a director for a "shoebox meeting", in which the reader brings anything they've got from their youth and the director helps sift for Mortified-worthy gold.

A recent home improvement project brought to light half a dozen notebooks and journals from my youth. I cracked them open for the first time in years, likely the first time since I'd packed them away and moved 8 years ago. What I found was equal parts cringe-inducing, poignant, and amazing -- turns out my adult thought processes are not so different from my adolescent thought processes, and it turns out that some of what I wrote as a teen was actually pretty decent. Don't get me wrong -- for every piece that made me think: "Why didn't anyone ever tell me I was a good writer?" there were at least five that made me cringe. That's where the vetting process with co-producer Johanna Stein came in. Stein carries plenty of Mortified-worthy cred; she's a comedian and writer who's gotten onstage with guitar in hand and sung "Stairway to Winnipeg," a creation from her own youth, in front of a Mortified audience, and has a knack for drawing out the funny in anything.

"You don't come to see someone 'perform' or interpret a diary they wrote when they were 13," Stein says, "You just wanna see them read it out loud, with all the accompanying shame, horror and embarrassment that any normal human being would feel. And that honesty is very satisfying for an audience... and insanely hilarious. Something that I particularly enjoy about the Chicago shows is the Chicago-ness of the performances. You can generally bank on at least a couple of performers showing up with stories and experiences that sound like they're right out of a John Hughes movie."

Stein is a recent addition to Mortified Chicago's directorial lineup. Of the experience, she says: "There are not enough 'o's to express how much I loooove the process. You get to play dramaturge, editor and armchair therapist all at the same time. And I'm a nosy mo-fo at the best of times, so getting to sit down and listen to someone read their inner-most teenage thoughts to me -- sometimes for the first time ever-- it's like Christmas, Hannukah and Halloween all rolled into one. It never gets old."

I lugged my notebooks to Stein's apartment on a Saturday afternoon and we set to work. I read entries from journals and notebooks out loud, and Stein took notes. Some of it was painful; journal entries about the very real pain of growing up, some of it was actually pretty good, and some of it made me red in the face -- an outward indicator that we'd stumbled upon something worth adding to the "yes" pile.

It's the earnestness of young writing that can make it so ripe for parody, and so embarrassing to look back on as an adult. As it turns out, it also makes for a pretty good live reading. Once we'd made some decisions on which pieces to focus on, I took the notebooks home for further study. Spending that much time with my teenage writing sent me back into my adolescent self in a way that was unexpected; I found myself caught up in dramas and scandals that had long since passed into forgotten vaults of my reptilian mind. I felt slightly agitated and nostalgic, it was almost like being a teenager again, minus the pimples and the homework.

Once the participants had a rough idea of what to read, we met as a group at Stein's apartment with DeGrandis to do a run-through. While different in voice and place in time, our pieces, like the ones I heard at the last Mortified Chicago reading, are all exceedingly, brutally honest expressions of youth. It's the honesty of the pieces as much as the spectacle of watching people willing to divulge their most cringe-inducing ephemera that makes Mortified what it is. I can't divulge what you'll hear at this Friday's Mortified reading, but I can tell you that it will be unlike any other reading you've ever been to.

Catch Mortified this Friday at the Beat Kitchen (2100 W. Belmont) at 7:30. As of this writing tickets are sold out, but for more information, including how to participate, visit Mortified or Beat Kitchen, or call 773-278-6000.

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Dating / April 15, 2011 11:34 AM

Nice information, many thanks to the author. It is incomprehensible to me now, but in general, the usefulness and significance is overwhelming. Thanks again and good luck!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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