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New frontiers of sharing: read your old diary onstage

Pressed Café in Centretown Ottawa is normally a bustling place—fingers clunk on laptop keyboards and people chatter—but on the evening of July 6, 2014, the room is quiet. Two hundred eyes look up at a spot-lit Lindsey McCaffrey. She is about to do something most people have thought of only in nightmares. To a roomful of strangers, she will read aloud from her childhood diary .

Cracking open the unicorn-cover diary that was hers at age 12 (and which includes a warning at the front to her sister to “stay out!”), McCaffrey, now 38, shares about her first heartbreak. “I absolutely cannot believe it,” she reads. “Ronda just phoned me a few minutes ago telling me that Chris broke up with me!” The room erupts in laughter.

McCaffrey’s performance is part of a stage show called Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids (GRTTWaK). The show is an open-mic style event where participants sign up to read from their adolescent writings onstage at a bar, café or similarly laid-back venue. The participants are regular people—not professional performers—who have dug through their old shoe boxes and found something funny, touching or just plain embarrassing that they think is worth sharing.

Gaining momentum

GRTTWaK began as a stage show in Toronto in 2007, but last summer the show’s creator, Dan Misener, took it on the road, drawing crowds and local participants in all ten Canadian cities he visited. GRTTWaK isn’t the only show of its kind. A similar open-mic show called Teen Angst began in Calgary in 2000. There are also curated diary shows across North America, such as Mortified in the U.S. and Dear Diary in Toronto. In the curated shows, producers meet with participants before the performance to help tease out a story within their adolescent writings (unlike in the un-coached open-mic shows).

Close to home. An all-too-relatable moment at a Mortified show in San Francisco. [Photo © Todd Hartman]

Stage shows of both varieties, curated and open-mic, have cropped up across North America over the last decade, and their popularity has grown. Since Mortified began in 2002, it has expanded to nine American cities and it also has a chapter in Malmo, Sweden. A documentary about the show called Mortified Nation was released November, 2013. It got some press, winning positive reviews from The Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek, among other sources. The film also seems to have sparked a renewed interest in these types of shows. Dear Diary started in Toronto in September 2014, after the show’s creator, Alexandra Parravano, saw the Mortified documentary. Meanwhile CBC Radio picked up on public interest in these shows and commissioned Misener to produce a 10-part podcast series of GRTTWaK. The audio episodes were broadcast live throughout the summer of 2014 on CBC Radio, and can now be accessed online at the GRTTWaK website.

Real-life drama

Misener says he came up with the idea for GRTTWaK while helping his girlfriend sort through boxes at her parents’ house in 2007. He found her Grade Seven diary, and they spent the afternoon reading it aloud. Misener realized it was compelling, and the show was born.

Dave Nadelberg, founder of Mortified, says these types of shows are popular because they are honest. “I think audiences are really hungry, on an emotional level, for things that take them on a true human experience,” he said. With so-called “reality shows” feeding audiences anything but reality (think Kardashians and Real Housewives), people are craving authenticity in art. The way we have segregated emotions in our entertainment to different genres (dramas, thrillers, comedies) is also not indicative of how we experience life, said Nadelberg. In shows like Mortified, the audience will find themselves laughing one moment and crying the next, much like life, certainly like adolescence.

Our culture now places a high value on vulnerability.

Nadelberg also says the popularity comes from how universal and relatable adolescence is. Even if audience members can’t directly identify with a participant’s life experience, Nadelberg hopes they can still relate to the emotions. “I want to have an audience member who grew up as a total Mormon goodie-two-shoes boy, and I want him to totally connect to some punk rock girl who’s reading her lyrics on stage,” he said.

Mortified participant Garry Davis shares his struggles with growing up feeling like an outsider. [Photo © Allana Taranto]

The connection comes not from having gone through exactly the same thing, but in understanding—through your own experience—the other person’s feelings. One participant in Mortified, Garry Davis, shared about growing up as a gay, black male from a religious family in the Southern U.S. Nadelberg says he couldn’t directly relate to Davis’ story since he’s straight, white and from the Midwest. “But I do know what it’s like to feel misunderstood,” Nadelberg said. “I do know what it’s like to feel different.”

Parravano of Dear Diary says the show creates a collective experience for audience members. “At the end of the show, everyone feels like they’ve gone through something together,” she said. For the audience members, the performers seem to guide a process of looking back. While viewers might come to the show to hear other people’s embarrassing stories, they come out talking about their own. The audience and performers—who were strangers at the beginning of the night — feel like they know each other at the end, she said.

Who would do this?

But the whole trend invites the question: Why would anyone want to read their diary to a bunch of strangers?

“I loved it,” said Diane Finkle Perazzo, a participant in Ottawa’s GRTTWaK. “I loved that they were laughing.” Perazzo says the experience was therapeutic for her, because of the support she gained from the audience. She said one of her friends didn’t like the show because she thought the audience was making fun of the performers. But Perazzo is quick to assert that she was being “laughed with” rather than “laughed at.”

GRTTWaK’s Misener, “The dirty little secret of all of this is that when you are listening to someone onstage read from their childhood writings, you’re really not laughing at them; you’re kind of laughing at yourself.” The performers can sense this support and realize they are not the only ones who experienced these things. There’s a new perspective gained on problems that may have seemed so large at the time.

Lindsey McCaffrey reflects on how she’s changed since she wrote her diary and how, in a way, she’s still the same. [Photo © Emma Brown]

“It was a good reminder to me of who I used to be,” McCaffrey said. She realized she didn’t give herself enough credit as a kid because she was actually “pretty awesome.” McCaffrey found herself turning to her childhood writings during her 20s, while she was searching for a sense of identity. Performing for an audience was a way for her to celebrate her younger self.

But one of the most poignant reasons why adults want to read their diaries aloud is this: deep down they are still that kid who just wants to be heard. Teenagers often feel like nobody’s listening to them; no one understands them. Nadelberg said, “What I’ve always liked about getting to do Mortified is this idea that all these years later a room full of strangers are sitting in the dark and they’re listening.”

Back at Pressed Café, McCaffrey finishes her reading with her record of happenings at a middle-school dance:

“1: Phil asked me if I wanted to dance with John to a slow song. 2: I danced with John. 3: Phil said, ‘You and John look good together.’ 4: Brian said, ‘You should go out with him.’ 5: Eventually, I decided to ask John out. 6: Brian told Phil. 7: Phil told John. 8: John thought. 9: John said yes!”

The audience cheered. They cheered for 12-year-old Lindsey. They cheered because deep down we’ve all hoped “John” would say yes to us. They cheered because they understood.

Our culture of vulnerability

Would shows like this have caught on 50 years ago? Mortified producer Dave Nadelberg doesn’t think so. “Back in the day, I think emotions weren’t encouraged to be expressed and vulnerabilities weren’t things that people shared,” he said. Our culture now places a high value on vulnerability.

One of the most popular TED talks ever is “The Power of Vulnerability” by social work researcher Brené Brown, who talks about how vulnerability is not a sign of weakness but strength. The age of privacy is dying as people now share their intimate thoughts and feelings with the world via social media. We are a culture that no longer cringes at another’s raw honesty but rather embraces it.

But with this culture of sharing, “there can be opportunities for gross exhibitionism and narcissism,” Nadelberg warns. “Nobody wants that.” Finding the balance between enriching honesty and “look-at-me” egoism is a constant battle for producers of these shows.