When office worker Lori Fowler was 13, she was an ace at judging the quality of a new cotton crop. Her elders said she talked too fast, but she sure knew her pickers from her pods. The former Future Farmer of America recorded this expertise in her teen diaries, which she recently shared with a few hundred friends and colleagues as part of a new grass-roots stage show called "Mortified."
Ms. Fowler says the production - which showcases real people from all walks of life performing the most embarrassing excerpts of their teen diaries for paying audiences (hence the title) - was a turning point in her life.
"It was extremely therapeutic," she says of the moment when audiences went wild for her knowledge of the 500-lb. cotton brick. She'd grown up in farming country in Porterville, Calif., and admits to being ashamed of what she dubs her redneck roots. The show taught her a lesson. "I could grow up on a farm and still be respected by cool, hip San Franciscans, which of course, I'm striving to be," she says.
"Mortified" debuted in Los Angeles in 2002. In the past year, it has expanded to New York and San Francisco. It opens in Boston next month. David Nadelberg, the writer who devised the idea of the monologues, was originally inspired by a 10th-grade love letter he'd penned but never delivered.
"When I found it, I just knew I wanted to put it onstage and do something with it," says Mr. Nadelberg. "I'm not a comedian or an actor, but you know, everyone wants to get their rock-star kicks."
Originally slated for a one-night stand, the show, based around a painful love letter about unrequited love (with overtones of youthful stalking), sold out, and audiences asked about the next installment, much to the creator's surprise. "I honestly didn't know this would be funny past five minutes," says Nadelberg.
The writer-turned-producer cast a wider net, asking friends to bring in old diaries, letters, songs - anything that captures that uniquely angst-filled period known as teen adolescence. Now, Nadelberg casts from a growing pool of aspiring performers. He and his team of producers judiciously edit and frame the material, keeping the author's original tone but turning it into presentable entertainment.
"People are occasionally good judges of what they've written, but mostly they're terrible," he says. Yet even a poor submission can yield a story, he says, citing a hypothetical example. "You may think this poem is screamingly funny, but it's not. However, in it you reference your dad who is a transvestite. We love that and want more material on that. But that wouldn't dawn on you because you lived it," he says.
"Mortified" now runs once a month in a local cabaret here, featuring anywhere from eight to 10 men and women who read what Nadelberg has dubbed "diagraphies" about their teenaged selves. The success of the show - which he calls "accidental art" - has led to a book contract for the best of "Mortified" productions nationwide. The idea has struck a chord, says the creator, feeding what he calls a growing desire for "real" stories.
New performers are always welcome. (Submissions for the audition process start at getmortified.com.) But diary-hoarders should beware. Not just any doodlings will do. "Mortified" producers dig through pieces that are merely cute to find the essential truth of a person's story, according to New York producer Giulia Rozzi, a former "Mortified" performer who persuaded Nadelberg to let her take the show to the East Coast. Outright unsuitable material produces the wrong sort of cringing in the audience, she says, adding " 'serious' will work well if it's embarrassingly serious - as in, people take themselves too seriously - but if it's sad without any humor, it won't work for the show."
Producers will occasionally break their own rules (teen angst only!) if the material merits it. Abby Gross, a "low-level editor" in New York, brought in her third-grade diaries, full of what the producers call mind-blowingly mature comments for an 8-year-old. "I tried to bring in cohesive stuff that wasn't too sad or weird," says Ms. Gross. One observation that made it into the show: "If Martin Luther King were alive today, I wouldn't be afraid of thunder."
Now that "Mortified" is gathering momentum, producers say it's getting easier to cast, though adult males remain a stubborn holdout. One exception is actor Mark Phinney. (In Los Angeles there are no shortages of actors willing to take to the stage.) Mr. Phinney performs from diaries he created during a short stint in a Massachusetts mental ward. "I wrote the 10 Commandments for a young artist," he says, noting that back then he used words he didn't even understand. "I never finished the list; I only got to eight," he says.
Jeremy Klavens, an actor who will make his debut next week in Los Angeles performing songs he wrote as a young teen (including his personal favorite, "Letter to Winona Ryder"), says the reason why fewer men perform the monologues is simple: "Boys don't keep diaries. Girls do." He wrote all his lyrics down in a "notebook," he adds.
Nadelberg says this is why so many of the guys in the show appear with that fairly reliable rite of passage for young American boys - the song lyric. Rock songs were a more socially acceptable form of self-expression for boys. "Every teenage boy secretly wants to be a rock star," he says.
For some, the dream dies hard. Mr. Klavens jokingly calls his upcoming "Mortified" appearance a dream come true. "I finally get to be a rock star," he says. "It's what I always wanted to be."
When: Jan. 17 & 19 Time: 8 p.m.
Where: The M Bar, 1253 Vine St.
New York City
When: Jan. 25
Time: 8 p.m.
Where: The Tank, 279 Church St.
When: Feb. 25 & 27
Time: 8 p.m.
Where: Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St.
When: Debuts next month
• Tickets to most shows are available at getmortified.com