Wednesday 21 January 2015

PostSecret a tale for our times for sure

Backdrop : PostSecret The Show is a Vancouver original creation that premiered in Canada in its final Preview performance Tuesday night at the Firehall. The show flows from American Frank Warren's original 2004 art project for gallery Artomatic in New York. From there the idea and the project went Kaboom! across the world and morph'd into an ad-free weblog that at some 700,000,000 hits and counting is by far cybersphere's most popular site.

PostSecret* is the result of some 700 thousand postcards Warren and his long-suffering wife have received at their home at 13345 Copper Ridge Road in Germantown, Maryland 20874 US of A. That's the paper piece. Then there's the 700 million hits on his website. What's the buzz? Secrets. Anonymous secrets. Anonymous secrets never before told to anyone. 

In The Show three actors guide the multi-media event that blossoms on the upstage screen. We witness peoples' sex secrets, their personal politics, their triumphs and stupid human tricks. All are played out visually and audially to amuse, entertain, shock and sadden us by sharing the haiku of their hopes and fears. And as Charlie Hebdo reminds us so harshly, words and pictures can be just as "real" to some as the crack of a Kalashnikov and the smell of cordite. 

The social media expression to describe the show's origins is "crowd-sourced storytelling". The stories come from the messages off the original postcard folks wrote on, the graphics they added -- some of which the publishers of Warren's six bestseller books kiboshed for commercial or litigation-chill reasons -- all of which are stitched together in a storyline that has been a few years in sketch and blueprint mode. And it changes too, even daily, with each new rehearsal as new secrets come into play, including the audience's.

That many of the word-snips and collages and photo-grabs have a suicide leitmotif is unsettling but hardly surprising given the statistics on how alienated and lonely social media mavens tend to be. Meanwhile Warren himself spent years manning suicide call-in hotlines, so the territory is familiar turf for him. But the reassuring piece in all of this is that so many of the messages proclaim how and Warren's published books have pulled folks back from the brink through the connection and empathy they feel from reading other people's anonymous messages supporting them.

The Firehall show :  To a backdrop that immediately conjures singer Don McLean's iconic paean to Vincent Van Gogh, the show opens with a twinkling starry, starry night screen on a palette blue and grey. But no McLean's tune to be heard nor his lyric of the "eyes that know the darkness in my soul". Instead the first image is a smiling blonde co-ed clutching a white board with the words "You Are Not Alone" ink'd on it. Which immediately called to mind, sadly, the suicides of BC's Amanda Todd and Nova Scotia's Rehteah Parsons as a result of teen-age bullying following internet photos of them having "party sex" (sic). 

But from there the show moves quickly through a number of postcard repro-shots with their anonymous revelations, many quite hilarious, such as : "I sell my late husband's pornography on e-bay" or "I used to pee in snowballs before throwing them at friends" or "My husband and I have never farted in each other's presence and we've been married 30 years!" My two favourites ? "My dad told me the ice cream truck only played music when it ran out of ice cream" and "I tried God, but coffee and therapy work better". Meanwhile the most commonly received secrets at Copper Ridge Road are (1) "I pee in the shower" (!), and (2) "I wish there was someone I could share my secrets with." [Why is it the pee and fart "secrets" get the most audience laughs...?]

Production values exciting : Certainly not a play in any normal sense, the show's excellent visual imagery features actual cards Warren received that are flipped onto the screen with fade-ins, fade-outs, pop-ups, sequentialized slo-mo, overlays, multi-shot anthologies, zoom-ins, Powerpoint-y arrows -- a visual feast of eye-treats and animations excellently arranged by a consortium of artistic techies.

Actors Kahlil Ashanti, Ming Hudson and Nicolle Nattrass provide the dialogue, generally giving voice to the myriad cards and e-mails the project has received. Nattrass's enactment of a mother's aghast acceptance of her daughters' confessed secret -- sexual abuse at the hands of her husband, their father -- was graphic and poignant and utterly gripping, as if it were her own tale. Tears swelled my eyes instantly. 

All three were loose and flexible and played their lines more "with" the crowd than "to", less "script" than "interplay". Kudos to each and all ! Excellent guitar stylings by Mario Vaira connected all the story-snips with Jamie Burns' clever lighting design that flipped nicely from one actor to another. 

While created by Frank Warren, the stage show idea was originally the brainchild of Vancouver's TJ Dawe, Justin Sudds, and Kahlil Ashanti dating back to 2010 that they pitched to Warren and he agreed to eagerly. It was workshop'd previously as part of Vancouver Fringe's Pick Plus Series. First N.A. opening was in April, 2014 at the Booth Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina. Upcoming presentations of the show and Warren's stand-up presentation are slated for Seattle, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Omaha, New York and Wisconsin in the next two months.

Who gonna like : As a man who pines for the return of dial telephones and Western Union**, I confess I struggle with social media. I eschew Facebook & Instagram and only do Twitter to promote the BLR blogsite -- though I am an old school e-mailer from cyber's horse-&-buggy days. 

PostSecret The Show will definitely appeal to college and university students and hip multi-media mongers, no doubt more to them than to folks preferring the typical fictional fare and blocked-out acting of an author's script that is more the norm on Vancouver stages. 

This show pushes the boundaries of tradition in ways that delight and touch and sadden and cheer. As McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message. Go see for yourself what a brave new world we truly do live in.

*Addendum 1.  PostSecret began as "community art". Businessman Frank Warren traipsed New York City after work for days on end handing out some 3,000 pre-addressed postcards to strangers, others just scattered about hoping to be found and mailed. His instructions were for folks to share, anonymously, some deep dark secret they'd so far hid from the world.

Expecting only modest returns, he got hundreds and hundreds. Soon he began posting them on the blog he created for that purpose. Wiki tells us that in his 2006 book My Secret (HarperCollins) Warren claimed that secrets "...are meant to be empowering both to the author and...are inspirational to those who read them, have healing powers for those who write them, give hope to people who identify with a stranger's secret, and create an anonymous community of acceptance." Elsewhere he has been widely quoted as saying : "Confessing a secret, even to ourselves, can be transformative. Sometimes when we think we're keeping a secret, that secret's actually keeping us."

A 2011 app for mobile phones lasted but three months after it was hijacked by thousands of trolls, sexters, "griefers" and other socially imbalanced junkies who liked Andrew Weiner's tumescent style of photo-sharing. Warren spiked the site over Christmas that year. Meanwhile other successor apps like Whisper, Secret and Yik Yak are hauling in buckets of venture capital : life in 2015 proves that as much as nature abhors a vacuum, no cybervoids allowed.

**Addendum 2. In a May 31, 2005 New York Times piece titled "Bless Me, Blog, for I've Sinned", Sarah Boxer pronounced thus : 

"One odd thing about PostSecret is that there's a real disconnection between what the confessions are and what the readers think they are. One reader from Texas wrote, 'Thank you so much for building a window into so many souls, even if it only shines light on the darkest part.' A reader in Australia wrote: 'Each is a silent prayer of hope, love, fear, joy, pain, sorrow, guilt, happiness, hatred, confidence, strength, weakness and a million other things that we all share as human beings...there is no fakeness here.'

No fakeness? Oh, but there is. And it is the fakeness, the artifice and the performance that make this confessional worth peeking at. The secret sharers here aren't mindless flashers but practiced strippers. They don't want to get rid of their secrets. They love them. They arrange them. They tend them. They turn them into fetishes. And that's the secret of PostSecret. It isn't really a true confessional after all. It is a piece of collaborative art."

N.B. I find this critique acerbic, stingy and mean when filtered through the heart. Cognitively, however, I discern a tinkle of harmony in it.

Particulars : A Firehall Arts Centre Production in its Canadian Premiere. January 20 - February 7. 280 East Cordova Street. One hour forty-five minutes, one 15-minute intermission. Phone 604.689.0926 for tickets.

Production team : Created by Frank Warren, TJ Dawe, Kahlil Ashanti, & Justin Sudds.  Directed by TJ Dawe.  Animations by Egg Studios, Jeremy Stewart, The Glossary & Dana Goldman.  Assistant Director Fay Nass.  Lighting Designer Jamie Burns.  Music by Mario Vaira.  Special sound editing by Jared Brickman.  Stage Manager Heidi Quicke. 

Actors :  Kahlil Ashanti, Ming Hudson & Nicolle Nattrass.


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