Richardson — In 2005 Frank Warren set up a system for people to mail in anonymous homemade postcards that contain a secret. Warren began posting these secrets online to the now popular website PostSecret.com. The success of the website led to six bestselling books and a Smithsonian art exhibit. The popular website and bestselling books have now been turned into an immersive multimedia stage performance. Featuring just three actors and a musician, PostSecret has hit the road and this week lands at the Eisemann Center in Richardson. We talked to creator Frank Warren via phone while he is out on tour with the show.
PostSecret: The Show, which was created by Frank Warren, Kahlil Ashanti, TJ Dawe and Justin Sudds, is touring and stops at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson Feb. 15-18. For tickets visit https://www.eisemanncenter.com/Events-Tickets. The show is not appropriate for ages 12 and under.
TheaterJones: How many postcards do you think you receive in a week?
Frank Warren: I'd have to say hundreds. Over the life of the project I have received over a million. They've come from all over the world, different languages and the entire collection just left the Smithsonian Postal Museum two weeks ago, and now it's in a San Diego exhibit. It’s a freaking pyramid of confessions one postcard at a time.
Would you say that there are common themes and/or common world issues that many of the postcards you receive deal with, such as depression, suicide, LBGT topics, or race?
Well I think secrets reflect the full spectrum of our humanity just like songs or poetry. They could be laugh-out-loud funny or heartbreaking or sexual or hopeful, romantic, shocking for sure—and I've seen all of them. We’ve tried to include that whole spectrum in the show. Also many of the secrets in the show have never been seen before. In the show we do talk about common themes.
One whole genre of secrets I didn't even know existed were these little secret stories that parents, usually a father, tell their kids about the world that turned out to be completely false.
I’ll give you an example, I got a secret that said “my mom used to tell me that avocados were alligator eggs,” and then I got this one that said “my dad used to tell me that when the ice cream truck plays music it meant they’ve run out of ice cream.” You can see the cute little peaks and interior lies in a family bubble. But also, maybe the most common theme I get, and you know I receive secrets dozens of times a week, are confessions from men and women searching for that one person who they can be their whole and true self with. Someone who they don't have to keep any secrets from. I see that kind of confession expressed like I said dozens of different ways on postcards every week. Maybe until they find that person, PostSecret is just a very poor surrogate for how they can let their secrets go.
Are any two shows that you all perform the same?
Just like the website postsecret.com is different every Sunday, so is the show. For example, in the script itself, in the very beginning when the actors come out it instructs them to tell the audience a true secret from their life they've never said before. Even the other actors on stage have no idea what they're going to say, so that is an introduction of something new. At intermission we invite audience members who are interested to write a true secret on a postcard, and that becomes part of the show in the second act. When we go to every city we select through the archives and find some secrets that were created in that city and maybe make reference to a street or a store or the theatre itself and we include those in the play too. That’s just a short example of how the production is a living piece of art. We definitely reflect back the audience every performance.
How has your audience response been so far?
It's really interesting because the performance itself is kind of experimental and the audience is unique too. Many of the people who come are longtime fans of PostSecret, who have the books and have been going to the website for years, and when they come together they meet other people who have been doing it all independently as well. They come together collectively as a community.
There are of course subscribers to the theater who come and have no idea what this is. The first thing we do is, we have a tweet wall up on the screen so anybody in the audience can take out their phone, text a message and it scrolls up on the screen for everybody in the theater to see. That’s really been a cohesive way to bring the audience together. For example one performance somebody mentioned it was their birthday and before the show even started everybody in the audience sang Happy Birthday. Somebody else tweeted up on the wall, the only reason I’m here is because my girlfriend dragged me here tonight. That's just another way that is fun and experimental and really kind of links the audience together in a meaningful way.
I just saw this not too long ago: this scientific study showed that in some cases when audiences see a live theater production, their beating hearts start to synchronize, and beat together as one. When I saw that study it made me really appreciate how a theater piece can make us realize that nobody's alone, that we loosen the illusion of our separation and isolation and feel that solidarity with single heartbeat.
Do you think (and I know you've gotten over a million of these) that there is one secret you have received that’s been most compelling to you?
Well I don't have a favorite myself. I just love them every day. I get excited going to the mailbox still. Some people have told me that certain ones speak to them and I think it depends on what your own personal life experience is. You know some are kind of shocking like one that had the images of the Twin Towers in New York City and the secret said that “everybody who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.” I got one mailed to me on a Starbucks cup. They turned the Starbucks cup into a postcard with my home address on it and wrote “I serve decaf to customers who are rude to me.” I also got one from somebody who works at a veterinary hospital and it said “when you bring your pet in to have them put down, euthanized, we will ask you do you want to be in the room with them or do you want to stay in the waiting room.” And it said “always go in the room with them because if you don't they'll look around for you.” Heartbreaking you know. At performances we've had live marriage proposals too so you never know what kind of secrets you are going to hear at the show.
Do you have people who help you sort through all of the postcards?
It’s just me. I'm just in love with the project, the secrets and the trust people share with me so I'm happy to do it all myself .
What would you say was your inspiration behind creating the show, and does it have a lot of personal influence?
Before I started PostSecret I was a volunteer on a suicide prevention hotline listening to people's deepest secrets at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. I think that has influenced the project and that's one of the reasons we, the community as a whole, have raised over a million dollars for suicide prevention. I just am in love with the stories and the confessions, and so to bring the
stories behind the secret to life on stage and to go from the web to the stage in the same way we went from the blog to the book it's really exciting, and just honoring people's stories. For me that's kind of the best thing I can do for the strangers that trusted me with their confessions over the years.
How has PostSecret helped raise funds for International suicide prevention groups?
The PostSecret community as a whole has raised the money, so it hasn't all come from me or PostSecret. Post Secret has organized fundraisers online; for example we held a fundraiser for the Kristin Brooks Hope Center. It's called Hope Line and in a couple of weeks the website raised over $30,000 for the Hope Line. The Hope Line was in financial trouble and they say that we saved it, and there are actually press releases online if you want some more information. That’s one example of how the PostSecret community came together to do good in the real world based upon the courage, vulnerability and compassion people share in the project.
What is the most important thing you hope people walk away from the show feeling?
Well I think some of us feel we don't have any secrets, but when you see the courage that people are examining their own life within the stage production it really can remind you of some of the secrets you might be hiding from yourself. By the courage expressed on stage and through these stories, I hope it can inspire all of us to look a little bit deeper and try and find the courage that it takes to uncover our deepest secrets. And then wouldn’t it be wonderful if on the drive home from the play with your spouse, your children, parents or just a best friend you share secrets back and forth. Stories about yourself you've never said out loud before. Ultimately I think that secrets are the currency of intimacy.
I hope people will come by themselves or with friends. It’s going to be a marvelous time. After the performance we invite audience members to write a message personally from their heart and hold it on a whiteboard. We take pictures of the people holding the messages on the board. Some of those pictures become part of the performance, showing the conversation between secrets and those people who are compassionately responding to them. Afterwards there’s a talkback where I'll be answering questions and sharing secrets on the stage having a conversation with the audience and then a book signing after that.
How does it feel to know that you know you created something that's so rewarding and that has started open conversations, helping millions of people across the world?
It feels very strange because I was never that person in high school that people would run up to and share secrets with, so maybe it's some huge trick on my behalf to create a way to hear people's stories, but also therapy for me as well. I have my secrets in the play. I have one of my secrets in every book, so maybe ultimately as I was creating this place for other people to share their story, I really needed it the most to uncover parts of me, parts that were haunting me.
Would you say that your show is political, and if so how does it handle political issues?
I wouldn't say that the play is political just like I wouldn't say it's religious, but it does share voices on all sides, on all issues. For me one of the most meaningful parts of PostSecret is how it shows us that we sit in the comfortable boxes that people put us in either religiously, politically, ethnically or economically. So maybe that's one of our secrets. People stereotype us, and literally each one of us has a much larger spectrum of belief, behavior and experience than people sometimes give us credit for.
Do you think there's a certain group that specifically will have something to take away from this show?
I wouldn't want to categorize people and say this or that group will get more out of it. The groups that you might in the back of your mind think would get the least out of it actually could have the most cathartic experience, and for me that’s beautiful.