Monday, January 15, 2007
“No One Understands My Pain” and some who do.
It’s hot tonight at The Annex, a crowed bar in Vancouver’s historic Gastown. Hot in a puberty kind of way, something is developing here, like a new pimple on the face of comedy.
Several people are hiding faded notebooks on their laps mustering up courage one drink at a time. As I make my way to the stage, a posse of teenagers stand at the door.
“Teen Angst, what’s that?” one gangly girl says to her pals reading tonight’s poster.
In the limelight I take the mic, “Hi, my name is Sara Bynoe and I wrote Teen Angst Poetry.” The audience cheers and laughs while the teenagers find their way to a more appropriate nightspot.
The name can be deceiving Teen Angst Readings are not for teenagers. They are for those of us who can look back and laugh at our adolescent angst.
When I was thirteen years old I penned some of the world’s purplest poems, I now know. Now most people would bury or even burn it to prevent anyone from ever discovering their embarrassing rhymes. But I am one of the few brave souls that will read this crap to crowds of strangers, in the name of comedy.
Across North America shows like mine have been sparking up like teenagers on their lunch breaks. It’s happening in Vancouver, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and there could be one coming to a city near you.
Part stand-up, part reading series, part confessional and 100% hilarious, it takes place in a bar or a theatre packed with people post-puberty aged 20-40. The show includes poetry, journals, unsent letters, essays, songs, fiction and even videos. The rule is the same across the board; you can only share what you created and it must have been written before graduation.
In 2000, at the age of 20, I had the idea, nay, the calling, to share my teenaged verse with the world. After stumbling across some old poetry my high school- ex had given me, I shared them with a friend, laughed then felt karmacly obligated to share my own, which I then realized was even worse.
It began as a website www.TeenAngstPoetry.com; a database for the world to upload their most awful verse. Being a performer, the next step was to get onstage. I have found and forced others to do the same and to this date have hosted more than twenty Teen Angst Readings in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto and New York City. In April 2005 St. Martin’s Press published a collection I called Teen Angst: A Celebration of REALLY BAD Poetry.
Poems are grouped according to themes like: “I am alone and no one understands my pain,” “Fuck you,” “I will never love again,” and “Life sucks and I want to die.” The universality of teen angst is a huge part of the appeal.
Sarah Brown, 30, is someone who does understand my pain. She organizes a show in Brooklyn, NY called Cringe. Sarah, originally from Oklahoma, stumbled across her teenaged diaries in 2001 and began e-mailing the most ridiculous entries to her friends for laughs. Her friends then spread her e-mails like gossip on bathroom walls and soon Sarah had hundreds of people on her teen diary mailing list.
“It was okay sharing it with my friends,” Sarah says, “but with people that I couldn’t see, it lost the connection.”
April 2005 Sarah organized the first Cringe night at Freddies a neighborhood hot spot in Brooklyn.
“It was really hard to read out loud,” says Sarah of that night. “The first time you get up to read you’re so embarrassed but when you see how everyone responds to it you’re like, ‘oh you like that? We’ll I’ve got worse than that!’”
People are embracing Cringe, sometimes maxing capacity at the free monthly event. Recently Spin Magazine gave the night a shout out, reviewing it with four stars out of five.
The night’s success can be attributed to Sarah herself who is a professional writer with a popular blog that gets thousands of hits a month.
“I loved the idea and wished that there was a Cringe that could happen in Seattle,” says writer and former raver Ariel Meadow Stallings, 31, who has been reading Sarah Brown’s blog for five years. “I called her and she said you’re more than welcome to do an event but you can’t call it Cringe.”
The Salon of Shame is what Ariel spawned in November 2005. The nearly free show ($5 or $1 if you bring something to read) runs every other month at the Rendezvous JewelBox. Draped with red velvet curtains this small dinner theatre adds an element of class to the crude creativity shared at the Salon. A freshman in the genre the show has had exponential success after a recent review in local weekly The Seattle Stranger.
Then there’s Get Mortified in Los Angeles. Produced by Dave Nadelburg, a 33-year-old television writer. Mortifed, as he calls it, began in 2002 shortly after Dave stumbled across an embarrassing old love letter he had once composed. Dave describes his night as "personal redemption through public humiliation."
The only franchise of the lot Get Mortified now has shows in San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago. Get Mortified also seeks to stand out from the other angst shows in a few other ways; there is no host and readers audition for the show.
“We are simply not an open-mic format,” says Dave. “We work with each performer to shape their ancient prose into a unique autobiographical form of storytelling we call a ‘diagraphy.’” He crafts each piece to tell a unique tale using 100% of the original teen writing.
In Los Angeles there are two shows a month at The M Bar, a swanky little dinner theatre in nameless strip mall off Vine. I attended and performed in a show in March 2006 noticing several differences from the way I do things up North.
The Hollywood audience arrived in their designer jeans, valet parked their cars, paid the $10 cover charge and sat in a theatre with a $10 food minimum. Intrigued and excited by this profitable endeavour I sadly learned that, unlike my own, the performers do not get paid. Not even an honorarium. Welcome to Hollywood.
Get Mortified has been featured in Jane magazine, LA Times Magazine and most notably on This American Life on N.P.R. The next step is a book called Mortified: Real Words Real People Real Pathetic, published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment out November 2006.
Some sort of angst epiphany must have been brewing in the collective unconscious in the early millennium because the three main producers, Sarah Brown, Dave Nadelburg and myself conceived these shows unaware of each other.
Sarah Brown says she was only made aware of Get Mortified when they moved into NYC. Get Mortified knew about TeenAngstPoetry.com after some Internet searching for similar Googles. I became aware of all three through my publisher and from a journalist who attended my book launch in New York.
When I started my website I was unaware of anything like it, just a few old, old, old school WebPages of people’s personal teen angst poetry.
As part of their FAQ’s on their site Get Mortified addresses the similar nights issue:“Yes, we've started to noticed a few like-minded concepts sprout up across the country…We can only ask others to be considerate enough to put their own unique slant on the format.”
In Seattle, where the concept is growing, Ariel says, “I’m not willing to move it to a larger venue because the whole point to me is that it’s an intimate crowd and that you can see the faces of the people you’re reading to. To me, the value of it would be lost. I even wouldn’t want to watch a video of it, for me the whole point of it is the whole interaction.”
Back at The Annex Zack Taylor, a history major at Simon Fraser University, shares his poem “Untitled” to crowd hysterics.
“Who am I?/ What am I?/ Why am I?/ How am I?/ Where am I?”
Audiences are encouraged to shout out obvious rhymes along with the poet and in Zack’s case the ‘am I’ is echoed out. I smile. There is something bonding about this experience, sharing stories and feelings long dismissed. What began as a joke for my friends has now turned into a movement and it’s more that just teen angst recovery or catharsis.
“Your website has helped me through a trying time,” one 16 year old e-mailed me. “I really relate to these poems.”
Other teenaged fans of the movement are able to gain insight on their own teen angst and learn the valuable lesson of laughing at oneself.
It is a universal whether it’s seen as cathartic or hilarious. Teen Angst writings can be shared anywhere: a dinner theatre, a bar or your best friend’s basement. Sarah Brown’s suggestion is that, “if you read it to yourself and it physically makes you cringe then it’s funny to read out loud.” So, get digging through your old notebooks. I’ll see you on the stage.