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November 14th, 2007 AARON MESH | Featured Stories
 

Talentless Show

Portlanders share their most embarrassing writings—and love it.

     
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SHAMELESS: Karma Smallback and Paul Martone rehearse.
IMAGE: jenna biggs

Sarah Hoopes does not look like a person who has harbored dark erotic fantasies about vampires. The 29-year-old database manager for Portland’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program is a bundle of nervous energy packed in a tiny frame; 10 minutes into an interview, she announces, “I subconsciously ate my hangnail,” and giggles. But when she was 13, Hoopes had a very different view of herself. “By age 30, I was certain that I was going to be living in New Orleans and be a famous vampire writer, like Anne Rice,” she says. “Maybe living with Anne Rice.” Her middle-school diaries are packed with ornate, flowery sentences detailing her gothic bloodsucking fantasies, along with an obsession with the fifth-grade boy on her school bus who looked “like a mother deer.”

Hoopes’ past is embarrassing. But it’s still not embarrassing enough.

“I’d like you to find your darkest lines about the vampire,” Susan Danehy tells Hoopes. “I’m looking for Oh. My. God.”

Susan Danehy and her husband, Egan, are sitting with Hoopes in a group therapy room at the Luke-Dorf Inc. counseling center, where the signs on the wall read, “What we hear in group stays in group.” But this isn’t a therapy session, and what’s heard here will soon be broadcast as publicly as possible. While the Danehys both have master’s degrees in psychology and work in the mental health profession, they are also producers for the first Portland staging of Mortified , a live show in which local citizens read the most hilarious, humiliating things they wrote as teenagers—journal entries, poetry, love letters and song lyrics. The show has grown from a Los Angeles novelty act into a This American Life -approved phenomenon, inspiring a book and spreading its shame to new ZIP codes. On Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Someday Lounge, Portland will become the seventh city to host what amounts to a celebration of misguided ambition, misplaced confidence and a complete lack of self-recognition.

But first, Egan and Susan Danehy have to hone the Mortified material to its greatest shame-inducing potential. The couple attended a Los Angeles Mortified performance at the M Bar in 2004, and they still argue whether it was their first date (“she claims that both parties need to be aware that it’s a date for it to count officially,” Egan says). Less than two years later, they were asked to produce the first Portland show; they put out word on Craigslist and made fliers, attracting 20 people interested in baring their juvenilia.

Sitting in Luke-Dorf on a Sunday afternoon, the bearded Egan and the extremely pregnant Susan are holding a screening session—which, as they take great pains to point out, is not the same thing as an audition. “We’re not auditioning this stuff,” Egan says. “It’s not about being good or not good. It’s all not good, hopefully.”

It’s the Danehys’ task to make it truly wretched. Part of this process is simply a matter of arranging the order of performers—“If you have two stories about hand jobs, you don’t want to put them next to each other,” Susan says—but the other mission is editing adolescent musings into coherent narratives. “It’s important to just narrow it down to something ,” Egan says. “Some of these people have so much material. They were prolific writers when they were young.”

The editing proves easy with the first two candidates—a Northeast Portland couple who come armed with poetry and heavy metal. Karma Smallback is a friendly 29-year-old preschool teacher, who was once a disgruntled high-school senior who passed the time in her fourth-period math class writing poems with titles like “Fourth Period” and “Period Four.” They are filled with general disgust, but a special rancor is reserved for Mr. Wagner, a math teacher who may be Satan. “Like dirty diapers cling/ He clings to my side like barnacles/ He is a barnacle./ I’m not violent,/ But he needs to die.”

Smallback’s boyfriend, Paul Martone, is an unassuming Oregon State University writing instructor whose only sign of rebellion is a detailed tattoo of an electric typewriter on his right arm. But as a 13-year-old graduate of a “Catholic working-class elementary school” in Albany, N.Y., Martone had dreams of rock ’n’ roll glory. He was the frontman for a metal band called Skeleton Crew—it would later reunite as Mr. Meaner and Inner City—that thrilled summer block parties with family-unfriendly lyrics. A sample, from the ballad “Rebels”: “We’ll fuck all your ladies/ And fill them with babies.” Martone recites these lyrics in a deadpan monotone.

“Does it make you fall in love with him all over again?” Susan Danehy asks Smallback.

“Well,” Smallback replies, “sometimes I make him sing them to me.”

Martone has five songs with him, and hopes to retrieve more from his songwriting partner, “Wolf,” in Albany. But he doesn’t want to pressure Wolf. “To call somebody who you haven’t talked to in a while and say, ‘Can you find “Give Me Pussy or Give Me Death”?’ is kind of weird in the first place,” he says.

Smallback and Martone are sent off with instructions to practice their deliveries and write introductions. Sarah Hoopes presents a larger challenge, mostly because she has so many diaries—a dozen cloth-bound books chronicling Hoopes’ vampire-centered thoughts from 1989 to 1994.

But the Danehys know they have something when Hoopes reaches her first entry about a fifth-grader named Brian: “Today I must tell you about the beautiful boy on my bus.” The teenage Hoopes, writing in her best Anne Rice impersonation, goes on to describe Brian as “a wary falcon.” Susan Danehy tells Hoopes to dig through the diaries and find the most purple prose about the undead and the busmate: “It’s clearly Brian vs. Lestat.” Hoopes promises to find more. “I’m pretty sure later on I call him a Doberman.”

Two weeks later, with the Mortified performers culled to eight, Susan Danehy has trimmed Hoopes’ selections from 14 pages to four. Now the task is finding her funniest possible performance. “It begs to be taken seriously,” She explains in her living room. “Because you were serious when you wrote it. I don’t think you should ever break a smile. Because you know what? Vampires are not funny.”

After Hoopes leaves, Egan Danehy considers why people would want to reveal their most embarrassing moments to Mortified . “I think there really is a need to be understood, even if it’s funny,” he says. “It really is like an AA meeting. ‘Hi, I’m Egan, and I’m a dork.’”

And what inspires the Danehys to enable the exorcism of pubescent demons? Maybe it has to do with their jobs: “There is something about the fact that you are a therapist for kids who are going through this age,” Egan says to his wife, “and I work with severely and persistently mentally ill people.” Maybe, he suggests, it’s better to get these youthful fiascoes out in the open.

Hoopes, meanwhile, is anxiously anticipating the Mortified performance—and frankly enjoying the attention. “I think what I really wanted was to be a child prodigy,” she says. And she still keeps a diary, though it is sadly lacking in vampires. “A little vampires, but not much.”


GO: The Mortified Angst-Giving Concert begins at 8 pm Saturday, Nov. 17, at Someday Lounge, 125 NW 5th Ave., 708-0851. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door.
 
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