‘PostSecret’ brings a global confessional movement to Aspen | AspenTimes.com

‘PostSecret’ brings a global confessional movement to Aspen

So much of online discourse is toxic. Cloaked in anonymity, trolls and bullies and liars have made much of the web a hell-scape. But it doesn't have to be that way. PostSecret is proof.

The community art project that became a blog and then an international phenomenon — and that is now a touring interactive theatrical production coming to Aspen's Wheeler Opera House on Saturday — uses the anonymity of the Internet to foster compassion and empathy and make its readers less alone (it'll also often make you laugh). Secrets are its currency.

It began in November 2004, when Frank Warren — a suburban dad with a workaday job and artistic sensibility — printed 3,000 self-addressed postcards. On the front he wrote instructions for people to anonymously share a true secret they've kept by writing it on the postcard and sending it in. He handed them out on the streets of Washington, D.C.. As secrets arrived in his mailbox, he began posting them on PostSecret.com every Sunday. Warren decided not to advertise on the site, and instead to promote suicide prevention.

PostSecret quickly went viral and took off around the world. People began making their own bespoke postcards and sending them in from far-flung corners of the planet.

The scope of the secrets is wide-ranging from the silly to the seriously heartrending.

A barista, for example, fashioned a postcard out of a Starbucks cup and wrote on it: "I give decaf to customers who are rude to me."

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They often contain human dramas in a few simple sentences. One reads "Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I'm dead." One PostSecret sharer wrote: "Dear birth mother: I have great parents. I've found love. I'm happy." One participant sent an envelope containing a shredded suicide note that he or she was never used and wrote "I'm happy! (now)."

Last weekend's secrets included this: "I'm going to marry the woman I love … to her future husband."

The website has become, according to Warren, the most-visited advertisement-free site on the internet. It's been viewed some 700 million times. Warren's 2012 Ted Talk on the project is nearing 3.1 million views. An active Facebook following numbers 1.5 million. The Smithsonian recently hosted an exhibition that included more than a million PostSecret postcards.

People might initially go to view the secrets on the website with a voyeuristic curiosity, but something else begins to happen once they're there.

"You say, 'Hey, my brother-in-law had this experience' or 'This happened to our family,'" Warren said in a recent phone interview, "and then you see a confession that articulates your experience in ways beyond what you're unable to articulate yourself. That's when you have that real cathartic experience and feeling of connection."

PostSecret began as "a sort of prank," Warren said. The idea to harness the power of secrets, he explained, came to him when he was volunteering at a suicide prevention center and answering hotline calls.

"I was listening to people's secrets on the phone at 2 a.m. and that informed the project," he said.

From the beginning, he decided not to put ads on the website and instead to promote awareness of suicide prevention programs. PostSecret has raised more than $1 million for suicide prevention ($1 from each ticket to Saturday's performance at the Wheeler will go to the local nonprofit Aspen Strong).

Warren has published five books based on PostSecret and made it an I.R.L. experience in "PostSecret: The Show," which will bring Warren, three actors, a guitarist and the secret-sharing community to the stage here this weekend.

The cast re-creates secrets from the website onstage in a multimedia performance. The show changes every night, with input — and, yes, secrets — from the crowd.

Audience members are invited to write a secret on a postcard. During the second act of the show, the actors select some and present them. The show also calls on actors themselves to reveal, for the first time, a true secret from their own lives. Even the other actors onstage don't know what their fellow cast members are going to reveal, forcing them to improvise and play against the newly revealed secret in front of an audience.

"We're trying to experiment with the very structure of traditional plays in a way that still maintains a narrative but that allows for this new kind of storytelling that we're seeing born on the web," Warren said.

He seeks to build a community every night through the show.

"When we share these stories of humanity and humor and sex and hope and tragedy, it allows us to get a peek behind the illusion that we're all separate," Warren said. "That's one of the powers of bringing people together for the performance."

He'll do a talkback with the audience, take questions and sign books afterward. But the most important part of the evening, he believes, comes later.

"My hope is that the highlight of the evening is the drive home," he said. "When you're in that car with your spouse or boyfriend or friends and maybe you have a conversation that you've been waiting to have for a long time that involves secrets and stories in a way that allows everybody in the car, when they arrive home, to feel a little bit lighter, to feel some solidarity, and to feel connected not only to the people in the car, but to people in general."

PostSecret was one of the first blogs to turn into a bestselling book, in 2005, with "PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives." The theatrical production of PostSecret is once more breaking new ground.

"Now there's this other transition of creative projects and communities that are born in the digital world making their way to performance and to the stage," Warren said. "And, again, PostSecret is one of the first to do it."

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

What: ‘PostSecret: The Show’

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Saturday, Feb. 10, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $38

Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com