PostSecret founder looking for backers to finance multimedia traveling play

One of the things that sustained Tamar Bains for two years in Iraq when she worked as an operating room technician in a trauma hospital was checking the PostSecret blog on Sunday mornings.

“The 20 minutes it would take me to read, I could leave my head,” says Bains about the temporary escape offered by the artfully decorated postcards with their sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes dark secrets.

“I could get back to the routine I had in the real world, and it was something to look forward to,” says Bains, who now lives in Silver Spring and works at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

Bains was one of hundreds of PostSecret followers who filled the Round House Theatre in Bethesda on Oct. 5 to see a multimedia PostSecret play — a work still in progress — about the blog started by Frank Warren in 2005 from his house in Germantown.

“Seeing it like this is really amazing,” says Bains about the production, a mix of animation, art, music, Warren’s recorded voice and live actors with input from audiences.

“It’s keeping it alive. It’s not going away. It’s not a fad,” says Bains about the worldwide community of online supporters who now also follow PostSecret on Facebook and Twitter.

For the last two years, Warren has been working with a team of three based in Vancouver, British Columbia, who have formed Brand To Stage Productions to help him develop the stage play.

Included are actor and writer Kahlil Ashanti, who performed in Bethesda and whose father lives in Upper Marlboro and works for Prince George’s Community College, along with writer TJ Dawe and talent manager Justin Sudds.

Also involved in the Bethesda production were actresses Emma Crane Jaster and Susan Lynskey, composer Mario Vaira and animator Jeremy Stewart.

The Round House audience included potential financial backers, and the team hopes they will provide the capital for a North American tour of the finished play starting in late 2013.

“We’re reaching out to investors so that the play is fully funded so it can have the life we hope for it,” says Warren, who envisions the production being performed in theaters, college campuses and community centers.

“I hope this will extend the reach of PostSecret ... and create new conversations,” says Warren about the solace the blog and its community of followers have provided for people in emotional pain, including those feeling isolated and considering suicide.

Warren says he’s been approached by others but decided to work with the Vancouver team because he is confident they respect the people who send in the cards and will protect the integrity of the play.

“We’re not big Broadway producers ... and we’re coming at it with a blank slate,” says Sudds, whose wife introduced him to the PostSecret blog.

“It was a life-changing experience for me,” says Sudds about reading cards in person during a weekend visit to Warren’s house. “There’s no way you can physically sit and hold people’s postcards and not be affected by them.”

An initial version of the play was presented to an audience as a reading at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, followed by two workshops in Vancouver before the show in Bethesda.

Still to go are workshop performances before audiences in Saginaw, Mich., on Oct. 18 and in Cincinnati on Oct. 22 before two weeks of rehearsals and completion of the final script, says Sudds.

At the Bethesda show, Warren asked audience members to anonymously submit secrets, some of which were read during the second act. He and the team also invited the audience to discuss after the show what they liked and didn’t like.

One thing audience members enjoyed was the first-time use of a big screen over the stage running live tweets from audience members before the show started.

“I feel like everything is going to change tonight. I’m so nervous and excited,” tweeted one person.

“I was vehemently opposed to Twitter for years until this event. Signed up just to post. What a fun idea!” tweeted another.

Fans seemed especially moved by recordings in the play of phone messages from relatives of PostSecret followers who had died. One was a birthday song from a woman to her grandchild, who saved the message and sends it to other family members on their birthdays.

“They’re living on people’s cell phones,” Warren says.

Jaster took on the role of a college student who started to read a PostSecret book in the hospital after an attempted suicide because of an eating disorder, recounting that the student ripped out and saved pages from the book about others suffering the disorder.

“It became my quiet army that understood where I am and how I got there,” says Jaster as the young woman, who says she started eating, made a decision to live and went back to college.

Also in the show is a story about a mother who bought a PostSecret book and was talking to her daughter about it when the daughter revealed her own secret — that her father, the woman’s husband, had been molesting her, prompting the woman to bring felony charges.

There are also cards about rape, suicide and betrayals, along with Warren’s own account of being bullied in fourth grade. A popular classmate persuaded several boys to pin Warren down, hold open his eyelids and take turns spitting into his eyes.

But there are also happy accounts, including one about a young man who proposed to his beloved at a PostSecret exhibit at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore.

There are also interjections of humor when things gets heavy, including the words, “Everybody knows that God sounds like Liam Neeson” on top of the actor’s photo glued to a postcard.

“Everybody knows that God sounds like Morgan Freeman,” Jaster quickly countered on stage, bringing a laugh from the audience.

“The PostSecret fan base is typically a lot younger than average,” says Sudds who sees the multimedia play as something that can draw young people to live theater.

“I love the fact that it can bring a new generation to some of the playhouses around the country in a new and unique way that’s powerful,” he says.

Sudds also does not rule out a Broadway run “if we can keep the integrity and build the word of mouth around the country.”

He also sees potential with productions overseas.

“I’d like to produce in Australia and translate the show for Asia or Eastern Europe, wherever there’s an audience,” Sudds says. “The postcards come in every language, including Braille.”

Since Warren started the blog, he has published five books about the cards and is currently working on a sixth that will appear in 2013 in hardcover and ebook versions.

Warren also personally visits college campuses, posts new cards every Sunday on the blog and maintains a Facebook page and Twitter feed that reaches millions of people, he says.

“The biggest surprise was finding out how much of a strong community it has,” says Sudds about the feedback from audiences. “People help each other, defend each other, and without knowing each other.”

“I just try to facilitate the conversation,” Warren says. “It’s the [PostSecret] community that drives it.”