"I never told this story to anyone.”
It’s a thrilling first line. What could the storyteller possibly have to say that’s so embarrassing? Shameful? Criminal? And why share it with a roomful of strangers? Those of us in the audience for the first installment of Seattle Confidential leaned forward in our seats and placed our plastic cups of wine gently on the table. Inner voyeurs perked up, eager to hear something good. It’s rare in Seattle to confront such a public, naked exposition of the soul—but thanks to local actor-director Ian Bell, the city is sharing its best and worst secrets.
That debut performance was back in 2011, not long after Bell returned newly inspired from a Northwest road trip where he was struck by the easy—and very personal—conversations he had with random travelers. What would Seattle have to say under the veil of anonymity, he wondered? He launched his social-theater experiment by soliciting anonymous stories on the topic “Virginity Lost” on his website, seattleconfidential.org, and admonishing readers to “Spill the beans!” No surprise in our hyperliterate city: Bell received poems, songs, sketches, short plays, and anonymous monologues that he gamely calls “anonymonologues.” He picked the best half-dozen samples and recruited local acting pros—Emily Chisholm, Nick Garrison, Gretchen Krich, and the late Mark Chamberlin—to perform dramatic readings of the most private, cringe-inducing diary entries to a sold-out room at ACT.
“Most people—99 percent of people—lose their virginity, but it’s a very personal experience and not always something we talk about freely,” Bell said during a recent interview. “The basic idea is to use anonymity to start a conversation about things we usually keep to ourselves. … It brings up a specific kind of eloquence.”
The evening of sexual misadventures covered a lot of territory, from post-coital guilt to coming-out tales of self-discovery. A boy deflowers his Mormon high school girlfriend on her parents’ bed and is so amped and frightened, he falls off his bike on the way home. Some confessions delivered valuable lessons, like “Never do it with the mayor’s daughter” or “Don’t use toy handcuffs—they break.” And the story that no one had ever been privy to? Let’s just say it “smelled of vinegar and Indian food.”
Throughout the show, Bell sat stage right with his laptop, acting like a cross between a game-show host and a statistician. He encouraged us to keep our cellphones on—ringers off—during the performance and filled the breaks by polling the audience via text with questions about its collective virginity. (See the results below, “Anonymonology.”) With the help of a marine-biologist buddy who had experience collecting data, Bell would then project graphs showing real-time results on a screen behind him. Wouldn’t you know it: The audience played along, even the 46-year-old “kinky virgin” in the crowd.
Bell, amazed by the response, has since made Seattle Confidential a quarterly event. Over eight shows, Seattle dished on its sex life, the perfect crime, adventures abroad, holiday horror stories, how people met, 15 minutes of fame, unforgettable summers, and most recently, ghost stories and the afterlife. (“Have you ever seen a ghost? Have you ever been a ghost?”) Mostly men submitted secrets about the perfect crime and the afterlife, said Bell, while more women weighed in on love and personal discovery. Crime was an interesting one, Bell recalled, noting that submissions were lower than usual. “That’s not something you often admit to yourself, much less other people, that maybe you’ve done something bad. … Most people don’t think they’re criminals. I think it was revelatory for a lot of the audience.”
In May, Bell will look back at the body of written work amassed over two years and restage two tales (give or take) from each past confession session, calling it Rewind. As a New Yorker–turned–Seattle theater veteran who’s been on stage everywhere from Seattle Rep to Re-bar, Bell has a special fondness for the Confidential series. It’s a rare opportunity to draw Seattle out of its shell while simultaneously blurring the line between artist and audience.
“We’re a city of pretty shy people—shy, bookish, geeky people,” he said. “And this suits us well. … We may say things quietly, but we’ll say them really well.”
Seattle Confidential: Rewind
May 9 & 10 at 7:30 $20, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St, 206-292-7676; acttheatre.org
Definition: (n.) the study of anonymous monologues
Poll results from “Virginity LOST”
Sample Size: 65 Responses
How good was it?
“Not great, but had potential and promise,” said 56.9%.
At what age did you lose your virginity?
A majority (52.3%) said between the ages of 14 and 17, though someone was “46 and still a kinky virgin.”
Were you sober?
An overwhelming 73.8% said yes.
58.5% said missionary, 9.2% said doggy style, and 1.5% said “Freaky Friday.”
Was it an expression of love?
You bet, said 46%.
Or strictly business?
Business time, said 20%.
Are you… Straight?
Published: May 2013