Embracing Public Privacy

By Julia Hark

“I am neither a child, nor an adult, / Yet I am still trying to figure out / How that could be.” Finishing my first performance of “Anonymous,” a spoken-word poem that chronicles the awkward milestones of growing up, I strained this final, bleak utterance of my search for identity and fell into the silent cusp between sensation and perception of the audience. Mouths closed and time froze in the January snow. Did I embarrass myself? Did I stutter too much? Did my anxiety play antagonist to my personality? I scoured the crowd for any reception – my heartbeat too rapid to settle on a single sight – and found partial-smirks, rosy cheeks, and teary eyes, as the library began to fill with echoes of applause. The icicles melted, the scene unfroze, and my heart rate slipped into the rhythm of love and humility. I basked in the adrenaline rush that followed my first performance as a spoken-word poet and attempted to reconcile with the newfound publicity of my personal experiences, never seeing beyond a town poetry slam or forty-five fellow neighbors in a library as an audience.

When I returned to my seat, however, all closure was irreversibly thrust open. Brittany Goodwin, whom I had only known in passing as the theatre director of my school, approached me, praising the honesty of my piece and asking if I would write an original cabaret, entitled Public Privacy, about female body image that she would be directing in June. Suddenly, all of the childish embarrassment, social anxiety, and self-deprecation that I depicted in my performance came flooding back. Scenarios of failure flashed in my mind, but the adrenaline from my performance was still reverberating within me, and I laughed out an uncertain, yet excited, “Yes!” I was utterly terrified, with no idea how such a project would be executed, but I found solace in Brittany’s confidence in me and continued my search for identity in the spontaneity of theatre.

* * * *

The conception of Public Privacy commenced with few guidelines and widespread roots. After our initial meeting at the poetry slam, Brittany laid out a skeletal outline: I would interview a combination of ten high school and college-aged girls, with whom Brittany had previously worked, about their experiences in the teenaged female population of a 21st-century America and combine similar stories into two-person monologues. The interviewing was the most painfully raw aspect of the entire experience; these girls embraced their vulnerabilities and shared the darkest moments in their personal lives with me, trusting that I would give a voice to the pain that they had been unable to express. Brittany and I agreed on which girls should be paired together, but she left the creative direction of each piece entirely to me, allowing the honesty and gravity of each story to become more daunting with each interview.

In about two months, I had written five monologues and three ensemble pieces, highlighting topics such as sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders, depression, and peer pressure. By this point, Brittany and our musical director, Kathleen McAuliffe, had finished juxtaposing the dialogue with musical selections, and my purpose was essentially complete. The performance was scheduled for June 9th, giving us just a few weeks to put the entire show together. However, a few days into final rehearsals, one of the ensemble actresses realized a conflict and backed out of the show. I followed the suggestions of the other girls and took on her lines myself, but, after I began participating more in rehearsals, Brittany pushed for more: she wanted me to encapsulate the common threads we shared and write a monologue for the two of us.

I was terrified.

The idea of being on stage alongside these girls, whom all had a background in theatre and would be illustrating my words for their stories, was petrifying. I considered settling on what we had already produced, but my drive to find an identity and the emotional honesty of the other girls motivated me enough. I agreed to write the piece, knowing that my new role would reciprocate the vulnerability the other girls offered me and give Brittany a well-deserved significance in our show. With less than two weeks before our performance, I wrote the final monologue in which Brittany and I spoke to our mothers through each other; I asked my mother for help with my eating disorder, while Brittany encouraged her mother to seek help for her own struggles. I embraced a part of me that lay hidden and silenced in the identity of myself and of so many others.

On June 9th, we performed Public Privacy for an audience of almost three hundred, whose reactions paralleled the way I had felt back in January. Awe, tears, and, most importantly, empathy reverberated throughout the theatre. The feedback was profound, generating recognition from teachers, students, neighbors, and even elected officials. Seeing how much the audience identified with our pain, our turmoil, and our triumphs was overwhelming.

Fortunately, our desire to continue telling our stories was granted after being asked by several people to perform the show again, expressing just how much it needed to be seen. Several months later, we met up and planned to perform in January. Some of the actresses need to be switched, but the integrity of the show remained. This second performance attracted a slightly smaller audience and a reaction none of us expected: the Manhattan Repertory Theatre had received a copy of the script and invited us to perform two nights in a row at the end of the month.

We were speechless.

* * * *

Brittany and I met on January 21st, 2016. By January 21st, 2017, we had performed four times, had a professional video of the show on YouTube, and completed our final performance of Public Privacy the night before in New York City. If I said that this experience were a dream come true or only of my wildest imagination, then I would be lying. I never had any intentions of being involved in theatre, let alone writing a show that would be so positively received after only its first run, yet here I am with a twenty-nine page script and my name in a Broadway World article. I began this journey as an “Anonymous” high school junior on a spontaneous whim in search of an identity and found myself thrust in the vast world of writing just one year later. The belief in myself afforded to me by this show is beyond surreal, but, most importantly, Public Privacy illustrated the meaning of humility and humanity to me in ways that could only be defined by the unspoken empathy that resonated between the audience and cast members at every performance.