Secrets build bridges, not walls: Talking with PostSecret’s Frank Warren

by Patty Templeton

Every heart holds a shadow, and if you’re fortunate, there’s a spark in that dark as well. We all keep horrifying, joyful, and mundane secrets that we don’t usually think to share. Frank Warren, the creator of PostSecret, believes that these secrets can make us, break us, and bring us together. Fourteen years ago, Warren started the PostSecret blog. The site features secrets scrawled on postcards that have been anonymously mailed to Warren at a rate of about 1,000 per week. Since then, the PostSecret blog has had over 780 million visitors, spawned six best-selling books, museum exhibits, a TED Talk, and, most recently, PostSecret: The Show.

PostSecret: The Show will pass through Durango on Wednesday, Feb. 7., at FLC’s Community Concert Hall and Warren will be present for an after-show talk-back. DGO spoke to Warren about what it’s been like being an archivist of privacies and how to make a stage show outta secrets.

What’s the power of writing a secret into the world on a postcard, rather than sending it through email? Since I was a kid, I believed that postcards are a little bit magical. The first time I went to sleepaway camp, my mom had gave me three self-addressed postcards and said, “If anything interesting happens at camp, write about it.” I grabbed the postcards, went to camp, and of course a lot of crazy things happened at camp that I didn’t write home about, but on the last day I found the postcards, filled them, put them in the mailbox, and hopped on the bus to come home.

A few days later, I went to the mailbox and received the postcards. Holding them and reading them I had an epiphany. The moment really struck me. Questions came to mind like, was I the same person who wrote these questions as I was reading them or what would I put on a postcard if I could mail it to my future self or my past self?

I think there’s something powerful when you take a secret that’s staring at you and physically let it go to a stranger, passing through all these hands along the way, being exposed the whole time. There’s something more instigating. When you take that step, it is much easier for you to take following steps to tell a friend or a family member or see it on the website and realize it isn’t as big when it’s exposed anonymously as you might have imagined it when you were carrying it deep inside your soul. It allows people to release their secrets in a safe way, which may be a first step to letting it go and changing their life.

Is creation time a factor in the meaning of a postcard? I think the bar of effort to write a postcard is much higher than the bar of effort to write an email or send a text. Because it takes effort to buy a postcard, figure out how much postage goes on it, find an address, take it to a mailbox, all those steps give meaning to the process. Postcards I’ve received are from people who have felt more driven to not just write their secret down, but to turn that postcard into art. In some ways, the postcards becomes artifacts of meaning even more relatable to strangers and more potent at delivering these messages of empathy.

What does PostSecret: The Show demand from its audience? Is it immersive? It is immersive, in so far as, if the audience wants to participate. We don’t force anyone to participate in any way. There is an opportunity at intermission to put a secret on a postcard and have it shared with the audience from the stage in the second act. The actors themselves, there’s a line in the script, where they each have to tell the audience a real and true secret for the first time. Not even the actors know what they’re going to share or what their colleagues are going to disclose.

In a number of ways we try to break down walls of traditional storytelling on stage and do things in a new way, to bring to the stage some of what’s worked so well in the digital world.

What does that multi-faceted storytelling approach look like? Even in this new tour, I added new secrets that have never been seen before. The production itself is alive. Every performance and every tour, we tweak it to make it poignant and memorable.

An example, at the end of the performance, we share reactions. After the play, we invite audience members to take a marker and whiteboard and write a response to a secret that really touched them in the show on the board … People who come to watch the secrets can become a part of the show when those photos are shown at the end of the play at a future date.

There’s video, music, voicemail messages, images of postcards that have never been seen.

How does the digital world connect to that?Before the show even starts, on the screen, there’s a TweetWall. It’s an interaction between the cast, the audience, and myself tweeting. At one point I might say, “There’s a PostSecret book on the stage, the first one to go up and grab it gets to keep it.” People don’t know what to do but then someone jumps on stage and grabs the book and everyone applauds. People mention birthdays or we get a tweet from a guy who says, “The only reason I’m here tonight is because my girlfriend dragged me.” Everyone cracks up and it creates this cohesiveness in the audience.

What is the power of turning PostSecret into a live event?People are usually alone when consuming PostSecret on their computers, but the show gives people a chance to come together in a physical space and speak as one as a community.

We’re trying to shift the whole idea of secret-keeping as a balance of power and the idea that sometimes when you think you’re keeping a secret, that secret is actually keeping you. If we can create examples of courage and vulnerability, we can move to a place where we start to see that it has always been an illusion, that idea that secrets separate us. They don’t. They’re not walls. They’re bridges. When people start to tell their stories that becomes clear as day.

And, there’s that connection you feel sometimes when watching a live performance. There’s research [done at the University College London] that audience members’ hearts start to align. They start to beat as one.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity. Patty Templeton


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