Why Getting Mortified Can Make You a Better Designer

Why Getting Mortified Can Make You a Better Designer

What our designers do after hours
Neil Stevenson
Annette Ferrara
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Annette Ferrara has been publicly embarrassing people for a decade. As a producer of Mortified, a live comedy show, she spends nights and weekends coaching people on how to get up on stage and read from their deeply personal, purple-prosed, and yes, mortifying childhood diaries. We asked her about the side project, and how it has influenced her work.

What was the spark?

I’m the type of person who always has a plan B. For my entire working life, I’ve had a side hustle. It made perfect sense to me, then, that in 2006, while I was working as the Chicago editor of Flavorpill, I’d accept the challenge to be a local producer for Mortified, a grassroots comedy show started by Dave Nadelberg in Los Angeles five years earlier. Even though, at that time, I was more comfortable behind a laptop than on stage, the show’s premise — everyday people reading their childhood diaries in front of a live audience — had everything I liked in comedy and storytelling: It was awkward, cathartic, redemptive, and totally relatable to anyone who was once a kid. It turned regular people into comedy stars. I jumped at the chance.

Fulfilling childhood dreams is part of the fun. Here, Eden Riegel, a soap opera star, Skyped in to surprise one of our performers on stage.

Most memorable Mortified moment? (Say that five times fast...)

For this year's Valentine Schmalentine show, we surprised one of our favorite performers, Kerstyne Kromer, by inviting her childhood celebrity crush Eden Riegel to Skype in and read the part Kerstyne had created for her in one of her childhood soap operas. In the early 2000s, Eden played Bianca Montgomery, the first openly lesbian character on All My Children. Watching Bianca's struggles on daytime TV helped Kerstyne eventually come out to her family and friends. Kerstyne almost passed out from happiness.

As a Mortified producer, I dig through people's childhood diaries to unearth funny stories from their past.
For a decade, my friends and I have been "sharing the shame" in Chicago.

What keeps you going?

We just celebrated Mortified Chicago’s 10th anniversary, which is astounding to me. I never thought we’d be around this long, or that I’d still be co-producing six Mortified shows a year at big venues like Lincoln Hall and The Promontory while working at IDEO. (Or that Mortified, which is now 15, would expand into books, a podcast, a TV series, a film, etc.) What energizes and inspires me is meeting new people and helping them unearth long-lost stories from their childhood. It’s an incredible privilege to have total strangers open up to you and tell you amazing and sometimes painful stories from their past. The night of the show, I love to sit in the A/V booth, hear the waves of laughter, and watch as the audience falls in love with our performers. It’s immensely gratifying to know I had a hand in making that moment possible.

For a decade, my friends and I have been "sharing the shame" in Chicago.

What lessons from your after-hours project do you bring into your day job?

Three things immediately come to mind: I’m a better listener, I’m more empathic, and I’m a stronger storyteller. Human-centered design is all about having empathy for the end user in order to design a more desirable product, service, or fill in the blank. I also draw on many of the same techniques I use on our performers to help our designers prep for big client meetings and public speaking opportunities. Although, in the case of IDEOers, I hope nothing about their experience will be mortifying.

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Neil Stevenson
Neil Stevenson is on a mission to understand creativity and find new ways to enable and encourage it in others. He's particularly interested in how the slowly-evolving human brain interacts with the rapidly-changing tech environment we live in, and the strange and wonderful new behaviors that emerge as a result.
Annette Ferrara
Experience Director
An Experience Director at IDEO Chicago with a background in writing and live performance, Annette believes in the power that memorable stories, meaningful rituals, and thoughtful environments have in creating happy, thriving communities.
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