Before Annie Russell became a news editor at WBEZ by day and stand-up comedian by night, she was a college student who wanted to make a real statement with a one-act play. Russell describes the work as a cross between the film Garden State and an episode of Law & Order: SVU, a revelatory piece about date rape. Years later, she found the play buried on her hard drive. It wasn't quite as profound as she remembered.
"That sort of gave me the idea that I know that other people have things like this sitting under their bed or in a file or on a hard drive, and wouldn't it be hilarious if we all read them," Russell says. "When I read that first piece for the first time in front of an audience, I wanted to shrink directly into the ground. I was so physically embarrassed. But the way the audience reacts to someone who is very clearly getting embarrassed onstage is just sort of comedy gold."
What started in 2015 as a show called Cringe! in Vermont, where Russell was living at the time, will be rebooted in Chicago this month as Freshman: A Show About Your Terrible Early Art. Performers present work that they earnestly put out into the world and believed to be good at the time, whether it be a song, paintings, short stories, videos—anything that was created as art with a capital A.
Over the past four years of diving into people's most embarrassing creations, Russell has discovered one common, moody thread. "You see a lot of, especially writing, that is really dark and is really sort of hilariously self-serious," she says. "You can tell that that person was trying to go for this really poignant moment, and it just didn't really work out."
The only stipulation is that performers have to be accomplished in some field now so that it takes the sting out of making fun of their earlier work. That doesn't necessarily mean the work they show has to be related to what they're doing now—even though this inaugural lineup is made up of all comedians, the work presented ranges from performance art to video to a photo series. The goal is to remind performers and audience members alike that if you have a piece of youthful writing or visual art that you're ashamed of, you're not alone.
In many ways, it's a confidence boost to see how far we've all come, but the show's also a reminder of how much better we can still become. "What I'm doing now likely ten years down the road I'm going cringe at," Russell says. "What I feel like is so important is just that ability to look back on work that we did and be understanding that we all start from various places, and we get better over time. That is what the creative process is about for me." v