Sharing Secrets onstage

Would you be willing to have your deepest, darkest secret acted out on stage? What if the secret played out anonymously? Would you be able to watch? Portland State alumnus Devin Harkness is hoping that you can—and will.

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Would you be willing to have your deepest, darkest secret acted out on stage? What if the secret played out anonymously? Would you be able to watch?

Portland State alumnus Devin Harkness is hoping that you can—and will.

This Saturday, Harkness will bring his show Portland Secrets, which uses audience members’ personal secrets as the basis for improv sketches and scenes, to Northwest Portland’s Brody Theater.

Harkness is directing the show, the first of its kind in Portland. He holds a master’s degree in counseling from PSU and works as an elementary and middle school counselor by day; by night, he is a regular member of the Brody Theater ensemble.

Harkness feels that this show allows him to bridge the gap between his counseling life and his theater life.

“I listen to people’s secrets all day,” Harkness said. In his day job, however, confidentiality is of the utmost importance, and Harkness would never reveal a client’s secrets.

Harkness points out that while many people carry secrets they would never want to reveal publicly, most people would like to find a way to unburden themselves of the heavy weight of those secrets. Harkness hopes that this show can provide the opportunity for the catharsis that people need.

“People are able to give a voice to their secret, even if it’s anonymously, by submitting it to this show,” Harkness said. “Then we are able to explore that secret, and obviously our exploration is our own thing, and not this person’s reality, but there are some elements of connection there.”

For Harkness, this connection is one of the primary goals of the show.

The show will employ many familiar improvisational techniques while incorporating preselected secrets. The selections will be a mix of the lighthearted and the serious.

There is one element, however, that you will not find in your standard improv show: the Truth Chair. In the spirit of full and equal disclosure, each of the actors will take a turn in the Truth Chair onstage and will reveal their own personal secrets, which can also be used to inspire creativity and improvisation.

Having the actors reveal their own secrets will not only add to the show, but will build a sense of trust between the actors and audience that will create a more open and inspired experience.

“My belief is that there should be no rules in improv—anything can happen at any time,” Harkness said. “I encourage my performers to respect these secrets by treating them with reverence. People are telling us things that are private and personal, and yet they are willing to reveal this, trusting that we will do right by it, and that we will treat it in a respectful way.

“That doesn’t mean that the things we do won’t be funny,” Harkness said, but “it’s not going to be laughing at this person. It will be revealing truths about the way people are, which is usually hilarious.”

Cast member Michael DeMaria echoed Harkness’ views about the importance of respect in a show like Portland Secrets.

“The big mantra of American improv has always been ‘truth in comedy,’” DeMaria said. “We don’t want to make fun of people who are unburdening themselves.”

Portland Secrets
Saturday, Feb. 9, 16 and 23 at 9:30 p.m.
Brody Theater
16 NW Broadway
Tickets: $8, available at

As an improv artist who has worked across the U.S. and Canada, DeMaria believes that Portland is a great city in which to perform a show like this.

“The style here is much more nuanced than some other cities,” DeMaria said.

Unlike the improv in other, more populous cities like Chicago or New York, “the Northwest is really narrative-based, so you do get that emotional charge in it,” DeMaria said.

That emotional charge is one of the elements Harkness is eager to explore. Because the show will be working with real secrets and real situations, it has the potential to go much deeper and will call on the performers to allow themselves to become more emotionally vulnerable.

While Secrets may be new to Portland audiences, it is based on a format originally performed at The Hideout Theater in Austin, Texas, aptly titled Austin Secrets. Just like its Austin counterpart, Portland Secrets takes its lead from such true-to-life confessional projects as This American Life, PostSecret, Mortified and BedPost Confessions.

Harkness’ ultimate wish for Secrets is twofold: The improv professional in him is hoping that this show will entertain Portland audiences by providing them with a singular, compelling theater experience, while the professional counselor in him “would like the audience to leave the theater feeling inspired to be more open and more honest, and allowing other people to be more open and honest,” he said.