Perhaps you've heard the story. Frank Warren, an American businessman who was visiting Paris, awoke from a vivid dream.
In the dream he saw three postcards laden with a meaning he couldn't quite decipher. Warren is a best-selling author of six "PostSecret" books, the name of the project that grew out of that dream and changed his life. To date, more than a million strangers have sent postcards to his Germantown, Md., home. Another 700 million have visited a PostSecret blog and Facebook page. Their messages can be dark or tender, disturbing or uplifting.
On Saturday, three actors at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts will act out some of those untold confessions, a multi-media theatrical presentation, PostSecret: The Show. It's the latest in Warren's attempt to maximize a sense of intimacy in a world increasingly defined by reactionary trolls.
"Secrets are not walls," Warren, 52, said in a phone interview. "They are bridges that connect us with others and our deepest selves."
An experience his childhood in Springfield, Ill., foreshadowed his viral fame. When he was about 10, his mother gave him three postcards to take with him to summer camp. Warren forgot to send updates home. But the day before he left, he addressed the cards to himself and sent them home.
When they arrived a few days later, he said, "I had this epiphany. Was I the same person who had mailed those postcards as who received them? My past self had mailed them to my future self."
He doesn't remember what the cards said. After his dream more than a decade ago, Warren bought three postcards in Paris. He addressed them to himself and distributed them to strangers. All he asked were that they truthfully share something they had not disclosed to anyone else.
Strangers complied, so he passed out more cards. And more.
In the mid-2000s, Warren founded PostSecret, a community art project. The outpouring has produced art projects, TED talks and best-selling books. Despite preceding popular sites such as Yik Yak and Whisper, which also encourage confession, Warren has accepted no money from advertisers. In 2011 he launched a mobile PostSecret app that quickly became the top seller in North America.
He took it down three months later. The volume of people sharing intimate details of their lives meant it was impossible to monitor the web traffic, which became dominated by a "small but dedicated group of abusers," Warren said.
Warren said he sees his role as similar to that of a priest. He has never contacted law enforcement over what people have said, though they have reached out to him, such as one case in which someone confessed to murder. The post turned out to be a prank.
Today Warren lives in Sacramento, Calif., with his wife and 21-year-old daughter. He maintains the Maryland home, which is still the mailing address of all those postcards.
The first few years after PostSecret became an international phenomenon, Warren used to answer questions such as, "What's the freakiest secret anyone ever mailed to you?"
When he hears that question, he said, "I think, 'You never ask me what is the sweetest or the most romantic secret I have gotten.'
"I don't want to people to feel judged in any way," he added.
PostSecret: The Show will feature art and moving text from cards received, and include material previously banned as too sensitive.
There remain three postcards Warren refuses to read — the ones he wrote to himself in summer camp. The cards from his fourth-grade self stand in a sealed mason jar at home.
"I really like not knowing what the messages are," he said.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.