Story Telling as Performance: The Moth Elevates Tales of Life (and Strife)
The Moth is an acclaimed not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. It is a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it. At the center of each performance is, of course, the story – and The Moth’s directors work with each storyteller to find, shape and present it.
It’s not just the story, not just the presentation…it’s the connection that the audience has with you.
Crowds have gathered around The Mothlight, a popular venue for live music and entertainment in West Asheville. A line is forming around the side of the building as event-goers pull coats and scarves tautly around their bodies, recent temperatures having left them unprepared for a lengthy stint outdoors on a cold night. “Do you have a ticket?,” a young woman asks me, and I nod. “Everybody does,” I tell her. “The show sold out less than an hour after they went on sale.” I will address this question three more times before coming to the main entrance, where a small group is huddled in hopes that spare seats will materialize.
The aura of anticipation is comparable to the opening night of Moogfest 2012. But this is not Moogfest, which boasted a lineup including GZA, Santigold and Primus 3D. Tonight’s entertainment is not world-famous. In fact, they are waiting in line alongside me; what we’ve come out for is an open mic event. Unlike traditional open mics, however, this one follows a very strict format. The acts consist solely of true stories with a common theme – tonight’s is “celebration” – performed in under five minutes and scored by a jury. A winner is determined at the end. Since only ten slots are available, only a small fraction of the hopeful orators around me will actually take the stage (names are selected at random from a hat). They’ll perform without the assistance of notes, visual accompaniment or other people. And if they’re good enough, they might be featured on NPR. Welcome to The Moth.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, The Moth is a nonprofit organization that produces storytelling events across the world. Their most well-known events are Moth Storyslams, the occasion for which so many have come out to the The Mothlight on the first truly cold night of autumn. Storyslams are featured in 21 US cities along with a suite of locations across the world. Asheville is one of the latest cities to join the repertoire, and it is the smallest. Producer Sara Fields worked to include Asheville as a Moth city for several years before it launched at The Mothlight in September to a regular spot on the third Thursday of every month. The Mothlight was selected by The Moth for its fitting audience and A/V accommodations, though Ms. Fields notes that the “beyond apropos” name certainly didn’t hurt.
After I am ushered inside, I discover that they’re selling entire bottles of wine at the bar. The audience will evidently be so glued to their seats that it makes more sense to dole out vino this way rather than necessitate the abandonment of one’s chair to grab a second glass. Whole bottles firmly in hand, many have occupied their seats well before the house lights come down. Whether inspired by liquor, nerves, or some combination of the three, effusive conversation emanates from every corner of the room. It occurs to me that I’m amidst a crowd of serious raconteurs, individuals united by the pleasure they take in telling and hearing a well-spun yarn. On a night devoted specifically to the elevation of this pleasure to an art form, some chatter is to be expected.
Betsy Tucket, the MC, is a force of nature: returning for her second hosting stint with The Moth, her candor and sharp observational wit are clear from the opening address. A natural on stage, she sets the bar for all who will follow with a confident and reassuring oratory style. Launching into a fierce invective against the use of cellphones at live performances, she makes it clear that not a single glowing screen should materialize throughout the night. Other instructions follow: “storytellers, do not touch the mic!,” she declares, a rule that she will laugh off when it is broken during the first act.
The stories that follow are by turns idiosyncratic, suspenseful, humorous and heartbreaking. A woman invites the audience to relive the day she got married – but wasn’t sure if she had finalized a recent divorce. One fellow recounted the party collectively thrown by the entire city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the morning it demolished its beloved Three Rivers Stadium. Another man shared his dismay at being asked to be best man at the wedding of a woman he loved. This woman had also asked if he could donate sperm so that she and her wife-to-be might have a proper shotgun wedding, a concept that struck her as very appealing; this bride-to-be hailed from Bulgaria and believed “shotgun weddings” to be a glamorous American take on matrimony. Much to the storyteller’s anger and bewilderment, she proudly announced her pregnancy by another man at the wedding reception. The performer offered no conclusive word on how the newlyweds are doing.
It takes guts to address an enormous audience, let alone with a story selected specifically to tug at the heartstrings or tickle the funny bones of strangers. The memories that hold together a life, the stories reserved for late-night confessions or a future letter to a grandchild, were not experienced the first time around with the idea they’d ever be performed. Yet sharing them can render them more meaningful. Moth fans have told me that listening to the stories, either during its weekly curated radio broadcast (The Moth Radio Hour on NPR) or at a live performance leaves them with a feeling of validation, as if though their own stories have gained creative value. At a Moth event, it’s hard to not to reflect on what memory you’d weave into a tale given the right mixture of bravery, gravitas and (perhaps) foolhardiness. As I informed friends and loved ones about the show, I received an influx of brainstormed ideas for their own Moth debut. Clearly, this organization has tapped into a common desire.
After a few more stories, slam poet Steve Shell took the stage. He delivered a tale about an Easter play, delivering the story’s more unusual angles with eloquence and laid-back ease. His breezy anecdote quickly evolved into a full-blown farce. Though all storytellers had garnered high marks from the jury, he was particularly well-received, and walked off the stage with the highest score thus far. I spoke with Steve about the experience, who remarked on his long-time appreciation of The Moth and how his work as a performance poet prepared him for the night. “Performing at The Moth felt like home,” he said. “On stage with a light on my face is where I do my best work.” Clearly, the jury agreed.
While Steve’s experience evidently paid off, there may be such a thing as being over-prepared for the Moth. The night’s final story came from Amy Jones, a longtime radio DJ. Her celebration tale had the audience in stitches, and in a rare occurrence, Amy wound up tying with Steve for first place. I caught up with her on the phone to hear her thoughts about storytelling; as a veteran of radio and a newly-minted Moth winner, she shed some light on the experience. “Theres a really sweet spot between being too polished and coached and too nervous,” she offered, careful to note that “it’s not complete amateur hour.” Indeed, all of the night’s contestants seemed like they’d had some performance experience. In spite of this, they never came across as actors reciting memorized lines; the personal connection each storyteller had to their work was clear in every instance. “It’s not just the story, not just the presentation,” Amy said. “I think it’s the connection that the audience has with you,” a factor seemingly dependent on the simple realism of the narrative being shared.
The circumstances under which Amy co-won The Moth could be Moth story itself: with a funny story about a birthday party, it seemed only fitting that the event happened to fall on her birthday. She was one of the crowd that had arrived at The Mothlight without a ticket, and through some force of luck or fate, wound up finding herself a seat. And, if the situation weren’t improbably enough, her name was the last to be picked from the hat. “It’s worth working for,” she said. “There was nowhere else I really wanted to be.”
The Moth will continue its run at The Mothlight well into 2018. December’s theme is DIRT! Tickets for the event go on sale one week before the Dec. 21 event. All are welcome to participate, but be prepared for a big crowd and a level of energy you may not expect for the humble art of storytelling. The Moth is one of the hottest tickets in any city, and Asheville is certainly no exception to the rule.
Emma Stamm is a writer and web developer based in Asheville; you can find more of her work here
The Moth in Asheville:
The Moth: True Stories Told Live. (Theme: Dirt)
Doors 7pm, Show 7:30 – $10
DIRT: Prepare a five-minute story about dirt. Squalor, smut, filth, muck and mire! Dig it, dish it, spread it, hose it off. Dirt cheap, dirt poor, treated like dirt. Listen as gardeners and gossips share dirty tidbits and all the filthy details. Talk Dirty to Us.
*Tickets become available one week before the show, at 3pm ET.
Media Sponsor: WCQS