Once a month on a Tuesday night, people convene at a Spanish dinner theater in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, but not just for the tapas and drinks. For the stories.
The Moth is a nonprofit that started, like many good things do, in someone’s living room. In this case, novelist George Dawes Green wanted to recreate evenings spent talking on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, on a friend’s porch. So he invited people to his new Manhattan living room to tell stories—and they did. Then word grew, as did the number of people who wanted to be involved.
Eventually, these gatherings moved to bigger venues, drawing more and more people. Now, there are monthly StorySLAMs on both coasts and in two cities in between, so anyone and everyone can have her moment in the spotlight.
Here’s how a Moth StorySLAMworks:
- You show up.
- You pay a small cover and hope for a seat.
- If you want to participate, you put your name in a bag.
- If your name is picked, you go on stage and tell a five-minute story on the night’s theme with a beginning, middle, and end and are scored by random judges. You do not use notes.
- If you go over the time limit, someone will blow a funny birdcall whistle and you’ll get points deducted.
- At the end of the night, you find out whose was the winning tale.
- You have a great night and don’t miss your Blackberry at all.
It’s all about basking in this low-tech activity with a heritage that probably dates back to a cave somewhere a really, really long time ago—despite our distraction-filled age, we’re hard-wired to sit still for a good story.
Storytellers Stephen C. James and John Grady at a L.A. Moth storySLAM.
I’ve been to three SLAMs in my neighborhood, the last of which had the theme “distance.” A diverse group of ten storytellers told theirs, each with a different take on the subject.
One young man told of the divide between his divorced parents, and how a teenage car accident he and his sister survived helped cross it. A young woman who talked passionately and with her hands told about the distance she once ran in the middle of the night—five miles—to her boyfriend’s house to mess around, and about the fallout the next day at school. One man’s story was about how he and a buddy decided to run a long-distance marathon—“some of the best ideas come from drinking,” he claimed—and how it changed his life.
One of my favorites was told by a woman who as a girl was a self-described comic book-obsessed geek. She recalled: “My mom made prom a nightmare because she made me go.” Not to worry though, she reclaimed the experience at Comic-Con’s nerd prom years later, a full-circle kind of thing.
The night’s winner, Stephanie Bast, was a first time Moth storyteller. She’s no stranger to performance though, having been on Broadway for a decade before coming to Los Angeles.
“When I moved [here] three years ago, I had been searching for a creative outlet as well as a community of people seeking the same thing. I've always been a sucker for real life stories," says Stephanie, "and to watch and support real people standing up in front of strangers and sharing a piece of themselves is incredibly moving and powerful.”
Her story was certainly the most moving and funny of the night, about being dropped on the doorstep of a convent in Seoul, Korea and then adopted by her Italian mother from 7,000 miles away in Pennsylvania. Her mom had a fierce love for Bast, especially in the face of acquaintances saying: “What a beautiful baby, but how are you gonna understand her when she starts speaking?” It was about the distance she took from her mother in her late 20s and her mother’s illness that brought her back at the same time she was hoping for a child of her own. The reaction in the room when Bast finished can only be translated as something like “Wow.”
The Moth in Chicago. Credit: Bryan Champ
Each of these events is a slam—a contest with structure and guidelines and a winner—but it’s definitely friendly. Host Brian Finkelstein is hilarious while sometimes cutting (either toward himself or others—“It’s L.A., there’s a lot of horrible writers here,” he quipped), but ultimately he is kind and generous. After every participant leaves the stage he comes on to facilitate the scoring by first saying, “Great story.” He asks for louder clapping and often says he would’ve given a story a higher score. He is like the butter between slices of bread, smoothing things over, keeping the audience greased with his antics until the next person takes the stage.
Before the first storyteller goes on he reminds us all to applaud because of “how hard it is to go first.” And we all know this, how hard it is to go first (and really to go at all), which is why we do applaud, we laugh, we pat the back of the person coming offstage as they pass us on a job well done, no matter how perfect or plodding the story.
The Moth moved to L.A. three years ago, first luring audiences of only about 30. Now, its most popular venue of three in the city, El Cid, sees about 225 people per show. When asked what distinguishes the flavor of LA SLAMs from those in New York, producer Kerry Armstrong says, “You do get sunnier, funnier stories in Los Angeles.”
Credit: Bryan Champ
Of course, we get our fair share of writers, actors, standups and Hollywooders too, but there are plenty of everypeople who participate. Some of my favorite stories have been from non-showbiz folks who get up with something important or interesting to say. Armstrong describes the best stories as those that aren’t necessarily the most professional and her pet peeve can be when a story is “too polished.” The most satisfying are those that “feel like a friend telling a story, [distilling] what was important…while drawing people into the experience.” But she does add this trick of the trade to hit one out of the park: “Know your ending line.”
The Moth’s growth hasn’t meant any loss of intimacy, the real, raw quality of people telling stories and people listening. Armstrong still loves it for the down to earth, creative community feeling she first found there. There is an unmistakable camaraderie between the people who stand up and share and synergy with those who sit down and pay attention.
You don’t have to live near an official Moth event to make storytelling happen among your tribe (or among strangers). You can simply hold a night of story in your own living room—The Moth calls it a MothUP, and has instructions for hosting a satellite version on its site. Forget about the competition, unless you thrive on it, just make some fliers or tell some folks and hold your own evening of tale-telling, grow your own community of storytelling, no gadgets required.
To get a taste before going forward, you can always enlist a gadget and listen to The Moth podcast of live stories.