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Raconteur Stop

For Those With a Story to Tell, the Moth Is the Place to Be

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page N06


Here, tucked away in the bowels of a Lower East Side bar among the denizens of the Moth, the literary crowd's answer to stand-up, the vibe is very not-for-profit: granny glasses, funky hats, comfortable shoes. Geek chic.

They're bolting back merlot, noshing on yucca fries, blasting old-school jams. Still, this isn't any old bar scene on a Wednesday night. Here, it's all about the words, mustering up the nerve to get up and tell tales.

Isis Richardson takes the stage. A handful of storytellers are chosen to speak each month. (Photos Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Isis Richardson gets this. It might be her first time on the mike, she might be the youngest ever Moth-er to be drawn to the flame, but she gets this. The eighth-grader steps -- no, seizes -- center stage, sporting a pair of glasses that she donned just before stepping into the spotlight.

Whipping off the glasses for dramatic effect, Isis launches into a monologue about her very first audition in her lifelong quest to be a star, an actress, a model, or a female Johnnie Cochran. She's a little stilted at first, stumbles here and there. Then something happens: They laugh. Not at her, with her. And suddenly, Richardson is having a Sally Field minute, basking in the knowledge that they like her, no, they love her.

Isis is feeling her power, in a way that anyone who has ever held sway over a cocktail party with a can-you-believe-this yarn can attest. Holding a crowd is sweet, so sweet. Telling them all about that one time and what happened next, and then and then, even sweeter. And when they laugh, ahhhh, when they laugh . . .

Such is the premise of the Moth, a Manhattan-based collective of storytellers who gather once a month to ply their craft, frequently moving from venue to venue, all in the name of the story, a true story. Part stand-up, part poetry slam, part children's story hour, the Moth is a studiously egalitarian affair: Celebs such as Ethan Hawke, Rosie O'Donnell, Janeane Garofalo (and Spalding Gray, before he became the late Spalding Gray) share the stage with real-life reformed pickpockets, voodoo priestesses, astronauts and men who, shall we say, spent a lot of time in the employ of the Mafia. Just about anybody with a story to tell can tell it. And while not everyone is there to get laughs -- usually, there's one sad story in the lineup -- humor helps. A lot.

Here, humor is mined by the metaphorical opening of the kimono, of exposing one's inner workings and establishing a connection with the audience.

It is why, in New York, where the locals turn up their noses at comedy clubs as the sole province of tourists, so many New Yorkers flock to the Moth. It is why the Moth was such a hit the past three years at the Aspen Comedy Festival, where the likes of Colin Quinn and Teri Garr and Garofalo queued up to tell their tales. And it is why storytelling is catching on across the country.

In the District, the Washington Storytellers Theatre has launched its own monthly Speakeasy every second Tuesday at HR-57, a venue near Logan Circle in Northwest, drawing on the Moth's inspiration. The humor is real, rubbing close to the vein. And people can relate.

"It's such an easy-to-embrace art form," says Brad Hills, Washington Storytellers artistic executive director. "All you need for storytelling is a mike and a stage and you're good to go."

On this night, on New York's Lower East Side, the show is, as always, sold out. Several hundred Moth-ers are crammed into the Crash Mansion. There's an emcee and six tale tellers and each has 12 minutes at the mike to do what we've been doing ever since somebody figured out how to make a fire and everybody gathered around to swap tall ones.

Stories, says Moth founder George Dawes Green, are why we flock to the movies, scarf down "The Da Vinci Code," take in "Fever Pitch" at the cineplex or camp around the telly to watch Jack Bauer battle the forces of evil in "24."

"It's our most primal art form," Green says. "There's something about sitting around in a group of people, drinking, and sometimes drinking heavily, and listening to narratives. I think that's been coded in our DNA.

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