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Raconteur Stop

"We live all the time with stories, people watch TV for four hours a night and that's just story after story. . . . Everyone is saturated with stories. But oral storytelling, the most beautiful and moving of art, has been allowed to atrophy, and that's a great shame."

Green, a novelist who enjoyed some fame and fortune when his novel, "The Juror," was made into a film starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin, formed the Moth back in 1997. He missed the way that stories were told back home on St. Simons Island, Ga., at bourbon-soaked barbecues. Everyone would sit on the porch, telling tales into the wee hours.

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

New York was so sound-bite oriented, with cocktail-party sophisticates jockeying to be the first with the quick quip. So Green started holding storytelling sessions at his apartment, naming the events "The Moth" in honor of the insects that flocked to the porch light as he and his friends told tales. When that proved to be too popular -- 35,000 people have since listened to more than 1,300 stories at the Moth, he estimates -- it branched out to local bars around downtown Manhattan, giving a welcome respite from the tyranny of the one-liner.

(Storytellers are picked through submitted videotapes, word-of-mouth, story slam competitions and from an outreach program, "Stories in Stages." The Moth works with its storytellers throughout the month to perfect the story.) Each evening is organized around a theme, such as "Scary Wedding Stories," "Innocents Abroad" or, tonight's theme, "New York Stories," with a curator who selects five or six storytellers to perform each month. You've got 12 minutes to do your thing; a musician onstage will play a musical warning when you've got less than two minutes to wrap it up.

You can't read your story, and no cheat sheets are allowed. But you can't have your story too memorized; you've got to stay in the moment. Personal narratives are a must, following a classic story arc, and while they don't have to be all true, arriving at an emotional truth is essential.

"We often have failures," Green says. "That's one of the exciting things about the Moth. Generally the stories are great. Sometimes the stories fall flat. The audiences expect this."

The audience also expects humor. Yes, oftentimes, the tales are poignant, such as the time that comic Rain Pryor told about struggling with her famous father Richard's battle with multiple sclerosis. Comic Anthony Griffith talked about the death of his toddler daughter at a time when his comedy career was soaring.

A former inmate, a graduate of the Stories in Stages program, spoke about being granted a furlough, strapped down in handcuffs and leg chains, to visit her dying mother. A gay man talks about meeting the apparent man of his dreams, a real hunk, only to find out, during a disastrous date, that the man has full-blown AIDS. And somehow his story is side-splittingly funny. Even with the saddest of stories, humor usually is front and center of the action.

There is, for example, Greg Behrendt, former "Sex and the City" writer and co-author of the best-selling "He's Just Not That Into You," serving up a confessional about his past love affair with Garofalo, a disastrous relationship followed by an even more disastrous breakup where he admittedly followed none of his advice and practically stalked his completely indifferent onetime lover.

"I have never seen a story work that was not in some way funny," Greene says. Humor and humility go hand and hand, and you can't win over the crowd if you're arrogant. Often, the biggest floppers at the Moth are celebrities who think they're too good for rehearsal, only to find themselves striking out at the mike. Or comics too intent on mugging and one-liners.

Observes Moth creative director Lea Thau, "The single thing our audience will turn on is hamming it up at the expense of being truthful. It's a challenge for actors and comedians to get away from their shtick, their onstage persona, and just be a human being."

With mainstream, stand-up comedy the performers seem to be revealing personal truths, sharing things about themselves, but personal vulnerabilities are concealed in the ba-da-bum one-liner. Comedy club patrons frequently come, arms folded, with an attitude of "let's see if you can make me laugh," Thau says. With storytelling, "you don't get the feeling that people are trying to be funny. And that makes people more willing to laugh."

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