The Moth: A storytelling phenomenon comes to Berkeley

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The Moth is a 16-year-old storytelling phenomenon founded by poet and novelist George Dawes Green. Photo: The Moth

Thank goodness for boring, sappy poetry. Without it, there might never be The Moth.

And thank goodness for the third annual Bay Area Science Festival, which brings marvelous scientific minds to the masses with ten days (Oct. 24-Nov. 2) of interactive events throughout the Bay Area.

Thirdly, you may thank your lucky stars (especially if you hold a ticket) for five storytellers and an underground gang of directors and hosts bringing epic insights to Berkeley with “The Moth: The Big Bang” at Zellerbach Hall as part of the science festival on Monday, Oct. 28.

The Moth is a 16-year-old storytelling phenomenon founded by poet and novelist George Dawes Green. Once tortured by listening to a poet whose “aesthetic screen” he believed was in serious need of lowering, Green’s urge to simply hear a story — a true, soul-shifting confession or a comic collision of self-awareness spoken aloud — became overwhelming.

“That was it — that was the germ,” he writes, in a forward to The Moth, a collection of 50 true stories selected from the live shows and recently released by Hyperion.

Long before the 16-year-old organization was created, Green had gravitated to storytelling on a front porch at night— where light attracted moths and oration-inspired community. In 1997, The Moth was born and, from Green’s living room, it moved to standing-room-only cafés, theaters and auditoriums, The Moth Mainstage, StorySLAMs, Community Education and Corporate Programs, a podcast downloaded more than 15 million times a year, and to the Peabody Award-winning The Moth Radio Hour, produced by Jay Allison and presented by PRX, The Public Radio Exchange, airing weekly on radio stations nationwide.

Like a giant, rolling auditory snowball, Mothian momentum has created over 3,000 stories.

Catherine Burns is the artistic director and in a phone interview one week before the Mainstage event in Berkeley, she spoke about editing the non-profit’s first publication.

“It’s not a “best of” collection,” she explained. “I was initially reluctant to do a book. I felt it would be flat. What convinced me was transcribing the stories and gently editing them into written pieces. That sold me.”

Surprisingly, she and her selection staff found a story’s structure mattered even more on the page than it had on the stage. To remain sturdy during translation, the stories had to contain a clear problem, climax and solution. Minus the cracks, pauses, tone and pacing of a live voice, vulnerability and deep, human change (the magic ingredient Burns said is essential) could have suffered.

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Hyperion has published the first collection of The Moth stories

Instead, the stories spring off the page with  vibrancy. A bloody encounter with a ram infuses writer Andrew Solomon’s uplifting, hilarious story, Notes on an Exorcism; Sebastian Junger’s War leaves a reader gasping, speechless; Malcolm Gladwell’s recall of a lost friendship in Her Way leads to a revelation: not all of his 10,000 hours capturing contemporary culture were stellar.

Burns said the final cuts, even with guidelines steering her away from political, saving-Mother-Teresa, make-everything-about-New-York stories, were crushing.

“It was brutal. I sent dramatic, childish emails,” she said. “Categorizing the stories helped, but it was still hard.”

Setting limits is also an integral part of the mainstage and slam events. At Zellerbach, the five storytellers will have 10 minutes to spin their yarns. (Slams limit the frame to five minutes.) On the bill: Discovery Channel’s MythBusters host Adam Savage, biophysicist Christof Koch, Congressional aide-turned-theater artistic director Gil D. Reyes, Annie Kozen (a Slams “graduate” Burns calls “a riot who can deliver an intimate performance in Berkeley’s large venue,”) and a fifth, yet-to-be-announced, mystery guest.

They’ll work without notes, but their stories won’t spiral aimlessly: Moth stories are carefully curated and refined, then rehearsed… and rehearsed and rehearsed.

“We do a decent amount of work with most people,” Burns said. “Some people take notes and shift easily, some don’t.”

Because many of the storytellers are not accustomed to public speaking, it can take up to 17 hours (the current “record holder”) to hone a narrator’s delivery. Burns said audiences appreciate layered stories, but not vague rambling. Increasingly, as the program matures, she’s looked for a blend of regular life and “crazy” stories. After 12 years with the program, the 44-year old former film and television director has witnessed evolution in the societal content, but consistency in what constitutes a charismatic storyteller.

“One example is Gil, a Mexican American who’s gay and his parents aren’t thrilled. That’s a pretty normal story, right?,” she asked. “But Gil needs a kidney and when the partner donates one, they come to accept him. It takes a kidney crisis to change. A good storyteller has to care about that moment of change so we care.”

Burns said the $750,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Institutions given in 2012 was a game-changer. The award allowed them to recapture and digitize crumbling archival material and to record and broadcast a large number of the 10,000 stories told this year alone. “I think it will make the show survive. We had the radio show, but I think we would have gone off the air because we were hanging on by our nails. They took something fun and made it sustainable.”

Hyperion, by publishing the first collection, has preserved the ancient tradition in a form some fear is equally outdated: a physical book. But Burns knows a private reading will allow self-directed reflections; time to pause and remember love, loss, laughter and one’s own life-changing moments.

“I’m obsessed with this subject,” she admitted. “We communicate with our thumbs and think we are connected. There’s truth in that, but our greater selves are not satisfied by that. Truly connecting, really listening, are deeply meaningful.”

Visit the Bay Area Science Festival website for information about its program, including the The Moth: The Big Bang.

Check out Berkeleyside’s event calendar for many more events, and make sure you post your community happenings there too.

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  • Patricia

    It was a fabulous show with five great true stories.