Back in 1997, poet-novelist George Dawes Green sought enlightenment from a unlikely place. Convinced we had stopped listening to each other, he decided that the best way to reach people was through the oldest but most universal mode of all communication: the story. So, on a porch deck down in Georgia, he opened a forum for fellowship and called it The Moth.
Fast forward 15 years to New York City, where stoops and fire escapes outnumber porches, where bars try in vain to replicate the appeal of the homestead with picnic tables, moonshine and mason jars, and where the lamp light drawing us closer together glows from the portable devices on which we update facebook statuses.
No, we can’t capture that same Southern hospitality here. But The Moth — a social network connected through tales told not virtually but face to face — has never been about place. Rather, it’s about community. The non-profit has facilitated the sharing of more than 3,000 extraordinary stories presented by ordinary people, live and without notes. As a consequence of the digital age, our longing for this kind of interpersonal contact grows stronger. In 2012, The Moth’s worldwide radio listeners, podcast subscribers and story slam competitors have, too, seen Green’s light.
Next week at “A Night at Storyville,” New Yorkers can dine, drink and dance the night away in celebration of The Moth’s milestone anniversary. The annual Moth Ball gala and cocktail party will be held at Capitale and hosted by author and raconteur extraordinaire Simon Doonan. In addition to awarding a scholarship to a graduate of its community education program MothSHOP, the organization will honor director Martin Scorsese for his achievements in the art of storytelling. “There’s not one film of his that isn’t based on an extraordinary story that shares a sense of humanity with everyone who watches,” beams Joan Firestone, Executive Director of The Moth. To prepare us for the celebrity-studded benefit, we asked Firestone what it takes for something as simple as a story to sell-out venues, illuminate the stage and attract an eclipse of loyal followers.
Why is the oral ritual of storytelling is so necessary today?
It connects people. When people react to the stories, they bring something special to it. Listening opens up new possibilities. Many of us don’t think we’re interesting, we don’t think we have anything to say. But when we’re taught how to express ourselves and given a context in which to do it, it binds us. I’ve done producing for theater and the difference between theater audiences and Moth audiences is that the latter are incredibly and immediately impacted. What’s happening before them is not only somebody else’s life but their own lives as well.
The Moth has gained mainstream popularity in a short period time. What do you attribute its success to?
We’ve not only restored the tradition, but also honed it. The secret is that we have made storytelling into an art form that is being respected as such. We have directors who help craft the stories without interfering with the integrity of the storyteller. The story is shaped and becomes something that is immediately available and accessible not only to the storyteller but to the people who listen to it. They feel connected to something that’s part of their culture.
What makes a great storyteller?
I will quote our founder who says: vulnerability. Truth, not being afraid to be vulnerable is something we shoot for in a Moth story. They can be humorous, they can be satiric, but at the same time, they’re honest and they strike something that’s both exciting and painful in all of us.
There are currently six branches of The Moth. What else is on the horizon?
We’re concerned about maintaining the quality of our branding and so we’re moving carefully to remain consistent. For example, the slam projects are moving into more cities. We’re expanding our cooperation with radio stations and the communities into which we move. The main stage will also be moving on the road to the cities where we already have a major constituency. And thanks to the generosity of the MacArthur award [a $750,000 grant for creative and effective institutions], being on radio stations across the country weekly by 2013 will change the accessibility that people have to moth stories.
If you go
The Moth Ball: “A Night in Storyville” Hosted by Simon Doonan and featuring Martin Scorsese Tuesday, May 8, 6:30 p.m. Capitale,
130 Bowery $350 for Gala Dinner and Party Tickets $195 for Gala Party and Show-Only Tickets www.themoth.org