It starts with a single image: a lonely moth fluttering around the porch light on a hot summer night. George Dawes Green is a Georgia-born poet who moved up to New York and missed the oral tradition of the South. Those long, sultry nights of sitting around on the porch, swapping stories about your day, your life, your family, while those pesky insects circled the light or the fan overhead. Eventually, he founded The Moth as a way to re-capture that tradition.
It’s quite simple, really: live, true, personal storytelling. Each night has a theme (e.g. road rules, tradition, fractures, persuasion…), and interested storytellers throw their names into a hat. If your name gets pulled, you get 5 minutes. No notes, no rants, no poetry, no stand-up comedy.
The thing is, what started as a small, one room gathering in NYC has grown into a nationwide phenomenon. The Moth has small Meet-Up groups (Moth-ups) in every part of the country; “slam cities” (large, urban areas whose meetings feature competition for upward mobility toward Grand Slams); and some of their best stories are frequently picked up for feature on This American Life.
Also of note are the completely independent initiatives of a similar nature that take place in many other cities. In Baltimore, they’re called Stoop Stories, and each event features a band, a few pre-selected or curated storytellers, as well as “the hat.” For Durham/Chapel Hill, NC, it’s The Monti, which surprisingly is named after a guy the founder once knew, not after getting emotionally naked on stage. In Philadelphia, they have First Person Arts, which, on top of regular story gatherings, features an entire festival of performance developed from personal experiences. In each town, the gathering and format is slightly different; it is unique to the character of that community.
This movement is very different from the storytelling you may associate with your local library or from childhood or camp. There are no Jack Tales involved, unless the guy telling them happens to be named Jack. The events themselves tend to draw a mostly younger, hipper audience. Frequently, they become so popular that people are turned away at the door because the room is too packed.
Here in Atlanta, where I live, we started out being part of The Moth two years ago, but about a year into it, decided to go independent. Now, we’re Carapace (after the hard outer shell of an animal, like a turtle. As in, “come out of your shell…”)
Our event started through a small, grassroots effort, but got large quick. We draw a crowd of 120-150 consistently, and each month we have so many storytellers left over in the hat, we could have a whole other evening’s entertainment.
Recently, I sat down with Randy Osborne, local writer, philosopher, and Carapace founder, to talk about what we do in Atlanta and his thoughts about the differences between live, true, personal storytelling and the more traditional style, whether it’s really art, and how we build a microcosm of community one story at a time…
- What was behind your first impulse to start the Moth up here in Atlanta?
I’ve been a journalist most of my life, and by nature a fan of true personal stories, whether they’re told to me in the course of my work or on the radio, by way of shows like The Moth and This American Life. A few years ago, having just moved here from San Francisco, I was hunting for something new to do, and Joyce [Mitchell, co-founder of Carapace] posted at Meetup.com that she wanted to start a local storytelling group like The Moth. I suggested we do it on our own, and come up with our own name. Freedom to operate seemed important. But we also figured The Moth’s brand recognition would have value, so Joyce signed the paperwork for us to be an affiliate.
- How is it different than you first imagined it would be? What has surprised you?
Turned out, almost no one here had heard of The Moth. Also, as I went around promoting our event and taping posters in store windows, I found the mention of New York (where The Moth is headquartered) made people turn up their noses, as if to say, “Oh, New York is cool, and Atlanta’s not, right? You want to be cool like New York.” Well, no, I don’t believe New York is anything special, but we had to quit mentioning it. So this part of the plan kind of backfired. Otherwise, it’s gone the way I expected. I felt strongly that the hunger for true personal stories was bubbling, simmering out there.
- Please talk about the decision to split from The Moth.
The Moth’s plan for affiliate cities was fairly new, and the guidelines were still being formulated. By the time we had our first event, we were already violating rules. First, we were too big. The Moth wanted events to start with a small handful of attendees in someone’s living room, and we had about 75 on opening night at Manuel’s. Plus, we were not supposed to talk to the press, but the press kept finding us. Reporters from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Scoutmob, etc., came to our events and asked questions. In the South, as you know, it’s rude not to talk with people, including reporters. It was time to go out on our own. We sent a friendly note to the folks in New York and, as they say, “quit before we got fired.” But we’re still on good terms with The Moth. We love the concept, obviously, and they’ve invited us to perform as part of their Unchained Tour road show. They seem interested in what we’re doing.
- Why do you think this movement is so popular? Is it an inherent impulse for narrative? Something about voyeurism?
Humans probably are hardwired for narrative, as many others have said. There’s an evolutionary purpose for it … tribal solidarity, the assurance that we’re going to be taken care of, protected, all that. Does “alienated modern society” figure into it? Sure. But I can’t just reel off a few clichés and move on. You know that Spanish word duende? Artists over-use it all the time, but the best Carapace stories – even when they’re funny stories, and maybe even more so when they are funny – have a wild energy. It’s a kind of quiet ferocity in the face of our inevitable death or change a-coming. I mean, behind the simple, delicious, human moments that surprise and delight the audience, the sense of mortality hovers. Also, there’s also a German word, Sehnsucht. It doesn’t translate well into English, but roughly means a yearning for something faraway but not identified, nostalgia for some lost state of being. Some of our stories seem to be reaching for that. I tend to study the listeners at our events as closely as the tellers, and stories like the ones I’m describing are the ones that make people sit up, scoot to the edges of their chairs, and stop breathing for a few seconds. [Randy recently wrote a beautiful blog post about these stories and their power.]
There’s also the satisfaction, mildly uneasy because it’s uncommon, of simply sitting elbow-to-elbow in three dimensions with other human beings. We live on our computers now, and don’t even pick up the phone for each other anymore.
Voyeurism? Yes. I think we would all read each other’s diaries if given the chance. Carapace offers the next best thing. We recently did a special event at SCAD Atlanta, and an older lady came up afterward and spoke very sweetly to me about “how nice it is, getting to know another person so intimately. And then you don’t ever have to have anything to do with them again!”
But really, I think the appeal of our stronger stories involves this other, rather mysterious element that I was talking about earlier. For example, the whole room fell silent when medical student Howard Chiou told about the spiritual experience he had in the midst of the very scientific, non-spiritual procedure of dissecting a human corpse. Traditional storytelling may give you a few knee-slappers with some hackneyed “message” at the end, but you’ll seldom, if ever, hear something like this.
- What do the storytellers get out of it?
At the most basic level, they are listened to. They are – if only during the five minutes they’re onstage – heard. For many people, this is another very rare event. Maybe I tend to notice this more, having grown up an only child with a lot of sad, busy, indifferent adults around, but I believe almost everyone’s soul is starved. We want to be heard and known.
Also, Carapace storytellers get the uncommon chance to work on shaping a finished piece that amounts to art. Then, they deliver it to listeners who came for the purpose of taking it in, and doing so without the wall, the barrier, of “performance” that you feel at, say, a staged play. I often point out that the only other situation like this – where the audience becomes the performer, and then becomes the audience again – is karaoke. But in karaoke, you’re singing someone else’s song.
- I’m talking to you for a blog called Arts in a Changing America. How do you think what we do at Carapace might reflect that notion?
I think American society is splintering, dividing and swirling into a kaleidoscopic extravaganza so diverse in its joys and terrors that “diversity” almost loses meaning. True personal stories told from the center of that storm can help us see what’s going on, or imagine that we do. It’s an imperfect mirror, but we’re chroniclers and processors. We’re sifting individual experience through unique personalities. Especially when you hear people talk about things that are happening right now, but filtered through things that happened to them in the past. America is changing in a lot of different ways. If we’re story makers, we create an amalgam of it all.
- Do you think this is an art form? Does telling a story on the Carapace stage turn a non-artist into an artist?
The Carapace stage can’t turn a non-artist into an artist. Just like a violin doesn’t turn a person into violinist. But this is an art form, and if storytellers “play their instrument” and study the form long enough, they can turn themselves into artists. Occasionally, we’ll find that we remember with fascination weeks later a story that seemed only so-so at the time, or seemed – this is even better – bothersome, annoying, in some inexplicable way, and now shines just as cryptically. This partakes of art, I think.
- Do you think we’re a community or maybe a micro-community? How are we different from the communities from which we come?
Oh yes. Most regulars have made friends with each other, and socialize outside of Carapace as well. New visitors tend to remark on how welcome they feel. When people get vulnerable, are brave enough to confess these stories on stage, share their dashed hopes, they make a bond with the listeners that’s missing from their other communities. It’s not unlike actors in a serious theater performance. Over the course of weeks of rehearsal, exploring “difficult” zones of their characters’ motivations, actors often bond with each other in ways ordinary life usually does not allow.
- Please talk about the difference between traditional storytelling and this new form. Why do you think this form is so popular with younger generations? Also talk about the tension/sense of competition the traditional storytellers initially had with our group. It seems that has shifted and we’ve been embraced. Why do you think that is?
The traditional style of storytelling is, almost by definition, a way of extending traditions of all kinds. It was a way of reassuring people that change wasn’t going to come, or if it did, they we wouldn’t fall apart. With us, you don’t really get those assurances.
I think this is why traditional storytelling tends to appeal to an older demographic.
A more immediate difference is that traditional storytelling often includes a lot of gesturing, elevated language, “working the stage,” experimenting with voices – much of which, for modern audiences, comes off as flat and artificial. The content is typically different, too. The traditional mode tends to favor victory, happy endings, and heroes that sound just a tad too perfect. You’re much more likely to hear, in a traditional story, what a wonderful woman Mama was than you are likely to hear something like, “My mother was a selfish, despicable woman, and yet I modeled myself after her. I couldn’t help it. And now I’m a mother myself. Let me tell you a story that happened between me and my child …” You see? I’m not saying the world isn’t stocked with fine Mamas, or even that I don’t want to hear about them once in a while, but stories of honesty, openness and struggle by flawed people are vastly more interesting.
I appreciate and support traditional storytelling for what it is, for what it does. In fact, I’m a dues-paying member of a well-known regional group, the Southern Order of Storytellers, which tends toward the traditional way. Carapace and groups like ours are simply offering something apart. Something I find full of possibilities.
My three children have grown up in a culture that seems full of casual self-disclosure – on Facebook, in blogs, etc. – and so people in their 20s and 30s are turned off to anything that smells of pretense, falsity. Yet even social media vehicles that claim to “connect” people and throw open the doors to the self are leaving users far from happy. They are, perhaps, lonelier than ever. Some are finding relief in true personal storytelling, especially as delivered “live and in the flesh.”
- If you could change one thing about the way we do things, what would that be?
Well, drawing names from the hat is a blessing and a curse, now that we’ve grown so large. We recently adopted a new rule: “Three strikes and you’re in.” In other words, if you’ve put your name in the hat three shows in a row and not been chosen, we make sure you get onstage, and you can tell any story you didn’t get to share during the other shows or tell something on the current theme. Otherwise, I wouldn’t change much. We’ve watched imitator groups tweak the model, either because they think they’re improving it or because they don’t want to look like imitators. The results are less than impressive. People have suggested that we charge admission, have judges and award door prizes, like The Moth and others do with “slams,” but this will never happen as long as I’m here, at least not at the monthly show. I call it “gladiator” or “Gong Show” storytelling. Personally, it bores the daylights out of me, but the larger issue is that it lowers the common denominator way too far and would discourage the skillful, intelligent storytelling that’s been building steadily at Carapace for more than two years. Our audience wants true, personal stories, one after another, as many as we can fit into 90 minutes.
- What is your vision for the future of our group? For the future of the live, true storytelling movement?
I’d like people, in our group and others like it, to keep telling each other what we all might have believed unspeakable before, stories that have nested in their souls and at last are ready to fly. You’ve seen that moment at Carapace, how the room can suddenly change during a story, usually – but not always – near the end. Faces brighten. No one has to say it, but everybody is thinking: The truth. I’ve been told the absurd and dangerous truth about another soul, and it was kind of hilarious, actually, and now I think I might cry.
Our trust in government is gone. Our families often bewilder us. Friends and lovers want from us something the inner muscle for which can easily atrophy. It has begun to, and yet we want the same back from them. True, personal storytelling is one way to repair souls, a roomful at a time, while having so much fun you don’t even know it’s happening, until the show’s over and nobody wants to go home.
Editor’s Note: WATCH THESE ENGAGING PERFORMANCES (including author Shannon Turner’s fabulous own “Camp Crush” story)
3) Camp Crush