There is no denying the power of story. It is perhaps the most potent type of living alchemy we have. Whether you are digging into a newspaper piece, a good book, a movie, a magazine, or a podcast or listening to a relative’s yarn or a stranger reminisce from the barstool next to you, a well-timed and well-delivered story has the potential to change everything from your mood to your understanding of an issue to the basic trajectory of your life itself. Stories are the connective tissue of community, a constantly renewing bridge between generations, and they serve as the fundamental ingredients of each and every life. Indeed, a life without stories is no life at all.
And so, it should come as little surprise that The Moth, a modest and informal gathering of friends in the name of storytelling, has become a critically acclaimed international sensation in these teenage years of the 21st century. And yet The Moth’s success does surprise, especially since pocket-sized computers dominate our daily narratives and pixel-powered social media addictions control us more than most care to admit. How could something so simple and traditional become so popular in this era of high-octane, technology-driven stories?
Since starting in 1997, The Moth — a not-for-profit storytelling collective from New York City that has become a beloved darling of public radio, podcasts, and live stages the world over — has broadcast more than 10,000 real-life stories from the lips of the people who actually lived them, and this Wednesday, April 6, they are coming to Santa Barbara. “Each show is completely unique. We craft them specifically for the place and time that they happen,” said Maggie Cino, director of The Moth Mainstage and visionary behind this week’s performance. “So this one is just for Santa Barbara. It won’t be like anything anyone has seen before.”
What Is the Moth?
As a child on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, novelist and poet George Dawes Green (The Juror, The Caveman’s Valentine) would get together with friends and family on hot Southern summer nights and try to outdo each other with stories, a practice that many with rural upbringings can surely relate to. They hung out on a screened-in porch and eventually began to call themselves The Moths, a nod to the poetic similarities between the effect a good story has to draw people in and the siren song a flickering light on their fateful porch sang for the moths finding their way in through a hole in the screen. Audiences, to follow the metaphor, are drawn to a good story the way a moth is to a flame.
Living in New York City years later, Green was looking to re-create those summer evenings of his childhood. He began by inviting like-minded folks to his living room in Manhattan to take turns swapping personal stories. The formula was simple and wildly popular; just stand up and tell a true tale from your life that had major meaning to you. Soon enough, The Moth, as the gatherings came to be known in tribute to Green’s youth, began popping up in cafés, clubs, and coffee houses. And its reach has only kept growing. There has been a New York Times best-selling book, a Peabody Award, hundreds of sold-out stage shows both nationally and internationally, regular open-mike nights in dozens of cities, hour-long weekly programing on 400 plus radio stations, and 30 million podcast downloads a year. “All of it is first-person true stories told without notes from the stage,” explained Cino, who has been part of The Moth team for the past decade. “These aren’t memorized monologues from professionals. Anybody could and probably should be on The Moth’s stage.”
In short, programmers curate a “mainstage” show much like a gallery owner might curate a group art show. A theme is picked by an in-house creative committee, something purposely broad yet provocative and attention grabbing. Topics such as “The Ties That Bind,” “Journeys,” “The Dark Side,” and “Un-Silenced” are but a few examples of recent themes. Once a motif is identified, a show is developed around it; five storytellers are handpicked to flesh out the performance, each delivering a 10- to 12-minute intimate telling of a true tale from their lives that dovetails with the theme in some insightful and entertaining — and often unexpected — way. “We really try to get a cross-section of humanity onstage,” said Cino. Some music is added to each piece, a host is enlisted to preside over the live show and serve as a link between the night’s assorted tales, and voilà, The Moth is born anew. “None of it is art directed or scripted. It just is what it is: real people speaking passionately and truly about something that happened to them and changed them forever,” summed up Cino.
As for the actual stars of the shows, the people doing the public soul-baring and storytelling, they are found in a variety of ways, according to Cino. There are the regular Moth StorySLAMS held each week in N.Y.C. and at least once a month in cities such as L.A., Chicago, and Boston, and abroad in places such as London, Sydney, and Dublin, all of them serving as a minor leagues for the Mainstage show. These open-microphone affairs gather together hopeful story spinners under the umbrella of a theme and asks them to literally throw their name in a hat at the start of the event. Judges are then picked from the audience, and 10 people are selected from the “hat” to come onstage and share their five-minute story. The winners of these raucously entertaining and generally standing-room-only get-togethers become the future fodder for Mainstage events (roughly 40 a year worldwide) as well as radio-show programing and podcasts.
There are other ways to get your story into the running: a pitch line that lets people submit an abbreviated version of their story via telephone or online; professional channels such as agents and publicity firms who often reach out to The Moth on behalf of a client; and, of course, the good old-fashioned way — knowing someone who has been or currently is involved with The Moth’s wide-ranging network. “Sometimes it is as simple as someone here saying, ‘Hey, my dentist has a friend who has a story about saving Mother Teresa’s life,’ and just like that, a new story is in the works,” said Cino.
It should, however, be noted that the vibrance and originality of the Mainstage events remain paramount to the way The Moth does business and, as such, a story that has been heard on the radio or via the podcast will never again be brought to life during one of their stage shows. “Our goal is to always have much more of a feel and quality of going to a dinner party than that of going to a show or theater production,” explained Cino. “Fresh, live, and alive is what we are going for each time out.”
Santa Barbara Version Takes Flight
The Lobero Theatre installment of The Moth Mainstage is, at least in part, the direct result of The Santa Barbara Independent’s editor in chief, Marianne Partridge, and her love of the radio program. A longtime listener of both the radio show and the podcast, Partridge beamed recently, “Every time I hear an episode of The Moth, I am thrilled all over again to be a human. The stories and the people telling them give you courage to carry on.” Taking a broader view, she sees The Moth as a perfect complement to The Indy’s guiding ethos and so was eager to help bring the story tour to town. “The main thing for The Independent, from our very first issue 30 years ago, was to always try and build community,” explained Partridge when asked why she wanted to cosponsor the storytelling jamboree. “With these real stories told by normal people, The Moth does just that. It builds community in a larger sense and connects all of us through its humanity.”
To that end, Cino and her team have teased out five storytellers for the Lobero event, all organized around the theme of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” What exactly can you expect from such a theme? Well, according to Cino, all the pieces will riff on the idea of an uncomfortable or unusual or difficult life moment leading to an epiphany of sorts. “It is something we can all relate to. For example, being extremely frustrated by a certain situation that then has a beautiful reveal we could have never imagined,” said Cino.
In addition to enlisting writer, storyteller, and all around funnyman Brian Finkelstein as the host, the Santa Barbara edition of The Moth will feature essayist and psychotherapist Terrance Flynn; multiple StorySLAM winner and comedian David Montgomery; Australian rapper, poet, and young novelist Omar Musa; Iraq war veteran, graduate student, and Purple Heart recipient Jon Nunemaker; and Dame Wilburn, a community educator from Detroit. Beyond that, the folks at The Moth like to keep the evening’s goings-on a bit of a surprise.
“The Moth is a testament to the fact that people still appreciate real things,” said KCRW President Jennifer Ferro. Her radio station, along with The Indy, is cosponsoring the show, a role they have long been playing in Los Angeles, where they help produce at least two Moth Mainstage shows a year. “These stories are so real and so honest that it is impossible to listen to them and not be reminded, ‘Oh, right, we are all the same. We are in this together,’” continued Ferro. Indeed, whether you are listening live or tuned in via headphones or car stereo, it is this ubiquitous and unifying quality of The Moth that is the show’s most heady and lasting legacy — a truth that seems to fly in the face of our current cultural obsession with endlessly and carefully cultivating the portrayal of our individual identities. Or, maybe not. After all, as Cino herself told me, “We will continue to be in business because everybody has a story or two, and The Moth is truly interested in all of them.”
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered: The Moth in Santa Barbara is Wednesday, April 6, at 7 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre. A pre-party for VIP ticket holders takes place at 5:30 p.m. and features complimentary drinks and bites from State & Fig and a live set by KCRW deejay Raul Campos. For more information or to buy tickets, call 963-0761 or go to lobero.com.