OU can’t beat a good story. That’s certainly what The Moth has discovered. The New York storytelling club has become a cultural phenomenon since its first show sold-out without advertising in 1997.
Each year almost 25m people download its podcasts. It returns to Dublin for its second live Irish show tomorrow.
The Moth’s concept is simple. People go up on stage and tell unscripted stories within a set time. “After you’ve been on stage for 10 or 11 minutes, the violin plays,” says founder George Dawes Green. “The first time, it plays softly and then a minute or two later, it comes back in and plays a little louder.
“If the storyteller continues to go on, then we play louder and louder. We did have a famous incident where the timekeeper/musician wasn’t being aggressive enough — the story had gone on too long — so I just walked up to the musician and yelled, ‘Play!’”
The Moth has had all kinds of storytellers, from astronauts to voodoo priestesses, from pickpockets to presidential aides, as well as celebrities like Frank McCourt, Salmon Rushdie, George Plimpton, and Ethan Hawke. It mixes tears with laughter with tears.
The actress Lili Taylor’s description of the realisation her therapist of 12 years suffered from a rare condition in which he obsessed and tried unsuccessfully to amputate his leg is laugh-out-loud funny.
A story by zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, about how speaking to animals helped him overcome a stutter that stopped him speaking properly until his twenties, leaves a lump in the throat. It’s a favourite story by The Moth’s artistic director, Catherine Burns.
Last September, Ireland’s maiden live show featured comedian and Irish Examiner columnist Colm O’Regan spinning a yarn about the time he faced being sued for telling a joke about Ireland’s property crash.
Tomorrow’s audience will get to hear a story by the Holocaust survivor, Tomi Reichental.
“It’s interesting — you never quite know when you meet somebody whether or not they will turn out to be a really powerful raconteur,” says Green.
“I would have thought that Malcolm Gladwell, because he has that kind of scientific mind, I would have suspected that he would not be a good storyteller. And yet he’s turned out to be one of our most brilliant and original raconteurs.”
Green cites several ingredients that go into making a good story. “Great storytellers break a writing rule — they switch tenses a lot during the story. Not all storytellers, but a lot of them.
They’ll start off in the past tense: ‘I went to Europe. I was all by myself, and it was during the Gulf War. I was taking a train’ and cut to: ‘I step onto the train. I step into a car. There’s a family of four. I sit down and the father is looking at me in a way that makes me feel really uncomfortable.’ You’re immediately sucked in by switching to the present tense — you’re there with me.”
Burns says people also do the reverse and they use tense to distance themselves from a story. “In extreme cases, we’ve had a woman in London who was a child on the Kindertransport during the Second World War and was one of the children who had been saved and shipped to England.
“She was still traumatised from what happened — she never saw her family again. I couldn’t get her to stop telling the story in the third person. It was her way of protecting herself from the emotion because telling a story in the first person drops you back into the emotion of where you were that day.
“For a story, as opposed to a lecture, we always think there needs to be some change in the storyteller as a result of the events that they’re telling. That is the way we define Moth-style storytelling — that there is some sort of a crisis for them that gets resolved.”
Follow us on instagram [at]mothstories to see more portraits from @KevinPenczak's series of people listening to #TheMoth.— The Moth (@TheMoth) April 6, 2015
Sinead Burke will tell a story at the Dublin Moth event. She describes herself as a ‘little person’, the favoured term referring to people with dwarfism. “At 13, little people can have an operation,” says Burns.
“It’s very painful and it takes a year, but it can make you up to six inches taller. She has to decide whether or not to undergo that operation. The crisis of the story is, will she physically alter her body?”
A detail that throws the listener is also a wonderful way of grabbing attention, adds Burns. “Great storytelling is often in the details. It’s one thing for Sinead to say, as someone who’s under 4ft tall, ‘I struggle because the world was not built for me’. It’s a general statement. But then you hear that she can’t reach an ATM or a light switch.
“She has an amazing fashion blog, but trying on clothes is a huge problem for her. Dressing room doors in department stores, especially in New York, are meant to go to a regular person’s knee, but when Sinead stands there, she’s exposed from the waist down.”
The best stories, too, tend to be the ones in which the storyteller’s ego takes a back seat.
“Usually the thing that needs to be brought out by people is vulnerability. The stories that are the great successes at The Moth are ones where the storyteller presents himself generally as the crazy one surrounded by good people who are trying to help him, but then we’ll get some celebrities who will come in to tell stories and they wanna tell a story in which they are surrounded by crazy people and it’s how they manage to survive. Those are the stories that don’t work well at The Moth.”
“My mother had to go out of town a couple of times and he would take me on dates with other women, and he would say: ‘If you tell your mother, I’m gonna kick your ass.’ But I thought it was great — this guy is so cool. I remember I rolled joints for him for this other girl.”—, recalling times with his mother’s boyfriend when he was a seven-year-old boy
“I stood there in the lobby and I remember seeing my mother come down this long hallway toward me... and then she recognised who it was, and she turned and walked away again... Two and a half weeks later, a black funeral wreath was delivered to me at my office with a note that said: ‘In memory of our son.’ ” —, after coming out to his parents
“She looked at me, removed her oxygen mask, and said: ‘Do you love me enough to trade places?’ ” —