Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I went to the Moth, or we applaud the storyteller; we applaud the story

Never Done: I went to the Moth, or we applaud the storyteller; we applaud the story

Faithful readers know that a couple weeks ago Heath and I waited for over an hour -- in the rain -- to get into The Moth: True Stories Told Live storytelling salon, but were foiled by the recent innovation of pre-sales. I was determined to get in before the end of my Never Done year, but time is running out (between their schedule, my upcoming travel, and the coming of yom kippur.) I wasn't able to leave work as early as I wanted to to guarantee a spot, but I got in line by 6 for a 7:30 show (same as last time, but closer to the front this time.)

I'd be lying if I said the time moved quickly -- it didn't -- but at least I was productive. I talked on the phone, I did some work email, I read some in my book (A Visit from the Goon Squad) and I talked with the young people in line behind me, who had a friend on the Moth inside who promised them great seats, which reassured me that I would get in, since I was in front of them.

They also handed out little pieces of paper with a question -- What's a time in your life when you were fiercely motivated? -- and asked us to fill that in, so that we could participate in the evening even if we didn't want to get up to tell a story. The idea was that the host would read them in between stories, as little interstitial moments. I couldn't think if what to write. I have been fiercely motivated so many times that, frankly, I got overwhelmed. Breaking my own badminton birdie bouncing records? Learning Yiddish? Lying my way out of humiliating moments? What to pick? Eventually I put it away and went back to my book, and decided to jot something down at the last minute if it came to me. It did. Just as I approached the door, I wrote: I waited in line three (changed to two) times to get into the Moth. This is my first time getting in. I wanted to say three because I knew it was funnier and more impressive and made a better story. But it wasn't true, so I wrote over it and turned it into two, which was the truth. But later, when the host did in fact pick my slip and read it aloud, my poor handwriting messed him up anyhow, and he ended up reading, I waited in line one time to get into the Moth. This is my first time getting in. And then he made fun of it because it didn't make any sense, and said I'd probably leave at the half. This got me thinking about how true -- and how exaggerated -- the stories were that people were telling.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I got inside, the place was already packed, and it looked like there was standing room only. But I found a table with one empty seat, and asked the people there if I could join them, and they said yes. It turns out that all the tables were full because, of course, the people who pay extra to not have to stand in line, get to come in early and take all the seats. I mean, it did work out for me, but I might have been the last line waiter to rest my tush -- and I had been outside for 90 minutes. (I am putting on my arts presenter hat now, and thinking about ethical considerations for audiences. I do think it's ethical to have different levels of ticket pricing, but I don't think it's ethical to set the levels such that the people who pay more literally get to take most of the available seating -- or whatever is comparable in other venues.) But I did stand in line, and I did get a seat, and eventually the show got going.

It was hosted by Brad Lawrence, a storyteller, burlesque performer, and man of many other writing credits. It was an open slam -- which is to say that people could put their names in a hat, whether or not anyone knew if they were any good, and if their name was drawn, they got to be one of ten performers for the evening. The judges were three teams of people who were selected from the audience. The stories would be judged on three criteria. 1) were they true? 2) did they have a beginning, a middle, and an end? and 3) did they stick to 5 minutes? Also, 4) did they stick to the theme, which this night, was Drive.

Drive can be explored through just so many lenses. Ambition, golfing, sex drive, driving a car. I expected a lot of esoteric interpretations of Drive, but all the stories had to do with cars.

1) Lana went to a Jewish speed dating event and ended up going to sing karaoke with a man, only to find that he had also invited another woman. She assumed the other woman was a tagalong, and so Lana took the front seat of the car, but when when she saw the way the guy looked at the other woman when she was singing, she knew it was the other way around

2) Bridgette's mother always demanded that she call when she got somewhere, so her mom would know she had not landed in a ditch. One day Bridgette literally landed her car in a ditch.

3) When Jefferson's dad gave him a Chevette, he also gave him three rules: Don't drink and drive, don't smoke in the car, and never let anyone else drive the car. He let a girl drive it, and it ended up going through a wall, into an apartment. And it's not the only thing he's ruined in the name of love.

4) Max used to drive around and shoplift all the time. (OK, this one -- while not as well constructed, actually was about a drive to steal.)

5) Jim wanted to fit in in his working class neighborhood in the Bronx. But when he finally got the chance (by asking some shady characters to helpf his car troubles disappear) he realized he was really still a kid from Westchester.

6) Johanna's dad owned a car dealership. She thought they were well off. But when the time came to move and the moving van was almost hijacked by black sedans, she learned the family was actually 6 months behind on the rent.

7) Julianne threw her wedding ring out at Exit 7 of the New Jersey Thruway.

8) Molly was a rule follower, to the letter. When her high school friends want to ditch a party to go to the beach, she calls her mom to ask permission, and quashes the whole adventure.

9) Joshua was driving his family to Chelsea Piers, but left his wallet on the top of the car and lost it on FDR Drive. Over the next days, he makes his wife get out and gather his credit cards that have been strewn along the side of the road.

10) While Camille is in England for work, she learns many words that are different in British English from American English. When a perverted cabbie asks her if she wants to see his scar, she can't resist finding out what it really means.

I enjoyed the stories. I enjoyed people's confidence. I enjoyed that three of the story tellers (Lana, Max, Julianne) were doing it for the first time. I thought about what I would tell. I thought about the significance of telling a rehearsed story in front of a live audience. Brad would tell little stories about Drive in between the big stories, and he would read aloud the slips of papers that we filled out while waiting in line -- and he would deconstruct them. Often word by word, often imbuing meaning where it was clearly not meant. Brad is a good performer -- with a quick
wit and focused mind. But he's a mocking comic -- his humor comes from making fun of people, which while skilled and impressive, rarely gets a laugh out of me. But you know who didn't he mock? The ten storytellers who got up on stage. He treated them with respect and I would say professionalism, frequently reminding the audience that, "We applaud the storyteller; we applaud the story."

And that is a lesson to take away.

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