The Moth is a storytelling godsend. For those who haven’t listened to The Moth Radio Hour on NPR (Sunday nights at 7 on MPBN), here’s how The Moth works: a storyteller takes the stage without any notes and tells a true story for ten minutes or less. Other than that, there aren’t any rules. Their motto: True Stories Told Live. The Law of Simplicity is at work here.
If you listen to The Moth Radio Hour, however, you know that this simple premise conjures up complex stories and emotions.
At the State Theater last Thursday (6.6.13) that complexity was turned up to eleven. By the time I left, I’d experienced such a range of authentic emotions that I needed three fingers of bourbon to detach from the beautiful human muck I’d been wading in all night.
Sitting in my balcony seat before the show, I looked at the single microphone at the front of the stage. I’m use to seeing ten-piece bands with amps and drums and organs scattered around the State Theater’s daunting stage. The juxtaposition of the lone microphone with that mammoth stage gave an added buzz to the room. Instead of a four-piece horn section filling the aural space with melodic lines, it was going to be the fragile human voice telling a story.
The night opened with a violinist playing an instrumental piece. The audience took their seats during the composition, the lights dimmed, and when the music stopped, Dan Kennedy walked to the mic. Kennedy is a Moth-er from the group’s inception back in 1997. He’s a witty, engaging guy, as you might expect from a New York writer. More about him later.
I won’t go into detailed descriptions of all of the stories. You’ll be able to listen to the Portland, Maine show through The Moth podcast. But to understand the 10,000 volts of emotion we were exposed to last Thursday I’ll give a quick recap.
Story one: a mother stumbles upon her daughter’s email in-box and discovers a photograph of an erect penis.
Story two: a guidance counselor replays a pre-Columbine shooting his school survived.
Story three: a woman tells of her sister’s death when they were both children and the guilt she’s carried since.
Story four: a woman raised by her prostitute mother, then foster parents, then her grandparents tells the story of giving her son up for adoption when she was sixteen.
Story five: a NASA pilot recounts captaining the first trip to space after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1985.
All evocative story sketches, but in the wrong hands — which is the danger with all storytelling — they could crumble into sloppy sentimentality.
But not at The Moth.
These storytellers hit the mic with sizzling first lines. I don’t doubt that the storytellers themselves are deeply talented at their craft, but one of the real geniuses of the entire Moth dynasty was the director who works with the storytellers. I didn’t catch her name when Dan Kennedy pointed off stage and asked us to clap for a faceless person. The Moth is dialed in, and the producers and directors deserve a great deal of credit for keeping the storytelling honest, raw, and pointed.
Now back to Kennedy. After the story about the woman whose sister died tragically, I started looking around for the pieces of my shattered heart. As I collected bits of my aorta and right atrium, Kennedy stated, “Back when The Moth started, I thought, ‘All these stories are so funny.’ That was the only night I ever thought that.” The audience let out a collective breath. We laughed. Kennedy added an appropriate levity between stories. This created a rhythm to night. The storyteller ripped out our hearts, and Kennedy, with tact and self-deprecation, placed them back into our respective chest cavities.
The Moth has found a way to move us in ten minutes or less. Listen to the podcast. Tune in to your local NPR station. Go see it live.
Feel the mysterious charge as the stories course through your veins at the speed of sound headed straight for your heart.