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Moth Performers Share Storytelling Secrets

Courtesy of The Moth

The Moth is bringing its mainstage series to St. Louis on Friday.

The Moth frequently hosts an open mic series, or “story slams,” across the country. Storytellers put their names in a hat, 10 people are chosen and a group of judges from the audience pick a winner. The winners then compete in a “grand slam.”

Friday’s show is a curated approach — five storytellers have been selected and will share stories around a central theme: high anxiety.

Ahead of the show, we talked to a senior producer and three Moth storytellers about their craft.

“I think everybody has a story to tell. I think everybody has several stories to tell,” Moth senior producer Maggie Cino said.

Finding your story

“I think the most important thing for a great story is that it is something that is very important to the storyteller because the stories that we want to hear and the stories that we connect most with are stories that are very important for the storyteller to tell,” Cino said.  

Al Letson said his first Moth story, about the death of his daughter, was one of those must-tell stories.

“When I told that story, I felt like I needed to really tell that story not for me, but for the memory of my daughter,” Letson said. “It was really important for me that I do that story. And now that I’ve done it, I don’t feel like I really ever want to do it again.”

Other stories are more light-hearted, but they still speak to what Letson called “the human condition.”

“Even for stories that are rompy and comic, it’s that emotional attachment and that being able to speak to something that is both particular and universal that makes the strongest stories,” Cino said. “One idea that comes up over and over is what are the moments that really make you? What are the moments where, if that hadn’t happened or it happened in a much different way, you might be a different person living a slightly different life? Because it’s those big moments and those moments of transition that often make really good stories.”

“You have to have had some perspective and put some craft into it and just a bit of distance to be able to create a story that you’re putting out on stage for the point of other people to hear it, rather than you’re still working through whatever the emotional situation is or you need to make clear choices to tell a good story and that requires some hindsight.”

Telling Your Story

There’s a difference between sharing a story with a friend, and telling it on stage.

“When these stories hit the stage, I believe that they have to be in a state where they’re being consumed as entertainment,” said Ophira Eisenberg, who will be the host for The Moth in St. Louis — a role she describes as “storytelling sorbet.” Eisenberg also hosts NPR’s “Ask Me Another.”

For The Moth, storytellers are encouraged to tell stories, not recite them.

“A story is always being told and retold and thought and rethought and lived and relived,” Cino said. “Each time you tell it, it’ll always be a little bit different. We honor that part of the truth and that part of the process.”

It’s also important to tell personal stories, not stories about someone else.

“I always try to make sure that it’s clear to the audience that whatever I’m talking about, the story I’m telling, it is from my perspective,” storyteller Brad Lawrence said. “I’m the main character and it is my truth of a set of facts. And that it’s not going to be how anyone else involved in the situation necessarily saw what happened. It was my experience of how these events took place.”

Storytellers also must figure out what works and what doesn’t.

“I think there are times where you have to, and I’ve learned this through The Moth, where if you’re telling something that’s very important or sad or emotional, you have to allow yourself to not make a joke,” Eisenberg said. “’Cause it makes it more powerful.”

Audience Participation

A story’s audience can make a difference in how a story is told. Eisenberg described Moth audiences as compassionate cheerleaders.

“Most of the time you’re putting quite a lot of vulnerability out there,” she said. “You just have this feeling from the audience where they are rooting for you. It’s one of the coolest feelings, where you feel all of these people listening to you are like ‘Please tell me you get the guy or you find the money or you get the job.’ They are so on your side. You end up in this dialogue.”

“As a performer, you just step into this warm place where everyone just really wants you to succeed,” Letson said.

A Story’s Effects

Moth stories, similar to StoryCorps stories, have reputations as emotional rollercoasters. Those are the stories that stick with listeners, Letson said.

“Whether it’s a funny story or it’s a story that is traumatic, all of the stories, because they connect to that larger question of what it is to be a human being, all of it means something,” he said. “So it moves people in different ways.”

That also affects the storyteller.

“We tell stories with The Moth, and there is a definitive ending, but the stories never really end — you still have to live that life, you still have to have all of that experience that you carry with you,” Letson said.

“The Moth Radio Hour" airs at 7 p.m. Sundays on St. Louis Public Radio; “Ask Me Another” airs at noon Saturdays.

Moth Stories

Five storytellers will be in St. Louis Friday. Listen to previous stories from them and host Eisenberg:

Related Event

"The Moth in St. Louis"

  • When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19, 2014
  • Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis
  • Cost: $50
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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