Mon 23 Jan 2012
The first time I listen to The Moth’s podcast of Alan Rabinowitz’s ‘Man and Beast’, I do so because my fiancé has emailed me a link from work; I just listened to this Moth on the way in. It’s quite wonderful. I end up sobbing into a sink full of dishes, looking something like the poster girl for contemporary Australian domesticity.
The second time is in an American hotel room. Same result, sans kitchen sink, sans fear of becoming my mother.
The inner workings of The Moth lie behind a nondescript door on Broadway, New York City. Go up a flight of stairs and turn left at the impressive, if slightly ominous, metal moth sculpture. Here, I speak with Artistic Director Catherine Burns, who first started working with The Moth in 2002, after winning one of the StorySLAMs with a tale about accidentally driving her friend’s car off a cliff. Much of her time at The Moth has been spent helping guests to structure their anecdotes-condensing them to the crucial details, finding a beginning, middle and end, and working out what it is they hope to leave the audience with. Stories are told without notes, “true as remembered by the storyteller and that is all we promise you,” says Catherine. “It’s one of our little -isms.”
As with many cultural institutions, The Moth had its genesis in homesickness. When founder George Dawes Green moved from Georgia to New York City in the late 1990s, he became nostalgic for the summertime storytelling evenings held on a friend’s porch in St. Simons Island, where moths flitted in through a hole in the screen door.
In New York, he found that no-one had time to listen to anyone finish a sentence, let alone tell a story, and set about recreating the moth-thick evenings he had left behind.
What started out as an event in the lounge room of Green’s 17th Street apartment spread to cafes, clubs and to 950-seat venues such as Cooper Union. More importantly, it spread to airwaves, to podcasts and radio broadcasts, and to other lounge rooms in other countries and the various intimacies of car stereos, iPods and dinnertime conversation.
The third time I listen to Alan Rabinowitz’s story it is late on a Sunday night, and I am in the passenger seat of a van hurtling along I-88 from Chicago to Iowa, one of six international writers returning to our temporary home of Iowa City after a brief stint of cultural development in the ‘city of the big shoulders’. We’re racing a storm, lightning sheeting the sky to the west. From the back seats there are murmurings of Mandarin and Hebrew, the van partitioned by language.
‘If I get teary, you have to promise not to laugh,’ I tell the driver while skipping through the tracks on a compilation of The Moth’s live recordings.
So far stories of baby-biting aunts, arranged marriages, fencing tournaments and relationship meltdowns have accompanied us across the state of Illinois. But ‘Man and Beast’ specifically demands sharing. It has everything that makes a story great: triumph over adversity, personal growth, wild animals.
Rabinowitz begins: ‘I was five years old, standing in the old Great Cat House at the Bronx Zoo, staring into the face of an old female jaguar.’
And I feign greater interest in the sheet lightning, because, as with all great stories, the power has not been diminished by the retelling-the relistening, in this instance.
When asked what makes a good story, Catherine also cites ‘Man and Beast’ as a favourite. “This may sound obvious but I think a lot of people still don’t know this-to tell a great story there needs to be change in the storyteller over the course of the story. That’s what we look for. Alan is a perfect example of the extremes. The reason that story works is that it’s not just that this stuttering child goes on to be the voice of the animals, it’s that he has to speak before parliament and if he stutters, all will be lost. So his ultimate test comes to literally be their voice, and that’s part of why it’s such a perfect story. I mean it’s so crazy that it’s true. It’s almost unbelievable.”
An evening at The Moth may include tales from professional raconteurs, such as Richard Price, Neil Gaiman, Sam Shepard, Margaret Cho or Susan Duncan, alongside people who have never spoken publicly before. Despite ever-growing popularity, Catherine is emphatic about the necessity of keeping live audiences intimate- a seating capacity of 250 is the standard.
“We don’t want to be big for the sake of being big. You can have people tell stories on a small stage that could not get up at Cooper Union, first-time people, and these are people whose voices are very important. It’s important to have a platform where you can have a Nigerian immigrant who struggles with English get up on stage and have the courage to tell their story.
“One of the great things about the podcasts and the radio is if we can just get that recording, then millions of people can hear their stories. There could be 150 people in the room-there could be ten people in the room-but if they tell it beautifully and connect with the crowd, if you could just create a space for somebody to go out and have the courage to be vulnerable and tell their story, then that recording can live on. That’s probably been the biggest change to The Moth in fifteen years-through the audio now, the stories get out there much more.”
Personal stories are how we gain access to larger issues; they provide the foundations for what may otherwise be too unwieldy to comprehend or internalise. War, economic collapse, man-made or environmental disaster-in Rabinowitz’s case, the importance of conservation for a rapidly declining species-without personal stories to provide us with a scaffolding, these are simply words, intellectual sheet lightning; ideas we can understand in a broad sense, but not engage with on an emotional level.
“That may be the greatest thing The Moth does,” says Catherine. “The final legacy of The Moth may be to say, let’s create spaces in our society to listen. Where we really come together is finding the commonality and not just the differences… storytelling does that in a very simple way, especially if somebody is telling a story that’s not meant to be political, that’s just meant to be their experience. People can connect with that and sometimes see the other side of things. Even if they don’t change their mind, they might see the other side.”
You can find a vast selection of The Moth’s beautiful stories at themoth.org, where you can also subscribe to their weekly podcast, the greatest thing ever to happen to commutes. If you ever see your editor crying on a tram, The Moth is likely to blame.
Picture: Sarah Stacke