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True Stories: A New York Phenomenon

The simple concept of having people stand on a podium and tell real-life, autobiographical stories, is all the rage in New York as testified by the wildly popular events organized by the now legendary storytelling collective The Moth.

Written by Micha Wertheim

The queue in New York’s SoHo reaches far beyond the corner of Crosby Street 126, a bookshop which, tonight, will transform into a small theatre. Those still queuing an hour before the program starts will most likely not get in. Over three hundred people kill time, gliding their fingers across their iPhone touch-screens. Music trails through white threads between their ears and their iPhones, shutting them off from the outside world. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they are doing anything they can to avoid communicating with each other. But nothing could be further from the truth. In one hour, all these little machines will be switched off and a number of these people will take to the bookshop’s provisional stage to share a personal story with the other visitors.

© Matt Bresler

Listening to people tell their real-life, autobiographical stories, is all the rage in New York. A craze which I first tapped into via my favourite podcast This American Life. Every now and then, the show includes recordings of people telling personal stories to a small audience. That’s how I discovered the tale of a former spokesperson for Bill Clinton, and the first trip he ever took abroad in the president’s service. During this state visit to Russia, the spanking new spokesman ran into an old friend with whom he got so drunk that he missed Air Force One the next day. Try explaining that to your new boss, who might just have enough on his plate already – what with the Lewinsky scandal and Kosovo bombings.

The story had extra potency because it was told by the man who had experienced it all first-hand. It was told, I discovered afterwards, during a storytelling evening organized by The Moth.

The Moth had its own podcast too.  Every week, the organizers of this live storytelling evening, put one of the stories online. While one week, we might hear from someone who became the victim of aspiring gangsters as they tried to stab him to death by way of initiation, the following week might feature a scientist who became so attached to his lab rats that his research began to disintegrate. A woman describes how her mother died while she was serving seventeen years in prison; a school pupil talks about the day he revealed to his classmates that he was gay. Almost every speaker ends their stint on the podium, by sharing a lesson they gained from their experience.

The simple concept of having people stand on a podium and tell autobiographical stories, seems to have its roots with the author George Dawes Green. When Dawes Green moved to New York from the South in the Nineties, he missed his Georgian veranda where his friends had gathered often, sharing stories until deep in the night. New Yorkers, apparently, had to be pulled over the threshold. Dawes Green decided to invite a few friends over to his house to tell stories. Rules of the game were that stories had to be told freestyle, and they had to be autobiographical.

That was twelve years ago. Over twelve years, the storytelling evenings expanded to become what is now known as The Moth. A pan-American, non-profit organization which puts on storytelling events, and records them for radio broadcast.

Charmed by the simplicity of the idea, Paulien Cornelisse, Jan Jaap van der Wal and I decided to start Echt Gebeurd (True Story) once a month, inviting people to take to the podium and tell their own stories. So far, these have made for extraordinary Sunday afternoons – despite the fact that every month we have to remind the speakers as well as the public that we don’t want to hear conferences, but real-life true stories.

Back to New York. After a year, I wanted to know what such a storytelling evening entailed, in the city where it all began. The open podiums seem to be the most popular of The Moth’s events. I try twice, but never make it past the door because the night’s extreme popularity. Luckily, my fellow queue-ers know about other, lesser-known podiums where real-life stories can be heard.

Like Risk!, a weekly night on the Lower East Side where comedian Kevin Allison gathers friends every Thursday, to tell a story which has never before been told.

My very first storytelling evening in New York, at Risk! is also completely packed. Most of the storytellers seem to have their roots in comedy. But the evening bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to a night at an average comedy club.

Allison asks his guests to share stories which they’ve never had the guts to share with anyone else, ever. Because the comedians are not obliged to make people laugh, the mood is completely different. A tall, blond man tells the story of a disastrous audition he had for the lead supporting role in the film Bruno. From the start, it’s obvious that the casting director and the director are in the throes of a personal disagreement, and that he has absolutely no chance of getting the job – but nonetheless he must perform all the tasks required of him. Then Ophira Eisenberg takes to the podium. A Canadian, who shamelessly shares the story of how she told her high school boyfriend that she was raped, to avoid admitting she had been unfaithful. Fear of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and rejection come together in ten hilarious and compelling minutes.

Eisenberg has apparently been working as a comedian for years, but only broke through since the inception of the storytelling craze. She’s also a popular guest at The Moth. She invites me to The Liar Show. An evening in a cellar in the West Village where four people tell a story, only one of which is made up. The audience can ask questions, and then take a guess at who the liar is. I find this formula less appealing because you’re so busy figuring out who the liar is, that you don’t have as much focus on the stories themselves. Eisenberg tells a hilarious yarn about how she returned to her hometown after ten years, to perform for the first time. What should have been a moment of triumph, turns into an awkward reunion with her former classmates.

Via Eisenberg, I get invited to another one of her events, the StorySLAM also organized by The Moth. The StorySLAM seems to me to be the most popular of all the storytelling podiums. The bookshop which functions as a theatre, is packed to the rafters. People are literally crammed on the floor, among the bookshelves. Twenty-five speakers have signed up to be able to tell their stories. But only ten will make it to the podium. The theme of the evening is “break-ups”. The standard of storytelling is devastatingly brilliant, pretty much across the board. If a speaker spends longer than five minutes on a story, a lady blows a whistle to indicate that it needs rounding up. As listeners of the Podcast will know, the formula is: true life stories with a moral. At the end, the audience decides who has the best storytelling skills. The winner then goes through to the legendary final round.

The public’s hunger for stories, the enthusiasm of the storytellers, and the energy in the bookshops and cellars where these evenings take place, reminds me of the early days of stand-up comedy in New York. When comedians like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl broke with the tradition of punchline-heavy gags, to entertain their audience with subversive opinions, packaged as jokes. At the time, stand-up was the voice of counter-culture. The Moth plays a similar role. It gives a voice to a counter-culture that seems to be fed up with opinions. The Moth is subversive because it offers a platform for small, everyday stories which would otherwise be drowned out by today’s media maelstrom. Judging by the long queues, there seems to be an overwhelming demand for true stories.

Do you have a story, or would you like to listen?
Echt Gebeurt in Toomer every third Sunday of the month at 4pm.
http://echtgebeurd.comedytrain.nl/subscribe/

Podcasts:
www.themoth.org
www.risk-show.com

www.thislife.org