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After Work: Urban Tales Told On A Summer Night

Dona Gibbs’s account of a New York story group will make you long to stand up and tell your own tale.

For more of Dona’s joyous columns please click on After Work in the menu on his page.

There’s a softness to summer nights in the rural South. The volume on crickets’ chirrups is cranked up. From time to time a hound howls, catching the scent of a raccoon. The creak of the rocking chair is amplified. Another ice tea is poured, sweet tea of course.

The heat hangs heavy and the porch is the best place to be. That’s where the stories are told.

The South has a long, great storytelling tradition. George Dawes Green, a novelist and poet from St. Simon’s Island off the coast of Georgia remembers the tales spun on his friend Wanda’s porch.

Several holes in the screen allowed moths to creep in and circle around the light.

Green found a parallel between the moths attracted to the light that flew close, sometimes too close, and the best stories he heard. Personal stories. Ones that flew close to the bright light of life’s truths.

An idea took shape. Why not get urbanites to spin their stories? He invited people to his New York apartment, prompted them to tell their stories: personal adventures, triumphs and failures, tragedies and comedies.

The idea caught on. Soon there were more people than there was space in his apartment.

They moved to other venues. Green named the group The Moth.

That was ten years ago.

The Moth estimates that over 2,000 stories have been told with total audience of 60,000 people in bars and cafes and in larger venues such as the venerable Players on Gramercy Park, an actors’ haunt, and the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, whose main reading room has been second home to many writers. The Moth has now has story telling sessions in Los Angeles as well.

The Moth sponsors two kinds of storytelling events: story slams and staged events.

I made my way downtown recently to a Moth Story Slam held in a fabled bar, The Bitter End.

“That’ll be six bucks,” the burly man said at the door. Cheap for a night’s entertainment.

Monday evening at 7:15 the place was packed I pushed my way to a back table and squeezed in under an Arlo Gutherie poster. The Bitter End probably hasn’t been redecorated in over forty years. No doubt there’d be a big outcry if such a thing occurred.

The place has been a career starter for all kinds of musicians and spoken work artists. The walls have that yellowish tinge of years’ of nicotine left over for the time smoking was allowed in such venues.

It was true audience participation. People who wanted to get up on stage and tell a story dropped their names in a hat. People who wanted to judge angled for the honor.

Seven thirty, the stories began. And what stories they were. They included a coming to America tale, a coming of age story, a coming to New York yarn which involved a larger-than-a cat sized rat, a feisty mom story and a gentle tale of a kite caught in a tree.

The stories were no longer than six minutes. At the five-minute mark the storyteller is given a warning, a low chord bowed on the violin. At the six minutes, a high- pitched chord is sounded.

The storytellers aren’t allowed notes. A true beginning, middle and end scores high. An affecting story is a must. The audience is supportive, but when the time comes to step on stage, it’s got to be terrifying.

An MC keeps things moving along. Usually the MCs are drawn from a rare breed of writer – outgoing and energetic.

I’ve seen young American writers such as Sara Barron, Jonathan Ames and Andy Borowitz perform as MCs. Yes, they are as funny on stage as on the page.

The three teams of volunteer judges award marks after each performer. The winner gets a tote bag and a t-shirt or the like.

The Moth has heard all kind of storytellers: a police officer, a pickpocket, a voodoo queen, a car salesman and a professional poker player to name a few.

Make no mistake: these are not standup comics. These are people telling stories from the heart.

When the judges’ votes were tallied, the winner was a man who had come to New York from Wyoming. He had escaped death at the hands of the violent street gang, The Latin Kings.

After a lengthy hospital stay his mother urged him to come home.

He told her, “You can always die anywhere. This city saved me.”

The audience, generous and supportive with its applause for each performer, gave him an especially thunderous ovation.

What courage he had. And, come to think of it, what courage every storyteller had. They told stories that deserved to step off the porch and on to the stage.

If you’re in New York, I suggest you check to see if there’s a Moth event during your stay, and sit down for a bit of New York you might have never expected.


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