If you listen to public radio or podcasts, you’re probably familiar with The Moth Radio Hour. On Friday, October 4, The Moth comes to the Broad Stage with five storytellers, ordinary people sharing extraordinary events that have affected or altered their lives in some way. Often funny, poignant or even painful, they reveal moments of truth in the life of someone you don’t know, but by the end of the night, you’ll feel you’ve shared an essential experience with them.
I spoke with Sarah Austin Jenness, Executive Producer of The Moth.
SS: What is The Moth?
SAJ: I’ve been with The Moth for about 15 years, and I’ve seen it grow and evolve into a movement, creating community through personal stories.
The Moth Radio Hour is the broadcast and podcast version of our live storytelling events. There are Story Slams, where people toss their name in the hat for a chance to tell a five-minute true-life story without notes, and the audience votes on their favorite. There’s the Main Stage, like we’re doing at The Broad Stage tomorrow night, often selected from stories we heard at Story Slams and have worked with the teller to develop.
In this day and age, with everyone on their phones and not really connecting and being scared to even use the telephone, it’s nice to know many people in the world are choosing to connect through personal stories.
VACILLATING BETWEEN ACTION AND REFLECTION
SS: How do you develop a story and storyteller?
SAJ: For every Main Stage story, which makes up the bulk of what’s on the Moth Radio Hour, there’s anywhere from 10-20 hours of crafting and preparation ahead of time. You start with what you think the story is about, but when you’re working with a director and pull all the pieces out, you discover that the backbone of the story is something else entirely.
We’re working with the storyteller to vacillate between the action and the reflection of the story. It’s not just “And then and then and then” or your friend saying, “You’ll never believe what happened to me.” Those can be fun and wild.
But these stories involve some sort of decision, a change, or a shift in the storyteller that alters the course or direction of their lives. It doesn’t necessarily end with everything all wrapped up in a bow, because life doesn’t always work that way
There are lots of phone calls between director and storyteller, we pull all the pieces out, put them all back together, we make sure it’s one story, not three braided together. We like to say life is long but your story has to be 10-12 minutes long. It’s not a speech, it’s not a monologue that you memorize, recite or act out. It’s like talking to 500 strangers as if they were a new friend of your best friend.
People buy tickets to these shows because they know they’re going to hear terrific stories; there are no headliners, so they leave saying, “We liked the Voodoo Priestess the best,” or “The hot dog eating champion stole the show.”
CLOSE TO HOME
SS: What’s the theme this Friday at The Broad Stage?
SAJ: It’s “Close to Home,” and among the storytellers are three people from LA.
One storyteller, Bushra Al-Fusail from Yemen was part of a short community workshop we had in New York, who pitched a 1-minute version of her story after a three-hour introductory session, and we knew we had to work with her. During the Saudi siege of Yemen five years ago, she organized the very first Yemeni women’s bike ride. Without giving too much away, women in their abayas ride over the rubble of a highway that was just bombed two days before.
And Carol Spencer [who wrote “Dressing Barbie” about her 35-year career at Mattel] was one of Barbie’s first fashion designers. She’s 86 and starts her story saying she broke up with her fiancée back in the early 50s when she realized his parents would be making the decisions for them as a couple and knew she didn’t want that.
STORIES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS
SS: What makes a successful pitch?
SAJ: People from all over the world send pitches on our hotline. My advice is do not try to tell your life story in the pitch; pick one scene and really bring us into what was happening. Let us know why only you can tell this story, what specific details and feelings involved with this experience are unique to you. Stories are like fingerprints.
Remember that these are stories that are most revealing about you, they’re not always the prettiest stories. It’s not called “The Butterfly,” it’s called “The Moth,” because moths are a little rough around the edges, as are the stories, on purpose.
The Moth began on a porch on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia where the screens were ripped, and moths would circle around the light as friends shared stories from their lives, well into the night. That’s the feeling we try to convey.
A CONVERSATION WITH JUST ONE PERSON TALKING
In Los Angeles there are three story slams each month; information on dates and locations is at www.TheMoth.org, also home to the pitch line, where you can record your short pitch directly online.
Sarah Austen Jenness concluded our conversation with these thoughts:
“One person described The Moth as a conversation in which one person is talking. But if you listen to The Moth Radio Hour, you can hear the audience reacting, gasping, laughing; it’s remarkable how much the energy of the audience informs the story.
“The Moth is a storytelling organization, but at any given time there are hundreds, thousands, even millions listening. The Moth is also inspiring people to practice the art of listening.”
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.