Judged by people, hosted by pros
by Sally Mitani
From the January, 2018 issue
Most people know the Moth through the Moth Radio Hour. National Public Radio latched onto this quirky gem--where amateurs tell stories on a given theme--in 2009, but it began a decade before it became a radio show, in the living room of poet George Dawes Greene, who wanted to revive the Southern custom of porch-sitting and tale-swapping (while moths banged at the screens--hence the name). In its 2017 maturity, TheMoth.org bulldozer dishes up storytelling by the ton, in the form of live events, blogs, podcasts, and assorted other media preparations, of which the Moth Radio Hour is only a small, but highly effective, part.
The real grassroots base of the Moth is the StorySLAM that takes place in twenty-five cities around the world, with Ann Arbor as one of its more active franchises. StorySLAM happens here twice monthly. The process of recruiting both storytellers and judges is scrupulously random, fair, and too complicated to go into here; see TheMoth.org if you want to do more than spectate.
This is not the style of storytelling seen in children's programming, with exaggerated facial expressions and costumes. It's more like improv or stand-up in its relaxed connection with the audience and casually adult content. A StorySLAM consists of ten contestants telling five-minute stories around a previously announced theme. There's no prize, but winners can advance to the GrandSLAM.
Here's a surprise about listening to storytelling, especially in a contest setting. It's less about feeling the art and more about giving the left side of your brain a workout. Whether you want to or not, you end up examining how words do their job. How does a badly told story with a cracking good point stack up against one that has knockout delivery and trivial content? The winning story on December 4 (at a slam themed "Dirt") was not the one I would have chosen: a first-person confession of sexual abuse at a private school, whose topicality seemed
to have stolen a sympathy vote from the judges. The people I was with unanimously would have chosen the guy from Cleveland, whose father outmaneuvered the drain commission.
I'm guessing that at least three of the contestants that night were not only regular StorySLAM-ers, but also comedy open-mike regulars, who had massaged a tale told in another venue into that night's theme, but the lack of monetary reward and the random drawing of contestants naturally limits the competition to amateurs, even if they're good ones. (And the fear of total humiliation in front of 200 people places a floor at the other end.)
StorySLAM is ably hosted by warmly energetic Amir Baghdadchi and coolly deadpan Patricia Wheeler, who both genuinely embrace and welcome first-time storytellers and briskly slap them with a list of rules that let them know this is a ticketed event, not show-and-tell at the Montessori school.
Because of the "Dirt" theme, the December 4 slam was predictably heavy on blue humor. I saw no children there, but one of the people in my party asked Patricia Wheeler if he could have brought his ten-year-old. She said: "if it's OK with you, it's OK with me."
This month's slams are on January 2 and 16 at Zingerman's Greyline on Huron.
[Originally published in January, 2018.]
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