This past Saturday at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, a near capacity crowd got the opportunity to peer for a moment into the lives of five very different people and hear remarkable stories that were at times moving, sad, inspiring, and, in every case, very funny in the best possible self-deprecating way.
The event was The Moth on Martha’s Vineyard Mainstage, hosted by The Moth, which, through a series of events and Internet and radio broadcasts, offers slice of life stories that give listeners a chance to get to know people in their own words of 15 minutes or so.
The Moth is a storytelling series founded in 1997 that hosts live Mainstage events in venues throughout the U.S., offers weekly podcasts, and is featured on National Public Radio as the Moth Radio Hour. MothSLAMS — informal storytelling contests — take place in more than 50 cities worldwide. For the past three summers, The Moth has hosted Mainstage events on the Vineyard featuring both locals and national amateur storytellers.
The Moth’s real tagline is True Stories Told Live, and the Vineyard event provided a good example of what they do best — providing a truly genuine and candid alternative to the reality show phenomenon. Reality that’s not only real, but a glimpse of the human condition and lessons learned through trials and triumphs as seen through the eyes of both writers and entertainment professionals and ordinary citizens.
The Vineyard event was bookended by two humorists whose dialogues were laced with joking commentary and wry observations. First up was Arnie Reisman, a regular panelist on NPR’s syndicated comedy quiz show Says You! Mr. Reisman is an Oscar nominated writer, performer, and producer who currently writes a column for the Vineyard Gazette and, along with his wife, national consumer reporter Paula Lyons, has lent his talents to a number of local events.
Mr. Reisman riffed on life as a Jew in a Wasp community and the trials of being an extraordinarily overprotected only child. His story detailed a comically nightmarish evening as the escort of a debutante to an exclusive country club dance. The tale centered on Mr. Reisman’s two sets of parents — both birth parents and surrogate parents — all equally obsessed with navigating a teenage Mr. Reisman safely into adulthood. At one point he cracked that the incident he was describing, “set in motion their locomotive of fear.” The story was full of laughs and set the night off to a rollicking start.
Islander Mary Lou Piland provided the most heartwarming story of the evening, although the tale traversed a rocky road before reaching its happily-ever-after-conclusion. Ms. Piland is the daughter of strict first-generation Italian-American strict Catholic parents who had a hard time coming to terms with their daughter’s black boyfriend.
In an interview after her turn on stage, Ms. Piland, who works in the emergency room at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, said that her parents and husband were in the audience hearing her version of the story for the first time. “I warned my father that he is vilified in the first half,” said Ms. Piland. However, all participants in the real life “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” scenario are now a close-knit family. In a heavy Italian accent, Ms. Piland’s father explained the lesson he gained from his daughter. “I accept people the way they are,” he said, and went on to extoll the virtues of his son-in-law, physician assistant Anthony Piland.
Ms. Piland gained an audition with The Moth on the recommendation of writer and writers’ group leader Cynthia Riggs, who has appeared at Moth Mainstage events both here and in NYC. Ms. Piland developed her story at a Moth workshop on the Vineyard last summer. “They helped me polish my story in such a way that I really wanted to tell it,” she said after the show.
Perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser of the evening was former Camp Jabberwocky counselor, co-director, and current board member Arthur Bradford. His story focused on a long-term relationship he had with a Jabberwocky camper. The story spanned Mr. Bradford’s years with the camp for disabled people through his career as an award-winning writer and Emmy-nominated filmmaker.
Mr. Bradford told the story behind the making of an MTV show and documentary with Ronnie Simonsen, a man whose obsession and ultimate friendship with television star Chad Everett helped him deal with the challenges of cerebral palsy and a diagnosis of terminal leukemia. The story was entertaining, poignant, and the most unique of the evening’s offerings, bringing a very memorable character to life.
At intermission, Mr. Bradford said that his only regret was that the Jabberwocky campers didn’t get a chance to attend. Those who might have remembered the late Mr. Simonsen were not on the Island at the moment and the current group were all at the camp that evening presenting their annual musical.
Mr. Bradford was recruited for the Mainstage through his two Moth StorySLAMs and one GrandSLAM wins. In a post performance interview he said, “I lobbied to be a part of the Vineyard event. I knew that people here would know Jabberwocky.” His mention of the camp drew a round of applause. One of his goals in making the film was to raise awareness of the Vineyard-based camp.
Moth stories tend to feature a life lesson and, in Mr. Bradford’s case, a question raised was the validity of helping someone else fulfill a dream while possibly putting your own interests on hold. After the performance, Mr. Bradford said, “This is my dream. Doing the Moth.”
The two storytellers featured in the second half of the program were both nationally recognized figures. Emmy Award-winning journalist, foreign correspondent, and writer Charlayne Hunter-Gault related her experiences interviewing Nelson Mandela multiple times, including immediately following his release from prison. Her story touched on her long career in the news business and her position as a prominent figure in the civil rights movement in the U.S.
Completing the lineup of stories, bestselling author Adam Mansbach told about the unanticipated success of his first book, “Go The Fuck to Sleep,” which was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Mr. Mansbach proved himself as outrageously funny in person as he is in his multiple books and videos. Commenting on his surprisingly swift rise to fame, he quipped, “I now had a public persona as a fake parenting expert and I wanted to ride that gravy train as long as I could.”
The evening was hosted by Ophira Eisenberg, comedian, writer, and host of NPR’s weekly comedy trivia show “Ask Me Another,” who provided funny one-liners of her own, including a few jokes about Vineyard life. Musical interludes were provided by composer and violinist Carla Kihlstedt, a veteran of folk/pop, contemporary classical, and experimental music.
For more information on The Moth, visit themoth.org.