The first storyteller was probably a caveman who came home one night and told his clan about the wooly mammoth that got away. Panting heavily and frantically waving his arms to re-enact the chase, he watched his audience’s eyes go wide and their mouths fall open, and he thought “Damn! I’ve got ’em!” His descendents have been telling that story, and ones like it, to spellbound audiences ever since.
Hearing a good story is a gift; telling it well is a talent and an art. Whether you’re in an audience of one or a thousand, there’s a great feeling when taking a ride with a storyteller, however wild, poignant, funny, or strange the journey may be.
On August 3, the Moth, the nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling, will come to Martha’s Vineyard for its fifth year, and for the first time to the Performing Arts Center. They’ll present five storytellers — teacher Micaela Blei, writer David Litt, Sudanese survivor Abeny Kucha, and two who will represent the Island: Edgartown Seafood owner Dan Larsen, and Chilmark summer resident/film producer/director (“Bourne Identity”) Doug Liman. Both will share their stories on this year’s theme of “Into the Wild,” about traveling to a place they’ve never been — physically or figuratively — with all the unknowns that entails.
The Moth was started in 1997 by New York transplant poet and novelist George Dawes Green, who missed the storytelling gatherings on the porch back home in Georgia, where moths fluttered in the lights on summer evenings. They began encouraging both the well-known and unheard in New York City to share their true tales. (“Told live and without notes” and “True as affirmed and remembered by the storyteller” are two of the Moth’s descriptive one-liners.) Over the past two decades, the Moth gatherings have expanded around the country, and more recently worldwide. Hopefuls who put their names in a hat are randomly selected to tell their five-minute stories at monthly Moth StorySLAMs, now held in 23 cities around the world. GrandSLAMs periodically gather the winners of the StorySLAMs. The Moth also sponsors storytelling programs and workshops in schools and neighborhoods as a way to build community. Then there’s a Moth Mainstage, like the event held here annually, in which curated shows feature five tellers who develop and shape their stories with Moth directors.
In 2008 the Moth added a podcast, and then began exploring the idea of “going radio.” An organization in a small town on the south coast of Massachusetts turned out to be their best match: Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole. APM had already founded our local NPR station, WCAI, and a radio-program distribution system, PRX. As their website proclaims, they “champion the art of story through the projects and institutions they create.” It was a match made in story land.
APM’s associate director, Viki Merrick, recalled the coming together of the Moth with APM in an interview with The Times. “The Moth had been talking to NPR and some other venues about making a radio hour, and they decided to go with Jay Allison [independent radio producer and executive director of APM],” she said. “We made five hours as a pilot season, and those aired here locally. After that, a lot of other radio stations showed interest and started picking it up.” That interest currently includes 435 stations nationwide, with an estimated audience of 1 million. Moth story directors and producers choose the stories and work in collaboration with radio producers Jay Allison and Viki Merrick to fine-tune the now weekly “Moth Radio Hour.” The show presents a wide range of stories, sometimes with a familiar theme and sometimes extraordinary, but all mesmerizing — like the one about the hardboiled cop who saved a puppy, or the man who crossed the English Channel in a bathtub, or the mother of triplets who decided to become a polar explorer and went on to be part of the first all-women team to reach the North Pole.
Meanwhile, back on our small Island off the south coast of Massachusetts, an Islander would have had to travel to Boston or New York to partake of a Moth event. (We do know of at least one Islander, Jane Loutzenhiser, who voyaged to far-off Boston and won a StorySLAM.) But what about coming here? Five years ago, with the prodding and support of a devoted Moth fan, Islander Kitty Burke, APM and The Moth finally decided that it was time for a Martha’s Vineyard Mainstage. While some of the tellers came from afar, the producers also wanted to highlight local stories, so the Moth canvassed the Island for local tales and tellers — a tradition which continues, pulling stories from the pool of year-round and seasonal presences. After four years, the Island now has its own roster of storytellers who have performed before a Mainstage full house.
Meg Bowles is a senior producer at the Moth, and a co-host of the “Moth Radio Hour” who is also one of the directors for the Island Mainstage. She has found the Island to have a special lure. “For us, it’s like coming home,” she said. “It’s where we started — it’s our roots — because of our work with Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole. And I’ve always found the Island crowd to be really special. I think a lot of people who support us are year-round people, and I feel that there’s something really special about that.”
Some of the locals’ stories have gone on to be broadcast on the “Moth Radio Hour” nationally, and a few Islanders have taken their stories on the road. When the tellers are local, many of us have a continuing interest in the stories and the tellers’ lives. At the first Island Moth in 2012, Cynthia Riggs told the ultimate requited love story of an interrupted romance rekindled after 62 years (she and Howard got married four years ago). The next year, Shirley Mayhew related tales of her earlier adventures in Peru (oh, and by the way, she just put out her third book). Bill Eville told of his family’s journey through his wife’s illness (the Reverend Cathlin Baker is fine now). Charlayne Hunter-Gault told of interviewing Nelson Mandela early in her career. Last year, Paul Munafo told the story of waiting for and finally receiving a liver transplant. He went on to tell that story again at Moth shows in Boston, New Bedford, and Galesburg, Ill. (Just ask him; he’ll tell you he’s gotten a joyfully renewed lease on life.)
Next Wednesday, Doug Liman and Dan Larsen will be added to the list of Island storytellers. The Moth prefers tellers not to reveal too much about their stories beforehand, wanting material to be fresh for the audience. Indeed, when I reached Mr. Larsen at home, he was cagey about what his tale might be (though his wife Marie confirmed that her husband needs little or even no encouragement to start telling a story). But if the unique flavor of past Island Mainstage stories is any indication of what the audience will hear this year, to turn a phrase from that old Jimmy Buffett song, “Oh, the stories they will tell …”
The Moth: Wednesday, August 3, 7:30 pm. Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $40. For tickets and more information, visit mvconcertseries.com.