Drawn to the light – The Moth attracts over 1,000 people to the Tabernacle

Buddy Vanderhoop tells a whopper. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

“There are no video screens or exploding robots,” Moth Radio Hour producer Jay Allison said while opening The Moth on Martha’s Vineyard event at the Tabernacle last Saturday. “There’s not even a script or props or costumes. Just storytelling.”

The idea that folks living in the digital age could find plain, old-fashioned storytelling compelling enough to hold their attention is the idea that the creators of The Moth Radio Hour were banking on when, in 2009, they launched the series featuring writers and amateur raconteurs relating incidents or events that changed their lives in some way.

The simple formula proved so successful that The Moth now airs on more than 200 National Public Radio stations, and the live events — a few dozen a year across the U.S. and elsewhere — attract sellout crowds.

Such was the case last weekend when The Moth came to Martha’s Vineyard for the second time. Last August, the event held at The Union Chapel was so popular that organizers opted to move to the larger capacity Tabernacle in the heart of the Campground. Shortly before showtime, a line snaked around the building while inside the open-air auditorium was packed. By 8 pm the Tabernacle was completely filled except for a few spaces in the last rows of benches.

All of these folks — more than 1,500 — had come out to enjoy the simplest and most ancient form of entertainment. As Mr. Allison said, “Your attention these days is the most precious of commodities. Everyone wants it to sell you something. I’m grateful to you for coming out just to listen.”

The audience was rewarded for their faith in the power of the story. During the two and a half hour event, they were treated to a variety of storytellers and topics that ranged from family dynamics: a parent trying to wrap her head around the world of her teenage daughter, and a young family coping with cancer, to stories told from unique perspectives on the world: a fishing charter captain’s tale of a near tragic sea voyage, and a former presidential speechwriter’s attempts to encourage Bill Clinton to lighten up a little.

The highly entertaining Adam Gopnick was the evening’s host. Between storytellers, The New Yorker writer and author of several books riffed on the exclusivity of the Vineyard among other things. He began by praising the evening’s venue. After naming some of the many places to which The Moth has travelled, he said, “We have never been to a place as magnificent as the Tabernacle on Martha’s Vineyard.” In fact he was so impressed that after intermission, the Jewish humorist cracked that he was so inspired by his surroundings that he had found Jesus during the break.

Unlike last year, when only one of the storytellers — Cynthia Riggs — hailed from the Vineyard, this time around locals reigned. Only the aforementioned speechwriter was an import. Four of the participants were year-rounders and one a seasonal resident.

The latter, writer, performer, and playwright Jenny Allen, began the evening. Ms. Allen, who has contributed essays to The New Yorker and The New York Times, among other publications, was the emcee for the Vineyard event last year. Her story last Saturday expounded on the frustration of a modern day parent coping with privacy issues and the somewhat relaxed morality of the current generation of teens. In a very humorous, self-deprecating manner, she told of discovering a selfie picture of a boy’s genitals on her daughter’s computer and conjectured that she may have been the first person to ever use the word penis in the Tabernacle.

Next up, Vineyard Gazette managing editor Bill Eville told a moving story about his wife’s bout with cancer. With a good dose of humor he dealt with things like a spouse’s sense of helplessness in times of illness and the strength and resiliency of young children. The story was a testament to the power of family.

Captain Buddy Vanderhoop took the evening’s theme, “Fish Out of Water” a little more literally. With characteristic bluntness and humor, the seasoned sea captain told of a fishing excursion with Harvard Law School professor and author Charles Ogletree that was beset by misfortunes including an unexpected storm, sharks, a failed engine, a stricken passenger, and ineffectual would-be rescuers. The story drew gasps at times as Mr. Vanderhoop described the worsening weather and sea conditions.

He began his tale by recalling advice given to him by his grandfather, a Wampanoag tribe elder: “The ocean is a playground, but you should always respect the ocean. Because it can kill you.” It was Mr. Vanderhoop’s clearheadedness and ability to keep the calm among his passengers that ultimately saved the day.

Mark Katz, contributing editor for The Daily Beast and a specialist in humor speech writing who served in that capacity through both of Bill Clinton’s terms as President, drew the biggest laughs of the evening. His story included a prop — an egg timer — which played a key role in one of the proposed gags, which didn’t go over so well with the former president.

The evening concluded with 87-year-old West Tisbury resident Shirley Mayhew relating a heartening story about helping residents of an impoverished Peruvian village high in the Andes. When she was in her late 50s she and a traveling companion were able to raise $3,000 with the help of Ms. Mayhew’s grammar school students to buy supplies for three schools in the remote town. The likable octogenarian also related how after years as a teacher, wife, and mother, firmly entrenched in her life on the Island, she set out to see the world and travelled to over 30 countries. Hers was an inspiring story.

At one point, mystery writer and two-time Moth main stage participant Cynthia Riggs took the stage to give the audience an update on the story she told at the Vineyard event last summer. The 82-year-old Ms. Riggs has won fans throughout the country with her love story, which may soon be the subject of a made-for-TV movie. She proudly introduced her new husband, Howard Attebery, who last August, when she told her story for the first time, was still only a mystery man from her past.

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Carla Kihlstedt played her own contemporary compositions on violin to open the first and second halves of the program. Mr. Allison noted that Ms. Kihlstedt has written a number of scores for The Moth.

In closing the event, Mr. Gopnik used Mr. Vanderhoop’s story to draw an analogy for the goal of The Moth Radio Hour: “When you get back to shore you can tell some tall tales, but while you’re on the boat you have to tell true stories.”