The lights of the Tabernacle glowed at the center of the Oak Bluffs Campgrounds last Friday evening. Nearly every seat was full, and the venue was silent; Circuit Avenue and the rest of the Island seemed very far away. A slight woman with a blond bob walked onto the stage and, with a breath, began to tell her story.
This was the return of the Moth, the awardwinning nonprofit organization that celebrates the art and craft of storytelling. Since 1997, the Moth has traveled the world to help those with a story to tell understand, form, and share their experiences with others. Through WCAI, the organization produces the Peabody Awardwinning “Moth Radio Hour” on NPR, a weekly Moth podcast, and reoccurring live stage events like the ones that have occurred on the Island each summer for the past five years.
After a performance by local violinist Mary Wolverton and an introduction by Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association director of programs Bob Cleasby, Moth host Dan Kennedy took the stage to loud applause. Many have heard Mr. Kennedy’s familiar voice, from telling stories on NPR or as host of the Moth podcast.
Mr. Kennedy continued by explaining the rules of the Moth: Each storyteller has a 10- to 12-minute limit at the microphone, with no notes or cheat sheets. Due to the vulnerability that comes with telling a personal story, Mr. Kennedy asked the audience to vocalize their support; or, at least, to make more noise than Nantucket did a few nights earlier.
In the tradition of the Moth’s live stage events, Friday’s reading also shared a theme. This year each storyteller expressed their relationship to the theme “You Are Here,” interpreting it in a few different ways: as existing within a landscape; by reaching a certain stage along an internal journey; or to still be physically here by surviving an illness.
The slight blond woman, playwright Danusia Trevino, told the first story of the evening. She brought the audience to New York City, where she was, belatedly, rebelling. At age 30, Ms. Trevino became a U.S. citizen,
went through a divorce, joined a New York City punk-rock band — and (a more mundane milestone) was summoned for jury duty. In a deadpan voice with a Polish accent, she told how this seemingly ordinary experience of legal obligation snapped her out of her insubordinate delusion. She realized there were more important things to worry about “here,” in society, like, returning a young black man accused of robbery to his family, innocent.
The next story came from local farmer and chef Chris Fischer, who transported the audience to his family-run Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark on the evening that all Island chefs both dream about and fear: when the President comes for dinner. With his hands clasped behind his back, Mr. Fischer told of Secret Service agents checking between each rock in a stone wall, and of Obama’s firm handshake. He left the audience in the dining room watching a young employee sweep the crumbs of the
First Family’s meal from the floor and remembering that we are privileged to live here, on an island where the leader of our country chooses to spend his vacation.
Those familiar with the Moth series know that not every storyteller uses humor to captivate the audience. The third storyteller, Cybele Abbett of Oregon, described the year her youngest child came out as transgender. She recalled visits to psychiatrists and medical doctors, the steps she took toward understanding what it means to be transgender, and the moment that her son walked topless through the house for the first time after his breast-reduction surgery. Ms. Abbett’s “here” was an internal place of acceptance.
The Times spoke with Moth senior producer Meg Bowles, who selected the evening’s stories, about the Moth’s process of paring down a lengthy personal story into a 10-minute presentation.
“The first time our storytellers go over their stories with us, it takes them almost an hour,” Ms. Bowles said. “We work with them one-on-one to pick out the important details.”
Ms. Bowles has directed each of the Island’s Moth events. “New England has this reputation of being very reserved, but that isn’t the case here,” she said. “The crowd shows so much love and support, especially to their own local storytellers.”
After an intermission, Island actor and resident Paul Munafo stepped up to the microphone. He shared his story of a decade-long battle with hepatitis, a midnight trip to Massachusetts General Hospital for a liver transplant after months of rejections and false alarms, and the feeling of waking up from surgery in a hospital bed surrounded by his family.
“As an actor, getting up in front of people didn’t bother me so much,” Mr. Munafo told The Times when he left the stage. “It’s just that the story itself is so personal. It was my first time ever telling it in that way.”
Mr. Kennedy allowed the audience a second round of applause for Mr. Munafo before introducing the final storyteller of the evening, author and multiple-time Moth participant Reza Jalali. Mr. Jalali spoke in a poetic cadence that allowed the audience to envision stars rising over his hometown in Kurdistan, as they did when he was a child, and as they continued to do when he returned after the town had been nearly demolished in the Iran-Iraq war.
“I feel that people need to hear this kind of story, about what happens to memory and to people after a war,” Mr. Jalali said in an interview with The Times. “I was looking forward to telling it to globally-minded, educated people on Martha’s Vineyard, and I was not disappointed.”
Like the moths that were drawn to the Tabernacle lights throughout the evening and to the lights on the porch in Georgia where the Moth was first conceived, members of the audience hovered around the storytellers at the evening’s end. Some congratulated the storytellers, some thanked them, and some began to share their own similar stories.
For those who did not attend the August 7 event, the five stories told at the Tabernacle are being considered for inclusion in future Moth podcasts and NPR “Moth Radio Hours.” For more information on the Moth series and events, visit themoth.org.