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August 21, 2013

Culture: Tell me a story

I was arrested with my cat. I found the best bloody mary in Milwaukee. I got pulled over by the dumbest state trooper in West Virginia.

These are just a few excerpts from the most recent Moth StorySLAM, an open-mic storytelling event held once a month in Louisville. Founded in 1997, the Moth began in the New York apartment of author George Dawes Green. The transplanted Southerner wanted to recreate the atmosphere of sultry evenings on his friend’s porch, swapping stories as moths flocked around the porch light.

Like those winged kamikazes, people were drawn to Green’s storytelling events. The endeavor soon spawned a radio show, a podcast, mainstage productions and local StorySLAMs. Today, the nonprofit’s mission entails “a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it.”

Blending this philosophy with the format of open-mic nights and a dash of competitive spirit, Moth StorySLAMs are held in a dozen cities across the country. Louisville is the only Southern city to host regular SLAMs. Moth executive producer Jenifer Hixson says, “Of all the cities added in recent years, I think Louisville is my favorite. The range of tellers in age and background is amazing. Hipsters to self-professed hillbillies! Schoolteachers and exotic dancers! I feel like the Southern storytelling tradition is really evident.”

Hixson first approached Tara Anderson, local producer for the Louisville StorySLAMs, back in 2011. Anderson, a Louisville native, had done a radio story on the Moth while living in New York; her move back to the ’Ville, along with a strong local public radio presence, led Hixson to believe that Louisville would be a good fit.

Louisville StorySLAMs are held the last Tuesday of every month at Headliners. Each evening follows the same format. Pre-show sign-ups are open to any audience member with a story to tell. The Moth rules state that each story must be true; must have happened to the teller; must have a beginning, a middle and an end; and must be on that month’s theme, which can range from “Derby” or “Swagger” to the most recent “Wanderlust.”

At 8, sign-ups close, and the evening’s MC kicks things off, offering an hors d’oeuvre of a story to start the evening. From there, tellers are drawn at random; 10 stories are told, with a brief intermission halfway through. Teams of audience members score each story, and at the end of the evening a victor is declared.

Despite the competitive nature of the events, the atmosphere remains overwhelmingly supportive. Moth regular Graham Shelby describes it: “The audience is on your side, even though a few are judging you. They’re willing to go where you want to take them. It has a real community feel.”

Herein lies the magic of the Moth: Like a scientist performing an experiment, Anderson sets the evening in motion, but it is up to the storytellers and listeners to create the performance. “I’ve done a lot of work producing theater, producing radio, and I can tell you this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever been a part of, because I have no control over the content,” she explains. “All I’m doing is putting together the container and hoping that people will show up to fill it.” So far, she hasn’t been disappointed: Last month’s SLAM was packed, with people standing in aisles to hear the evening’s stories.

“When I describe this event to people who don’t know anything about it, I call it old-fashioned analogue entertainment, because this is about as un-complicated as it gets,” says Anderson. “We have one microphone, and we have people talking into it. And yet, in that couple of hours, you can go on so many different journeys. I feel like the perfect Moth story is the one you would tell at the end of a long dinner with friends. Even though you’ve got a stage and a microphone, it still can be very intimate, because people are telling the truth about their lives. Which is not something that happens all that much. It’s old-fashioned and yet feels like the freshest thing.”