Storytelling series finds popular success with tales of honesty and vulnerability
By Tyler Davidson
As long as spoken language has existed, so too has the art of oral storytelling — the act of spinning yarns for a (hopefully) captivated audience, all on the edges of their seats, eagerly awaiting that next twist.
Those who masterfully tell such stories are often called “raconteurs.” It’s a word that George Dawes Green is quite fond of, which explains how his organization, The Moth, came into existence in the late 1990s.
“The beauty of storytelling is that it breaks down that wall, so there’s a sense of a close bond between the raconteur and the audience,” says Green, who was inspired to pursue storytelling by his experience as a youth in Georgia sharing true tales on the porch of a friend named Wanda Bullard.
“We would go over and drink all Saturday night, and as the bourbon flowed the stories would start to flow. There were moths that would come flying in through the rotten screen and would go wheeling around the porch light, and we started calling ourselves The Moth.”
Nearly 20 years later, The Moth is a world-renowned institution, with regular shows — StorySLAMs, in their parlance — occurring in places as far off as Kazakhstan, Western Australia and even Antarctica.
All it takes to perform is to show up and drop your name in a bag, and if you’re picked as one of that evening’s 10 participants, you’ll tell your story and be judged by fellow audience members.
The Moth hosts StorySLAMs at the Zanzibar nightclub in Santa Monica on the first Tuesday of each month, including this coming Tuesday.
The StorySLAMs at Zanzibar have been hosted by actress, comedian and Santa Monica native Lauren Weedman for more than five years.
“I think the true storytelling thing is so appealing — that you’re actually telling real stories — and the idea that, basically, you can [eventually] tell your one go-to story,” says Weedman of the monthly StorySLAMs, which boast abstract themes like “Courage” and “Vice” that connect each of the participants’ stories.
“There’s going to be some theme at some point at one of the Moth nights where, if you had some story about getting food poisoning on a cruise ship, and that’s how you realized you actually did love your grandmother, or something like that, that one story that resonated with you so much and has gotten such a reaction, [you could tell it],” she says.
Oral storytelling is a minefield of an art, deceptively simple yet filled with myriad pitfalls. So how exactly does one tell a story effectively, while still confining themselves to The Moth’s five-minute time limit?
“There is, in general, the idea that you need to project a certain vulnerability,” says Green, who warns against telling hero’s tales, as it were. “Great stories have, at the core, some human flaw. There’s an error; there’s a mistake. There’s simply humanity, and from that flows a great story.”
“It’s really hard, because the last thing you want to think about when you already feel vulnerable enough just being in front of people is to reveal the thing that would make you lose your footing for a moment,” echoes Weedman. “You’re not sure how you’re going to control the story in that second, just because of the emotion behind it or something. But it needs it, especially if it’s something you’ve told a million times.”
One would imagine a show that’s been regularly occurring for decades all over the world might have evolved into something very different than its original form, but Green said the only real difference is that the quality of the stories has improved over time.
“When we first started the SLAMs, we were getting a lot of stand-up people and there was a sense that people just didn’t really know how to tell a cohesive story,” he says. “Now, I think the stories are much, much stronger, because people are spending a lot of time now going to these shows. And these are young people, mostly. They’re people between 18 and 30. They’re the kind of people who would be going to a rock concert, but they’ve gotten enthralled by these nights of storytelling.”
What do those who are captivated by storytelling need to know before they put their name down at Zanzibar? For starters, says Weedman, the fear of failure on a first outing must be banished.
“I have a lot of friends who are like, ‘I should do that, I think I’m gonna do that.’ And then they do it and it’s embarrassing, or something goes wrong,” says Weedman. “You have that awful feeling of getting off-stage and feeling like an ass — that you failed in some way. You’ve gotta know that the first time is going to be wonky, just because you’re so disoriented from just being up there.”
Pressed similarly for advice for any aspiring storytellers, Green responds with brevity, reiterating an earlier point.
“They just need to recognize those things I’ve been talking about. Just make sure they show vulnerability and weakness,” he says, before taking a beat, adding gravitas the way a master raconteur should. “If you’re willing to show weakness, you
will be loved.”
The Moth’s next local StorySLAM is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Zanzibar, 1301 5th St., Santa Monica. Presale tickets (guaranteed seating) are $16; $8 tickets sold at the door as space allows. RSVP at themoth.org/events.