‘Stories at the Moth’ Wings Its Way From New York to L.A.
They haven’t lit campfires exactly but for the last two years, relatively small groups of New Yorkers have been gathering in a series of downtown bars, letting down their guards and re-creating all the warmth and camaraderie of a woodsy sleepover with the simple act of telling stories.
The evenings have a theme and the five or six appointed storytellers must speak without notes for no more than 12 minutes. Other than that, they pretty much have free reign to discuss family secrets, private obsessions and the sorts of everyday experiences often remembered the rest of one’s life.
The “Stories at the Moth,” as the monthly gatherings are known, have featured a mix of professional raconteurs such as George Plimpton with ordinary people such as Luigi Jannuzzi, a high school English teacher whose quick wit actually saved a student’s life (more on this later).
Now the Moth, which the Wall Street Journal has called “New York’s hottest and hippest literary ticket,” is moving West, with its first Los Angeles session scheduled for tonight at Les Deux Cafes.
Thanks to bicoastal word of mouth, a recent debut in San Francisco drew hundreds of e-mailed reservations in just 24 hours, according to artistic director Joey Zanders, who expects a similar response in L.A.
Zanders attributes the Moth’s success to the irresistible power of storytelling.
“Who isn’t completely mesmerized by a good storyteller?” she said. “Tell me that isn’t the most powerful tool you have--to seduce someone, to get the job you want, to make a great pitch for a novel or a screenplay.
“It’s all about people having the opportunity to understand themselves and each other, and in the most entertaining way,” Zanders continued. “It’s almost anti-therapy.”
As founder George Dawes Green sees it, the Moth’s popularity also underscores a computer culture’s hunger for tangible human contact. A native of the small island of St. Simon’s, Ga., Green said he still misses evenings spent on his friend Wanda’s porch, drinking Jack Daniels and swapping stories with other “rednecks and philosophers.”
The Moth’s name comes from Wanda’s porch light, and the moths that would circle it endlessly. “I felt like we were moths, too, gathered around this story,” said Green, who started the Moth with profits from the film rights to his novel, “The Juror.”
“All this boom in technology over the last century has been wonderful in some ways but it just destroys communities, and people are spending more and more time by themselves,” he said. “When you’re in a chat room, you may feel like you’re in a community but communities are real entities where you sit in a physical space with real people, and stories are at the heart of this.”
Since the Moth’s first session in Green’s loft drew 75 people, fans have tended to pay $10 each to gain entry to a number of venues. (Recently, the liquor maker Hennessy became a corporate sponsor and has been underwriting the price of admission, as well as loosening tongues with free cocktails.) Reservations, either by phone or e-mail, are a must. Seating is first-come, first-served. And in New York, at least, a long line typically snakes out the door of seedy-chic watering holes like Liquids or Lansky’s Lounge, where patrons are greeted by huge black-and-white photos of the famed gangster.
The Moth’s organizers have tried to keep the settings intimate, with no more than 100 or 125 people packed closely together. But ever-growing crowds have prompted forays over the East River, to a larger space within the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
‘BiPolar Stories’ the Theme of L.A. Show
In Los Angeles, tonight’s theme is “In the Sweet Bi and Bi: An Evening of BiPolar Stories.” The scheduled storytellers include director Michael Radford (“Il Postino”), actress Ann Magnuson (“Clear and Present Danger”), theatrical artist Bernard White and Jerry Stahl, whose memoir “Permanent Midnight” chronicled his drug addiction and was made into the movie of the same name starring Ben Stiller.
Stahl said he plans to describe “how I accidentally became a celebrated pornographer in the 1980s through a series of grotesque misunderstandings with the mob.” The tale, he said, is “absolutely true.”
Another scheduled yarn spinner, actress O-Lan Jones (“Natural Born Killers,” “The Truman Show”), will recall the six months she spent as a 15-year-old New Yorker in a Yucatan hut, surrounded by Mayan Indians. Despite her acting experience, Jones said she is nervous about recounting a personal story in front of a small, live audience.
“This is quite a different thing,” she said.
Regulars say it’s interesting how the pros, good as they are, are often outshined by Joe Blows. For example, Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Angela’s Ashes,” charmed his audience during an evening of teachers’ stories. But it was Jannuzzi, from New Jersey, who stole the show by describing a class field trip to see “Macbeth” on Broadway (his students did “the wave” during a favorite line in the play). Jannuzzi also told how he once saved the life of a student who was choking on a Life Saver and thus discovered his own gift of gab: He told the kid a joke so funny that his laughter popped the candy out of his throat.
The audience’s generous spirit makes it easier to tell a story than you might imagine, and to stretch yourself creatively, said writer and Mirabella editor Nell Casey, who, as a featured Moth storyteller, described her parents’ breakup through her mother’s voice. Whatever comes out is pure and unedited, she added, thanks to the loose format and no-reading rule.
“It’s funny, they have guidelines to keep you informal, instead of formal guidelines,” she noted.
Whether that kind of spontaneity will be as successful in a city built on scripts and special effects remains to be seen. Green says L.A. clearly has its share of story lovers, if the number of people who’ve been asking for a West Coast Moth is any measure.
“They’re telling stories in the form of movies,” he said. “Now it will be interesting to see if they find stories just as compelling when it’s just a voice.”
* “Stories at the Moth,” Les Deux Cafes, 1638 N. Las Palmas, Hollywood. Complimentary cocktails tonight at 8; storytelling begins at 9 p.m. Reservations: (310) 837-3032 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Information: email@example.com.