There was the man who had a longtime crush on a man, and who, night after night, forlornly watched him buy drinks and leave the bar with other men. It was heartbreaking — until the day his crush showed up on the evening news. Turns out his name was Jeffrey Dahmer.
There was the woman who was frantically trying to tend to her elderly mother and young daughter in an airport, when a baseball legend came to her child-care rescue. The gesture allowed her to take care of her mother, catch a flight with her daughter and collect a grant that would fund her research into preventing breast cancer.
These everyday people with extraordinary stories were given a friendly forum known as The Moth. Over 20 years, the storytelling event has spawned a radio show, podcast and three books, the latest called “Occasional Magic: True Stories About Defying the Impossible.”
Ten of the best storytellers from Seattle’s twice-monthly Moth Slams will compete at the Moth GrandSLAM Championship, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21, at First Baptist Church in Seattle. (The event is sold out).
“Seattle has very smart stories, stories from people who take a critical view of some experience they’ve had, and who really mine their lives,” said executive producer Sarah Austin Jenness, who has been with The Moth for 14 years.
Seattle’s great showing on The Moth “is a big deal,” she said. “The stories are all great. L.A. is more stand-up. But here, you can tell that people overall have put time into crafting them.”
A lot of the stories that come out of Seattle move on to The Moth Radio Hour and the podcast. Past storytellers include Mary-Claire King, a professor of genome sciences and of medicine at the University of Washington who was aided by Yankee great Joe DiMaggio in the San Francisco airport; and Jason Trieu, of Camas, Clark County, who fled South Vietnam with his two young brothers during Operation Babylift — but almost didn’t make it. (His story appears in the new book.)
Jenness compared the Grand Slam to the March Madness bracket system. In order to qualify for the Grand Slam, you have to win one of the Moth Slams held a couple of times a month in and around the city.
At Slams, people walk into a bar or a venue, put their name into a hat and if they get picked, get five minutes onstage to tell a story that fits a predetermined theme: Neighborhood. Cold. Rivalry. A panel of judges evaluate and score them, Olympic style, and whoever has the highest score wins. Every year, 10 winners move on to the Grand Slam.
“You will come to the show knowing you are going to hear some incredible stories simply because the storytellers are tried and true,” Jenness said.
She compared a good Moth story to taking listeners on a journey that starts with a question or problem and ends in an answer or resolution.
“Within six minutes, you have to transport us,” she said. “I like to say that storytelling is like driving a car. You’re behind the wheel and the audience is in the passenger seat. We are inside the journey with you. You’re not talking about it, you’re in it.”
A Moth story is not a “bar story,” Jenness said. It isn’t simply a chronological retelling of a series of entertaining events. Moth storytellers pause to offer context, and to reflect.
“There’s a plot to the story, but there is also how you feel about what is happening,” she said. “That makes the audience feel very close to you. ‘What you need to know is that my mother and father never got along, but I loved them both madly.’
“You’re giving them the secret sauce.”
You also have to be the only one able to tell the story.
“It’s like a fingerprint,” Jenness said. “Even if it’s a coming-out story or one about a medical diagnosis, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why can only I tell that story, that makes it a fingerprint?’ You have to ask yourself what makes your story stand out from others.”
Jenness and Moth Executive Director Sarah Haberman have an added affinity for Seattle: They come here regularly to meet with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, its partner in The Moth’s Global Community Program, which teaches storytelling to advocates in the fields of global health and gender equity. The goal is to teach advocates how to use their own stories to effect change in policy and education. The Moth has a team in India right now working on stories about tuberculosis.
“It’s all about how you use stories to build community and break down barriers, and connect with strangers almost immediately,” Jenness said.
Stories that are told on the Moth Mainstage come from all over: The Moth pitch line, slams or other events. Storytellers work with a coach and are not necessarily local; popular storytellers travel from event to event, having built a fan base after being featured on The Moth Radio Hour.
Moth GrandSLAM stories come straight from the smaller events and can only be six minutes long. The Moth has a whole division that works on the slams, including a director who has “a quickie meeting” with each storyteller.
“In some cases, it’s much harder to tell a story in six minutes because you have to get to the heart of it very quickly,” Jenness said. “You have to let us know what’s at stake. Why do we care? And if you don’t have that within the first couple of beats, you run the risk of really losing an audience.”
Jenness remembered a Moth Slam story told by a woman who, in just two minutes, set this stage: Her grandfather was dying in the same hospital where she was about to give birth.
“I knew she had another four minutes,” Jenness remembered thinking, already hooked, “but if Grandpa dies, I’m going to lose my mind.” (Spoiler alert: He met his great-grandson and died the next day).
The beauty of The Moth is the element of surprise. The only thing you can be sure of is that the stories you’ll hear run like a thread through our humanity.
“You just never quite know what people have lived through,” Jenness said, “until they get up there.”