State of the Story

At The Moth. Photo Credit: chicagopublicmedia.Licensed CC-BY-NC.

At The Moth. Photo Credit: chicagopublicmedia.
Licensed CC-BY-NC.

Paul Currington used to be a professional stand-up comedian. He did it for thirteen years and calls it “the worst job he ever had.”

As a comic, he worked alone and traveled alone, constantly separated from family and friends. As Currington tells it, the only human connection he got was the handful of minutes he spent making strangers laugh. It wasn’t enough. He quit touring, found himself a desk job, and when the microphone called out to him, he turned to storytelling.

Currington is now the best-known producer in Seattle’s nascent storytelling scene. His monthly event, now renamed Fresh Ground Stories, features regulars and first-timers (one of whom is awarded the Scone of Courage) speaking to a consistently standing-room-only crowd. It’s big and it’s getting bigger.

Those attending a storytelling show for the first time could be forgiven for confusing it with stand-up. One person, one microphone, some stuff that happened one time, and that’s it. Many of the storytellers are also comedians. The stories are often funny and occasionally feature structured jokes or comedic asides. But the differences between the genres are immediately obvious.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. The protagonist – always the speaker – must be different at the end from who they were in the beginning. Unlike stand-up, an evening of storytelling generally has a theme, like “Saved,” “Fatherhood,” or “Songs.”

And, most importantly to producers like Currington and the hundreds of fans who turn out to storytelling shows in Seattle each month, the point is to make a human connection. It’s just one microphone. But it’s not like working alone.

Currington’s Fresh Ground Stories is the most prominent of the open mic-style events in Seattle. Of the events I attended while researching this article, Fresh Ground attracts the most diverse group of participants. I also think it’s the best entree into the scene for newcomers. The crowd is consistently large and universally supportive; around one-third of the storytellers are trying it out for the first time; the vibe is gracious and rewards risk.

A Guide to Visitors, another cornerstone show, eschews the open-mic format for a higher level of staging. AGTV is a ticketed, curated show. They publish the theme a few months ahead of time and accept pitches. Accepted storytellers do a meeting and discussion with producers to hammer out the arc and sort through which details really matter.

The advance work pays dividends. I attended AGTV on April 22nd, 2014, and was genuinely moved.

Their theme was “You reap what you sow.” One storyteller, a military veteran, told us about the years he spent in Northern California’s illicit backwoods marijuana plantations. He spoke movingly of the beauty of nature, the composition and challenges of a community operating entirely outside the law, and ultimately of the personal betrayal that drove him out of the industry.

Another AGTV storyteller, himself a regular at Fresh Ground, talked about his law enforcement days investigating child traffickers. Dark stuff, yet he had us laughing. The story was that he needed to get past a heavily dead-bolted New York apartment door to bust the trafficker hiding out inside. The suspect’s police dossier indicated a preference for redheads. Our storyteller is a redhead. So he stood naked in the apartment building hallway with a newspaper concealing his genitals. To paraphrase: “Can I come inside and use your phone? I went to grab the paper and locked myself out!”

This story ends with a 250-pound naked flying tackle and the flash of a deputy’s disposable camera. Unbelievable. But apparently true.

You’ll notice that I didn’t print these storyteller’s names. It’s not because it was a secret; storytellers are introduced by name and occasionally there is a printed program. I refrained because part of storytelling culture is the anonymity of a live event. Yes, the story is told in public, but it is not meant to be part of a publication. Sometimes an audio recording is made but it would never be distributed without written permission.

Human connection is the goal of storytelling and connection is predicated on trust. For many of these show that trust rests on a foundation of transience. It’s easier to reveal oneself if the attention is only temporary.

It’s impossible, and, for that matter, pointless, to have a conversation about storytelling without discussing The Moth. Both Fresh Ground and AGTV credit the New York-based storytellers as inspiration and mentor. For Paul Currington it was his entry into the whole field. Four years ago Currington attended an event organized through Meetup.com called “Seattle Moth Up” and it captured his heart. He attended every month after and, once, when organizer Catherine Hagen couldn’t make it, he found himself emceeing.

One person. One microphone. Some stuff that happened once. And it must be true, or, “true enough.”

This is the Moth Style. It is the modern genre standard of a storytelling show.

The Moth’s podcast, touring show, and national network of local events have driven audience growth and set aesthetic standards for the past several years. They are distributed by the Public Radio Exchange and won a Peabody Award in 2010.

The Moth in Seattle is represented by their “StorySLAM” format. Ten storytellers get five minutes each. All storytellers are self-selected volunteers; there is no curating by the producers. A comedian / emcee does intros and outros while three panels of judges score the storytellers with Olympic-style number cards. One of the ten is declared winner and is eligible to participate in the local “GrandSLAM” event against other “StorySLAM” winners.

Ira Glass on stage. Photo Credit: S.C. Asher.Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

Ira Glass on stage. Photo Credit: S.C. Asher.
Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

The vibe at The Moth is young and educated. Many of the stories are about life-changing breakups or summer jobs. One storyteller opened his segment by saying, “My Tinder date bailed on me, so I guess I’ll pour my heart out to all of you.” He was well-received, and after the show I saw him get a girl’s phone number. It’s that kind of scene.

I asked comedian and Jezebel writer Lindy West, who hosts The Moth in Seattle, where she hopes storytelling goes from here, and she wrote: “I’d like to see more diversity in storytelling. The Seattle StorySLAM is awesome, but – based on my anecdotal observation – our crowds are predominantly white, and our stories seem to skew toward the white middle class experience.”

West’s observation holds up across all the Moth Style shows I’ve attended in Seattle. I will add, anecdotally, that the storytellers tend to be men.

They are also all volunteers. At a Moth-style storytelling show in Seattle nobody is doing it for a living.

Stand-up comedians at an open mic are, on some level, entertaining the possibility that this could be their job one day. So too for musicians, actors, playwrights, and countless other artistic pursuits that offer the plausible option of full-time.

Can storytelling be a full-time job? Yes; but we have to change genres.

Traditional storytelling encompasses folk, indigenous, children’s and educational performances. For those who want to spin tales for a career, this is where the consistent money is, scant as it may be.

The Seattle Storyteller’s Guild is the local membership group serving these artists. They are themselves a member of the National Storytelling Network; the NSN organizes national conferences, publishes a magazine, and other things that associations do.

The Guild is thirty years old. They publish a calendar of shows, mainly coffee shop and libraries, and maintain a roster of working storytellers for those looking to book talent. Mary Anne Moorman, the President of the Guild, told me that their talent buyers are retirement homes, libraries, schools, festivals and weddings.

Traditional storytellers tend to specialize in a content area, often related to their ethnic, cultural, or regional background, and will sometimes emphasize preservation over original content. It is an essentially educational format.

There is very little overlap between the traditional and Moth Style shows. It’s two little worlds that rarely intersect even though they both describe themselves as “storytelling.” A spokesman for The Moth’s national office in New York wrote that they have no formal relationship with the National Storytelling Network. Mary Anne Moorman, President of the Seattle Storyteller’s Guild, described the same on the local level.

But there is community within each of those genre spheres. Fresh Ground performers feed organically into AGTV, thanks to Paul Currington’s promotional assistance. Traditional storytellers gather annually at festivals like Folklife and professional conferences.

You can’t fault these good people for friendliness, or work ethic, or commitment to the form. My one critique of the local scene is about vision.

I asked the producers of AGTV, The Moth, and Fresh Ground if they plan on expanding their projects. The answer, more or less, was “no.” And they don’t need to. Each project is successful on its own terms.

But then I asked where the scene should go from here. And, frankly, most hadn’t given the question much thought.

I see vast potential for this form to expand and improve in Seattle. Every project could collaborate more readily with every other. The traditional and Moth-style circles are developing their talent in silos. Simple steps like plugging other events aren’t taken; virgin storytellers at The Moth wouldn’t realize that they could “travel the circuit” in town and develop their craft over time. Patrons at Fresh Ground probably haven’t thought about employment telling stories to seniors and kids.

And where is Seattle’s flagship show? When The Moth Mainstage, the company’s elite national touring project, comes to town it sells out handily. An educated city of writers and actors like ours should be able to muster the same. And the storytellers should get paid.

But this is all Monday-morning quarterbacking. I don’t want to diminish the work that advocates like Paul Currington, who emerged from my research as the hero of this community, are doing.

Currington was vehement in his opposition to Fresh Ground ever involving money. He likes his project “intimate, casual, and free.”

Makes sense for a guy who got sick of going solo.

***

If you’d like to connect to other humans through storytelling, here is your essential list of resources:

Fresh Ground Stories
Last Thursday of the Month
7:00 PM
Roy St Coffee, 700 Broadway East, Seattle, WA
http://www.meetup.com/Fresh-Ground-Stories/

A Guide To Visitors
Dates and times vary
Theatre Off Jackson, 409 7th Ave S, Seattle WA
http://www.agtv.org/

The Moth
First Thursday of the Month
7pm doors, 8pm show
Fremont Abbey, 4272 Fremont Ave N, Seattle, WA
http://fremontabbey.org/events/

Verbalists
Dates and times vary
http://www.verbalists.net/

Drunken Telegraph
Dates and times vary
Tacoma, WA
http://www.drunkentelegraph.com/

Seattle Storyteller’s Guild
Extensive events calendar and membership information
http://www.seattlestorytelling.org