Saturday, August 11, 2012

#18 - The story of my first Moth storytelling experience - "Good Guys & Good Ol' Boys"

It began one evening in the spring of 2010 when I was listening to a story on “The Moth Radio Hour” on Charlotte’s NPR station WFAE 90.7FM. The Moth is a non-profit organization that promotes story-telling as an art, and the name Moth comes from the founder’s experience growing up in Georgia, sharing stories on the front porch while moths gathered around the light overhead. The story I was listening to was captivating – the story-teller seemed so authentic, like someone I might enjoy knowing. And I thought, “I could do that.” So I went to the Moth’s website and discovered that I could submit a one-minute recorded “pitch” of a story. I sat down at my pc and began writing the essence of a story I had been telling for years, and I recorded it on the pitch line, listening to it and then re-recording it - a one-minute pitch that took at least two hours of writing and recording to get “right.” When I was satisfied, I hit the send key and thought, “Now we’ll see what happens.” And nothing did. And eventually I forgot about it.

Two years later, an email came. It was from Meg Bowles, Curatorial Producer for “The Moth”, apologizing profusely for not having followed up with me because my voicemail had gotten lost in the mix. She asked if I’d be interested in speaking with her about potentially telling my story on stage at an upcoming Moth story-telling event. Needless to say, I said yes. And then it was decided that I would tell my story at the upcoming show in Durham, NC, at the historic Carolina Theatre - the first time The Moth had come to North Carolina. And the headliner story-teller would be Molly Ringwald. Yes, the actress. And three other story-tellers who’d all done Moth shows previously, and had many, many other stage, radio and print credits. And then there was little ol’ me. Bless my heart…

(Here’s link to the show program, including the five story-teller bios:

So after going over the story multiple times over two weeks on the phone with the director Sarah Austin Jenness, she in her New York office and I in my work office in Charlotte (with, I might add, no comments or visual cues while I was speaking – a VERY hard thing to do for a guy who needs audience validation), I did it again four times in person in the her hotel room the day before and day of the show. And each time she said, “Ok, it’s good – just a couple of comments…” Comments like “You’re at 23 minutes and it can’t be more than 12… and we cut you off at 12…”, and then would press me to draw out more or cut or add something. In a moment of particular frustration and self-questioning during a practice I asked the director if perhaps I was in the remedial story-telling class. She said, “Oh! NO! NO! You’re doing great, just like everyone else.” I nearly drove my partner Michael nuts, stepping away at home at night and on the weekend to rewrite the story and practice it. Fortunately he decided that he wouldn’t listen to the story until I performed it so that it would be a complete surprise. He’s such a good guy.

At the Durham hotel the morning of the show Michael needed to sleep so I left the hotel room, and unable to find a good place to practice where I wasn’t directly in line of sight of strangers (or within earshot – or so I thought), I elected to stand outside the hotel in 100 degree heat behind a bush with my laptop ready to take notes as I practiced. Then people began to peer around the bush at me. I didn’t think I looked like an escapee from the asylum, but I must admit that a few did look at me as if I might be. I went inside the hotel and opened a door to what I thought might be an empty ballroom, only to find that I was directly behind a man who was speaking to several hundred people, who immediately then looked past him, at me, sweaty and carrying a laptop, and very embarrassed. Then finally I asked the hotel catering office if I could use a conference room to practice, in the cool, alone. And that’s what I did, and it worked. In the dim cool of the room, with just the right amount of echo like a stage sound system, I pretended that I was in front of the audience, allowing time for their laughter and the timing of pauses in mood change. The last run-through with the director Sarah was at 3 the afternoon of the show which was at 8pm. And of course she said, “Really good, just a couple of comments…” AHHHHHHHH! Fortunately they were very small ones. And then she congratulated me on the interview I had done with a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer that had run that day, promoting the show and sharing my experience leading up to the show.

(Here’s a link to the article:

I became SO nervous with a sudden burst of stage fright in the "green room" waiting to go on stage, and couldn’t remember even the opening line of my story. So I wandered around the bowels of the theatre shaking out my arms and neck and praying to the Universe to just let me have fun engaging with people. Fortunately all of the other story-tellers were as stressed as I was and had muffed up their stories when we performed for each other as a group. Now, misery may love company, but coming out with a high grade on a low curve just didn’t sound too good… And I kept getting this image of me starting my story and stumbling and saying "Uh, these 2 funny guys robbed me... and uh, then 2 scary guys robbed me... And uh, the end... thank you see ya' bye'..." And people coming up to me afterward, patting me on the shoulder and saying "Awh... the point is you tried, bless your heart..."

When we walked into the theatre to take our seats in the front rows, I saw that the house was completely full, from the orchestra section to the uppermost balcony - the show was sold out. And then I was on stage with the warm lights basking me, and it was just me, the microphone and a thousand people who just wanted to hear my story. And as I heard my voice say the first line, I felt a complete sense of calm, as though I was sitting at the dinner table telling a story to good friends over a good bottle of wine. They laughed exactly when I hoped they would at the first robbery, and when they realized the second robbery was serious and terrifying, you could have heard a pin drop, other than a gasp of relief when I said the line "And the gun goes... click". After I finished, the host Ophira Eisenberg said, "Is that not a voice you could listen to all night long?", and then, "And the funny thing is I knew how the story ends because DUH he's here telling it, but when ‘the gun goes click???' Oy! But isn't that the mark of a great story-teller?" Fun. I received such great compliments and thank-you’s from tons of audience members and the other story-tellers. Molly Ringwald said, "Shhh, don't tell the others, but I just have to tell you that your story was my sister’s favorite, aside from mine of course…” (Her older sister lives in Raleigh).

But the best compliment of the night was a late-teens black kid who very hesitantly approached me afterward and said, "Sir, I hate to bother you but that was the BEST story I've ever heard", then proceeded to ask me if I might allow him to turn my story into a poem, because he's an aspiring poet. I said, "Absolutely - go for it", and he said beaming "Really? Oh thank you Sir! Thank you!"  It was so touching and made me smile to know that maybe I'd helped inspire a young kid to go for his dream. The moth found its light that night, and I am so honored that I could play a part in it. A really neat ending to a really amazing experience.

Oh, and whether my story will be played on-air at some point isn’t known yet. The Moth directors and producers vote on the stories from the various shows, select a subset for their podcast, and a smaller number for play on “The Moth Radio Hour”.

Now we’ll see what happens…

PS – If I get a chance to do another Moth show, perhaps in Charlotte, I have another story in mind. And it’s on this blog. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one… ;{)