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: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/events/moth-between-worlds)

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: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/06/20/2149133/the-moth-brings-its-storytelling.html)

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… ;{)

19 comments:

  1. I heard your story on the MOTH last night, and I found your blog as a result. Loved your story. I hope you get to come back and tell another!

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    1. Hi Ann - thank you so much for your kind words. As a matter of fact I just did another story for The Moth this past Friday in St Paul. We'll see if it gets picked up for broadcast.

      Take care and thanks again! John

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  2. I have listened to MOTH a few times, never before being so incredibly impressed/moved/transfixed. When I tuned in and heard your voice last night, I assumed you were a professional storyteller, a la Garrison Keillor. Amazing job, both in writing and delivery: huge kudos to you.

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    1. What a thoughtful note - so kind of you. I was just in Garrison Keillor's Fitzgerald Theater telling another story this past Friday - fun!

      Best to you - John

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  3. I listened to your story today on the The Moth podcast. I also assumed you were a professional storyteller!
    Your story was one of the most moving story I've heard on The Moth and i'm a long time listener. It wasn't just the story, which was prettty amazing, but the way you tell it. Your voice is amazing, and the way you tell a story makes me hold my breath. I hope you continue to get out there and tell this story (and others!) and you should start narrating suspensful novels or something! (not sure what you do now, just finished the story and had to comment when I found your blog!)

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    1. Hi Katie - thank you so much for your terrific note. I know you had to work a bit to find a place to reach me with a comment, and it means a great deal to me that you did. I may take you up on narrating suspenseful books... ;{)

      Best to you, and thanks again - John

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  4. I, like the others who've commented, just listened to your story on Moth. When the podcast announcer gave your blog I felt like I had to go see what else you write. Great job! Excellent story! I've only read your blog post about the Moth experience so far, and was surprised to hear how much preparation goes into these Moth story shows. I have always gotten the impression that the storytellers were doing their thing self-rehearsed, and not groomed as you were. Well, whatever it takes. I just want to challenge you to consider one thing from your blog post: you mention the teenage poet who asked permission to turn your story into a poem. I would like to know what diff. it makes to the retelling that we be told the kid was black? After all, you didn't tell us if you are white or black, yourself. Don't take offense; it's just a race-awareness thing I like to ask of white people, whether there's any material value to their identifying a person in an anecdote as black, when rarely are the white people identified as such. Thanks again for your story!

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    1. Hi Karen - now yours was a note that gave me an excellent reason to think more deeply. I so appreciate your point and take it as a learning moment, as I know you intended. Thanks for listening, reading and taking time to write to me.

      Best wishes - John

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  5. You're a great storyteller and have a lovely warm voice. I really enjoyed your story! Very personal and moving.

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    1. Thank you so much for listening and for your kind words. Given how busy people are today, it's so special when a person takes time to write. I really appreciate that you did.

      Warm regards - John

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  6. Just heard you on The Moth. Following your blog now because your story was brilliant and well-told. I'm surprised to hear you didn't move to a coast after all that. Glad you are safe. Susan

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    1. Hi Susan - thank you so much for your thoughtful words. I got a chuckle from your comment about moving to the coast. Nah, decided to stay inland down south since there are hurricanes one coast and earthquakes on the other! ;{)

      Thanks again and best to you - John

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  7. Like the other commenters, I heard your story on The Moth, which brought me here. I almost didn't leave a comment because I think the other comments sum my feelings. Great job!

    A fellow Charlottean

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    1. Hi fellow Charlottean (I'm guessing "Jim"?) - thanks for listening and taking time to comment. Doing The Moth is such an amazing experience. Not sure whether I enjoy listening or telling a story better, so I guess I'll just keep doing both... ;{)

      Take care and thanks again - John

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    1. Hi Melissa - so nice to hear from you, and thank YOU for the work you put into writing me such a nice note. I know it took time and effort and it means a lot to me.

      Very best to you, and thanks again - John

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  9. I have gotten in trouble with family and friends over the years because I don't metion folks' races when describing them. I nearly got one of my dear friends injured because my deeply racist folks didn't know my friend was black and when he tried to join a party I'd invited him to he was met with hostility and disbelief from my parents. So, while I can see that describing someone racially is usually wrong, sometimes it has a place. I certainly could have saved all involved a lot of drama.

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  10. Ok, so I may be a little late to the party, but I just listened to your episode of the Moth Radio Hour, and I wanted to thank you for telling your story. It was riveting. I will often stop a podcast mid-story & pick it up later, but I had to sit down & listen to yours 'til the very end. Then I looked up your blog (which I never do) & read about your storytelling experience. You have a beautiful voice, and all your hard work paid off!

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  11. Just heard this for the first time today. I think what upset me most is that you weren't taken seriously! Was there any consequence for that officer?? If you'd been taken seriously, maybe tragedy could have been prevented. Whatever happened with the officer who stuck up for the 'good ol' boy'? I guess that type of thing burns my goat. I love your storytelling style. Thank you for sharing.

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