Yarn spinning, in real time

The Moth storytelling tour helps erase the line between writers and their readers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The conventions of readers and writers are such that their physical paths rarely cross. Yes, there are fleeting interactions on author tours. But even then writers often maintain the distance and security that come with reading a dog-eared selection from a recently published work – a script of sorts.

So the title of tonight's event at the Calderwood Pavilion – "Out on a Limb: Stories From the Edge" – seems especially promising. It has the potential to upset a standard, go off script, and transgress the boundary between writers and their readers. In doing so, "Out on a Limb" will force two local authors out of their comfort zones.

The event is part of a national tour by the Moth, a well-known storytellers collective. Writer George Dawes Green formed the group in his New York living room a decade ago, hoping to revive the craft and connectivity of oral storytelling. Their following has grown and Moth shows have spread to much larger venues across the country.

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When Mr. Green first came up with the idea, he imagined re-creating the experience of listening to his friend Wanda spin yarns on her porch in his native Georgia. (The moths that battled through a hole in the screen gave the event its name.) Since then, it has come to encompass the stories of more than 2,000 disparate personalities.

While raconteurs run the gamut – from singer Moby to an astronaut – the Moth relies heavily on writers, who make up about 70 percent of its performers. It may come as something of a surprise, then, that not every great writer is a great storyteller.

"It is a different medium," says Lea Thau, Moth executive director. Indeed. Just a few days before he was scheduled to perform before 300 people at the Calderwood, Steve Almond, author of the memoir "Candyfreak," noted, "There are people who are born good storytellers. Then there are people like me, who know how to tell a story if we can work on it or edit it. But we're not natural storytellers – which is why we write."

No doubt Mr. Almond would place in the first category some of the Moth regulars who would perform with him in Boston: host and New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz; author Jonathan Ames; and Mike Daisey, an actor and NPR commentator.

Also on the roster was another less practiced local writer, the psychologist Lauren Slater ("Prozac Diary").

Almond was being a bit disingenuous in downplaying his abilities – he's known for his comfort riffing in front of an audience.

Still, he makes a good point. The idea of coaxing a creature more familiar with paper and solitude onto a stage before hundreds of people to relay a personal narrative – all without a single note – did seem like a stretch.

In fact, the first time it happened, it didn't work very well. "They were all awful," says Ms. Thau. So the Moth began coaching its storytellers. Thau says it's not unusual to spend 10 hours helping shape a 10-minute story. She insists that everyone know their first and last lines. That way they have something to fall back on – a sure way in and out.

Moth coaches tread a fine line between preparation and spontaneity with their storytellers. Overprepare and you lose the sense of a story unfolding in real time. Underprepare and the storyteller risks falling flat.

"Those Moth people have to do a very delicate thing," Almond said before the Boston show. Not the least of which, it turns out, is convincing writers like Almond and Slater that they really must prepare.

Almond said it finally dawned on him just a few weeks before he was set to step on stage that he'd be in trouble if he tried to wing it. So he began rehearsing in the car on the way to the supermarket.

Ms. Slater was more resistant. On the Friday before her Monday performance she had a nightmare about the show. The next morning, she scribbled something down over pancakes. On Sunday, the day before the event, she managed to make it – an hour and a half late – to an informal rehearsal in Almond's basement.

Nevertheless, the show goes smoothly. The return performers are fairly slick, with careful timing and well-placed flourishes. They rely heavily on humor. The audience seems to love it.

At intermission, two Boston University writing students – who had read Ames for class – say they felt more connected to the writer tonight than when they had engaged him on paper. "It almost seemed more real," says Sarah Spinella.

Almond is up after the break. He's a pro. His story, the subject of which is not suitable for a family newspaper, is equal parts adolescent humiliation and adult humor.

Slater performs last. She's visibly nervous. "I'm the only girl," she says, blinking into the lights as she pulls a black lacey cardigan more tightly around her shoulders. "I thought this was normal neurotic writers getting up who don't know how to tell stories. But these are all professionals and me," she says. "I don't know how to tell stories. I write stories."

And with that introduction she launches into a beautiful, elliptical tale about death and life, dreaming and waking. Some of the stories are more polished than hers – better rehearsed, safer, less vulnerable. But Slater seems furthest out on a limb, offering her audience something of herself that might be hard to find through the filter of a book's edited pages.

"I've been [writing] for years," she says a few days after the show. "Sometimes I don't even remember how alone I am. Having an audience right in front of you is startling – and invigorating, hugely invigorating. I remembered that we tell stories to connect with other people. And in this instance, the connection was simultaneous."

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