Not Your Average Bedtime Story

Save for one mandatory dance recital performance during my freshman year of high school where I lip-synched the iconic intro to “I Will Survive,” I have never been the type of gal you find in the spotlight. I never did choir or theatre. I prefer being backstage in a supporting role, or better yet, in the audience as a critic or observer.

It isn’t that I am painfully shy. I do an adequate job interviewing strangers as a journalist or speaking to groups when I’m asked to. If you catch me at a party or bar, I will gladly over share personal information and regale you with stories about growing up in Las Vegas, being compared to April O’Neill all the time, and that time I beat a UFC Octagon Girl at air hockey.

My aversion has always been to the formal stage itself, to the spotlight, to the expectation of entertainment rather than the happenstance existence of it. I consider myself funny, but not that funny. I’m entertaining, but not that entertaining. As such, I have always found it best to leave such endeavors to those more qualified (or more shameless).

The Moth StorySLAM changed all of that for me.

StorySLAMs are monthly open-mic local storytelling competitions organized by the same nonprofit organization that puts together Peabody Award-winning Moth Radio Hour, which you can listen to on WFPL at 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoons, and The Moth Podcast, which you can stream online. The structure of a StorySLAM is pretty simple. Anyone who would like to tell a story puts his or her name into a tote bag. Ten are randomly chosen to come on stage and give a 5-minute story on a predetermined theme chosen in advance of the evening. Members of the audience assign scores and a winner is crowned. Themes are always generic enough to be open to many interpretations—envy, fish out of water, fathers, etc.

I was hooked after my very first time in the audience at a StorySLAM. I don’t remember the theme of the first event I attended, but I know I laughed, cried and gasped—sometimes all during the same story. I was amazed at the seemingly natural talent exuded by the seasoned storytellers, but more importantly, I was inspired. Many of the people who climbed those steps to the Headliners stage seemed like they were on stage for the first time in their lives. There were bumbles and pauses, forgotten lines and jokes that fell flat, but the audience was patient and kind. Knowing something is capped at five minutes helps with that, but more so, the audience just seemed to be supportive.

The very next month, I told my first story for “the finish line” theme. It was about how my family dachshund Abbey came in second place during a wiener racing competition held during a fundraising event called Hallowiener. I made people laugh. I heard them laugh, which I have to admit feels a lot better than hearing that somebody laughed after reading something you wrote last week and then pained over. I realized then that the stage doesn’t have to be so different than a conversation at Hilltop Tavern. It’s intimate and immediate in a way these print words you are reading now never will be.

A few months later, I told another story—this one on the theme “outgrown.” I practiced for an hour or two beforehand. It was a serious, somber story about my family, so I didn’t want to screw up my delivery. A minute or so into my story, I realized how quiet the room was during the spaces between my sentences. I hadn’t been prepared for that. Halfway through my story, I started tearing up on stage. That hadn’t happened during the trial runs in my bedroom earlier that night. That has never once happened when I’ve written anything, regardless of how personal.

That’s why there is nothing like oral storytelling.

After I choked up, somebody in the audience called out words of encouragement. “It’s okay,” said the disembodied voice. “Take your time.” I finished my story. On the way back to the darkness of my seat, people patted me on the back and told me I’d done a good job. I ended up winning the competition that night, but the most important thing that happened was I realized the beauty and power of live stories.

The first StorySLAM I attended was back in May 2012. While I haven’t been able to go to every one since then, I try my hardest to. September’s competition was held last Tuesday. My friend Renata Sanken, who I actually befriended through The Moth, told the winning story on theme of “rivals.” It was about how she and her friend decided to make it their life’s mission to start a rumor that actor Rob Lowe was illiterate. Her humorous story beat out stories about mall food court romances gone wrong and coming to terms with your abusive ex-husband and his once-mistress, now-new-wife. That sort of variety in depth is what keeps me coming back every month. Every story reminds me of a story of my own that I could have told, or maybe will tell somebody someday.

The next StorySLAM will be held at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 25 at Headliners. Admission is $8. The theme will be “hunger,” so come with a story about craving and an appetite for a smorgasbord of true stories.

Photos Courtesy of John Wurth