The Moth: Drawn to the Flame

As The Moth spread their wings and head for Edinburgh, The Skinny speaks to both founder George Dawes Green and director Catherine Burns to hear of the origin, not only of their storytelling phenomenon, but of storytelling itself

Feature by Alan Bett | 05 Aug 2014

Let me tell you a story. Now aren’t those six simple words just so comforting and intriguing? So, if you’re ready, let me tell you a story of storytellers. They call themselves The Moth, in homage to those days before electronic intrusions, when ‘storytellers held court with the moths’ on porches and under the stars. Those seeking these stories, originally in Brooklyn and more recently all across the US, could perhaps themselves be seen as moths, the tellers that alluring light they are drawn to. If you think of a solitary figure on a backlit stage surrounded by darkness, then this simile is not too shabby. Their tag is quite simple: ‘True stories told live’. 

“There’s an intimacy of listening to one person talk about their life in a meaningful way for 10 minutes, which you don’t always get from a Facebook update, TV or Twitter,” Moth director Catherine Burns tells me on the line from New York, shedding light on their phenomenal success which sees lines of people snake around the block seeking entry to their live shows. “I think as human beings we really crave that, it’s something in our fundamental DNA that we need, so The Moth if anything is scratching that itch." She continues "...we may walk around with these bleeping devices and we’re so connected and in two seconds can send a message to Tokyo, but I think in the end, in our hearts, we’re still sitting around that campfire." Catherine is also editor of a newly published book of 50 of these stories, selected, transcribed and lightly edited from over 10,000 live performances. It’s a wonderful collection of true life tales, sliced thin and raw and sometimes still bleeding. What is beautiful is that amongst their big name contributors – Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Price, Darryl DMC McDaniels – sit those we might view as everyday people. The power of the story has no correlation with reputation or literary prowess. “It definitely is a different skill,” admits Catherine, “some of our greatest storytellers are people who barely write emails and who maybe never thought of themselves as storytellers but in many cases have been telling stories all their lives, to their friends, to their kids, to their families.”

In many ways it’s an egalitarian form, a way to prise open the often closed circle of literary communities. “We certainly are trying to open up that world which can sometimes feel quite exclusive to people who think they might not belong in it.” Catherine provides an example. “Steve Osborne, he’s a New York City Detective, Steve had never been on stage but turned out to be one of the greatest raconteurs The Moth has ever known because he’s been telling stories to a very, very tough audience for years, which is other cops in bars, and he had really honed his skills so when we stumbled upon him he was an instant sensation.” In the book he recounts the heartbreaking tale of a Hispanic mother, whose dead son’s police mug shot takes pride of place amongst more traditional family photographs.

It’s taken time for The Moth to become what it has, in terms of success, but also in what occurs on stage. So we arrange to talk to its founder George Dawes Green, to hear his own story. “You’ll love George,” Catherine tells us.

Well, it isn’t easy to love somebody who forces you up at 6am – George is a poet, author and New York night owl, which means an early rise to catch him – but that aside, he's very likeable. He recounts The Moth’s early days in a Southern drawl designed for storytelling. The original performers were so very earnest and their slots without time limit (stories are all now 10 minutes max), because there was a misguided sense that great artists needed as much time as it took. “They all wanted to be artistic and use heightened language as poets did, and they wanted to be literary and put up a barrier between the artist and the audience in which the artist is a superior person who has ventured to the extreme country and returned with news,” says George. It was a pretension which needed cut, as he explains with refreshing candour. “That was all baloney… the artist who is the raconteur needs to speak in the most elemental human language.”

He takes us on a cultural history tour; a timeline of storytelling originating at the dawn of man. “Our gift for storytelling and listening to stories is probably what makes us human… it’s this development in the cerebral cortex of episodic memory which really seems to distinguish humankind. A long, long time ago people started to share these episodic memories with the people they were travelling with. It feels intense and ancient.” We jump many centuries to the democratic language of early English drama, devoid of religious piety, then on to Galileo's father and the virtues of the Aria. “The Aria was this very simple democratic song about personal feelings… it was something that everybody could really respond to in a personal way.” And now of course we have The Moth. “I feel that storytelling is the same thing, when storytelling is great it’s about a really personal expression of emotion.”

Both Catherine and George readily admit that The Moth did not invent storytelling, even in this particular form. What they have done is move it from the dinner table, the bar, and porch and put it on stage – replacing the velvet sky above with a velvet curtain behind. But it has now developed as an independent art form, which means that those famous experts of writing or performance are not necessarily accomplished storytellers. “It’s completely shocking to them when they can’t do it.” George tells me. “One of the reasons that people can’t is that they don’t grab the very simple principle to storytelling, which is that a great raconteur admits to some fault or human foible or frailty, and the admission is very difficult to some of our fancy literary minds.”

He mentions an extremely famous French philosopher (not by name) who refused to admit such failings, unable to view himself in that light. “On the other hand there have been many literary minds who have been incredibly good Moth storytellers,” George continues, his voice warming “ of them was Christopher Hitchens. He was inebriated, he hadn’t rehearsed enough, we thought he was going to fall on his face but he just told such a brilliant complex tale, and it seemed to wander a bit and then as the timekeeper played him out he managed to pull in all of these threads and just nailed his ending.” Neil Gaiman is another, now an accepted member of The Moth family. When we spoke with Neil recently on separate matters, he enthused about The Moth as an excited fan might. “Getting out there and doing live storytelling about oneself I think is so huge and incredibly exciting. I’ve loved doing Moth things.”

The principle pleasure for a fertile mind such as his being able to transport into disparate lives and experiences. “One of the things that fascinates me about The Moth, it puts you inside people’s heads. I don’t know what it’s like to be born without legs, but The Moth stories put me right inside. I don’t know what it’s like to be on a small boat and suddenly discover that you’re being shipwrecked and have to survive, but I’ve read the Moth story, I was there. It’s definitely a way to share humanity.” A second principle and pleasure sits as opposite, not to view these lives as distant and exotic but to map the many connections between them and our own. Catherine recounts the storyteller Bliss Broyard: “…on her father’s deathbed he admitted to her and her brother and sister that he was actually African American and had been passing for white his whole life, and they had no idea – she told that story at The Moth having never really talked about it before, and like, 15 people came up to her afterwards, and nobody had a father who had passed for white but people were like, I never knew I was Jewish, or my father hid from me that he and my grandmother were both gay. Crazy family secrets that made the story very relatable.”

We can all transport and connect when The Moth arrive in Edinburgh this August, adding Scottish voices to their quilt of international stories. For those unable to attend then these true voices are captured in paper and ink – yet with character intact – in Catherine’s book of 50 stories, and also set free on The Moth podcast. The most recent stories of what began with George ‘…on a porch on a Georgia island, while a troupe of moths staggered around the light.’

The Moth will be telling stories at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 Aug, 8pm, £10(£8) The Moth: This is a True Story is out 7 Aug, published by Serpents Tail, RRP £15