By Christina Wood
Stories fill the pages of books, play out on movie and TV screens, and keep us coming back to social media time and time again. But nothing communicates a story quite like the voice of a person standing right in front of you.
Maybe that explains the popularity of The Moth, an acclaimed nonprofit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. Since launching in 1997, The Moth has presented more than 40,000 stories, all told live on stage without the use of notes.
“When someone is standing in front of a room and sharing a part of themselves, you can’t change the channel, you’re not going to click on ‘next’ or bookmark it for later,” says Jenifer Hixson, senior director and co-host of The Moth Radio Hour. “It forces you to be present in the moment with this other human being.”
Ten more stories will be added to the Moth’s total on Saturday, Feb. 29, at 3 p.m., when one of the organization’s StorySlams is presented in the Cultural Arts Center at Mizner Park as part of this year’s Festival of the Arts Boca.
A Moth StorySlam is an open-mic storytelling competition. Any ticketholder with a five-minute story on the night’s designated theme can put their name in The Moth “hat” for a chance to take the stage. One by one, 10 storytellers, picked at random, will share their stories with the audience. Judges, who are also selected from the audience, will score each of the featured stories and designate a winner. At a future date, that storyteller will then have the opportunity to face off with other StorySlam winners in a GrandSlam Championship.
“People who go onto the GrandSlam will be coached but the StorySlam is a bit of a wild card. We don’t exactly know what’s going to happen,” Hixson says. “That’s kind of the excitement.”
Not everyone is a born storyteller. But even the unsuccessful stories can add something to the mix at a StorySlam. “The audience tends to be very generous at The Moth shows. If you forget where you’re going in the middle of your story, they will clap and cheer you on. It melts your heart every time that happens.” And, if things go from bad to worse, “Mercifully,” Hixson says, “it’s only five minutes.”
You don’t have to take the stage to get into the spirit of the show. “There are ways to participate from your seat, you don’t have to tell a story,” Hixson says. “We hand out audience slips where you can write little tales or answers to a question and the host will read those in between the stories. It is a really fun night.”
The storytellers who are selected to take the stage are judged on basics like keeping within the five-minute time limit and staying true to the event’s theme, but to take the top spot, stories must be compelling. “A great storyteller really brings you into their world,” Hixson says. “You feel the things they feel and see the things they see. And you feel much more connected to other human beings.”
While StorySlam participants aren’t coached, they can find storytelling tips and tricks on The Moth’s website (TheMoth.org). In addition to giving storytellers a good idea of what they want – true stories told from the storyteller’s perspective that hook people in and make them care about the outcome – The Moth also provides a useful list of things it doesn’t want, including standup routines, rants, essays, fake accents, fiction and racism. And, of course, storytellers can’t refer to notes when they’re up on stage.
The nonprofit has a mission not only to promote the art and craft of storytelling but also to honor and celebrate the diversity and commonality of human experience. Their work allows a dizzying array of people – from astronauts and Nobel laureates to mechanics and dental hygienists – to share their stories with live audiences across the country and in several cities around the world.
In addition to the live shows, The Moth also offers storytelling workshops, a podcast, the Peabody Award-winning Radio Hour (which airs locally on Saturday afternoons at 1 p.m. on public radio station WLRN 91.3 FM) and a series of books, all of which harness the power of personal storytelling to create community and build empathy.
The theme selected for the Boca StorySlam is “Achilles Heel,” which fits in with the overall theme for the 2020 edition of Festival of the Arts Boca: A Season of Heroes. With a lineup that includes The Symphonia performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 – the Eroica – as well as a screening of The Empire Strikes Back with full orchestra and appearances by the Eroica Trio and classical guitarist Milos, who is making a comeback following a devasting hand injury, it seemed only natural.
“We are thrilled to bring The Moth to our community,” says Joanna Marie Kaye, executive director of Festival of the Arts Boca. “Anyone who is willing to stand up on that stage and share their story is definitely a hero in our book.”
Hixson believes The Moth’s Achilles Heel StorySlam in Boca will be a great night for the community. After sharing stories and laughing with each other, she hopes people will come away from the event with a new awareness. “We hope that the next time they’re sitting in traffic and they look around, they see not just people but stories,” she says. “Everybody has stories. If you just give someone a little attention they’ll come out.”
Festival of the Arts Boca, an annual celebration of music, film, concerts and authors, returns to the Mizner Park Amphitheater and Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center in Boca Raton Feb. 28 through March 8. Tickets range from $15 to $150 per person and are available at www.festivalboca.org or by calling (866) 571-ARTS (866-571-2787). Tickets to The Moth StorySlam are sold out, but there is a waiting list.