Aspen Times Weekly: ‘True Stories Told Live’ at the Wheeler
for Aspen Journalism
What do a Japanese pop star, an Afghan refugee and a worker in Antarctica have in common?
Well, not much, at least at first glance. But you can bet each one has quite a story to tell. And that’s the essence of a March 13 event that will unite them on the stage of the Wheeler Opera House.
Since its inception in 1997, a New York-based nonprofit organization called The Moth has presented true stories, told live and without notes, to audiences far and wide. Recently the outfit has been growing vigorously with a radio hour, podcast and book — all designed to celebrate the art of storytelling and the raconteurs who bring those stories to life.
Part documentary and part theater, The Moth will bring five storytellers to the Wheeler for a two-hour, spoken-word riff on the theme “On Thin Ice.” Each presenter will tell a tale that they lived themselves. According to senior producer Maggie Cino, the theme is literally appropriate to Aspen in midwinter, but also metaphorically broad enough to encompass a wide range of human experiences.
“Each show we do is totally unique,” said Cino, speaking from The Moth’s offices in New York City. “We’ll rehearse the night before, but the order of the show isn’t decided until that day.”
Some of The Moth’s storytellers are actors and professionals, accustomed to being on-stage. Some others are friends or acquaintances of people within the organization, with backgrounds or experience in theater or journalism. Still others are novices who come knocking with a compelling story to tell. Such was the case with Dori Samadzai Bonner, who first approached The Moth via the organization’s “pitch line.”
“She actually called us and pitched this crazy story about how her family got from Afghanistan to the United States,” Cino said of Samadzai Bonner, who will appear at the Wheeler. This particular yarn was such an epic, Cino added, that it was split into two narratives, the second of which will be shared in Aspen.
Storytelling is arguably the oldest art form in the world, and The Moth presents its stories with little adornment — just a person at a microphone, with a time limit but also some room to improvise and let the story breathe. It’s intentionally un-flashy, to spotlight the story and the human who lived it.
“If you’ve ever been a fan of Aspen Public Radio, Theater Aspen or the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, this will be that place where all three of those roads collide,” said Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler. “And these guys are really good at it, unlike you or me after a couple of drinks.”
The Moth has been to Aspen before as part of HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which pulled out of Aspen in 2007, but Slaton said the storytelling event was overshadowed by the big names and jam-packed calendar of Comedy Fest. “To actually bring it back to town and feature it on the kind of stage it deserves and really to honor it — that’s the kind of magic we really want to pull off here,” Slaton said.
So where did the name, The Moth, come from? Having moved to New York City, poet and novelist George Dawes Green sought to replicate a storytelling tradition that he experienced in his home state of Georgia. Summer evenings on the porch were spent sharing stories, and moths joined the party by flying through a hole in the porch screen. Like moths to a porch light, people are still drawn to well-told stories.
Aspen Public Radio recently added The Moth to its programming calendar, with two slots at 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Sundays. No guarantees, but it’s possible, according to Cino, that one or more stories from the Wheeler stage could end up on the radio hour at a later date.
And Cino, who worked with the performers to craft Thursday’s series of stories, promises a rich, intimate evening with a range of emotions from knee-slapping laughs to wrenching struggle. The stories aim to dissolve barriers, reveal truths and perhaps enlighten audience members.
“It’ll be a little slice of a lot of life,” Cino promised.
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April has been decreed, for the first time, as “Sonoma County Wine Month” by the vintners and it is a righteous idea, one that should have legs long into the future.