Entertainment & Arts

The Moth storytelling events arrive in the UK

Image copyright other
Image caption Speakers can tell any story they want without interruption

In America the Moth has been organising storytelling events since 1997. Now it's arrived in London to launch monthly sessions. The stories told on stage are largely autobiographical and at times highly intimate. But will the reveal-all formula work outside the USA?

"The reason I started the Moth was simple," says George Dawes Green. "I was tired of being interrupted and of hearing others being interrupted. Go to any party in New York City and there are vultures ready to jump in before you finish a sentence. I wanted a place where people talk for ten or twelve minutes without interruption."

The Moth began in New York but now runs in more than a dozen other US cities too. There are two formats. Curated, formal sessions feature professional writers and performers telling a story to an audience. Then there are Story Slams where ten members of the audience, who have put their name forward, are selected to come on stage and tell a story of five or six minutes.

Judges award marks both for what storytellers say and how they say it. A dire effort may be followed by a gem. But experience has taught Dawes Green what kind of story works best.

"Our house rules openly urge participants towards the autobiographical: that's what audiences enjoy. Occasionally a storyteller will drift off into telling about something that happened to his grandfather or whatever. In that case you feel the audience start to turn away pretty rapidly. They want to hear about immediate experience."

Catherine Burns is artistic director. "The important thing is these are true stories told live: it's not a hunt for America's next Raymond Carver or Scott Fitzgerald," she says. "We aren't really interested in the purely fictional and in the States if someone gets up and tells a story which is clearly untrue we don't give it a score."

The latest mission is to bring the brand to Europe. "We're starting in London, Edinburgh and Dublin. We figured if we can't find good talkers in those cities we're doing it wrong. We're finding that many of those who turn up know us from internet radio and our podcasts."

Image copyright other
Image caption The show attracted a mixed audience of around 100 people

The Moth Radio Hour has been running since 2009. It's heard on some 200 stations across America.

One fan in the audience for the London event was former BBC radio executive Trevor Dann. "I love it as radio because it's authentic. When you listen to the people telling stories you just know they mean it. Traditional radio can be overproduced but there's something about The Moth on air which is natural and even magical."

The inaugural Slam, in a basement bar in Shoreditch, east London was slightly chaotic but good natured. It gave an idea of what the Moth may achieve once people realise that anecdotes from their private lives have found a hungry new outlet.

One of those on stage was 29 year-old comedian Charlie Partridge. He thinks the Moth has come to the UK at the right time.

"Look around the live performance scene in London and there's a trend to openness and transparency. Maybe there's an overlap with the thoughtful end of stand-up comedy - though Moth stories can be serious and even moving.

"When the Moth began I guess it could have seemed a bit too American for Brits. It's really exposing to stand on stage and talk about yourself. But now we've had years of Twitter and Facebook. People of my mother's generation think it's insane what people reveal online or happily talk about in public. But culture changes."

Two of the first performers in London spoke particularly personally. Both Bisi Alimi and Rachel Ogilvy employed touches of humour to win over the audience of a hundred or so. But both had serious stories to tell.

Image copyright other
Image caption People are urged to reveal their most intimate details

Bisi Alimi spoke of growing up gay in Nigeria and the difficulty of talking to friends and family about his sexuality. "So I love the ethics of the Moth, that honesty is everything. I was talking about the most difficult part of my life but even though I hadn't expected to be called on stage, I was just there in the moment and went with the energy the audience gave me. I loved it."

Rachel Ogilvy, an actress from Glasgow, told a story about realising she might have had breast cancer. Though she was careful to build in moments of wry observation, it was one of the evening's more serious tales.

"It wasn't until I was stood in front of a room full of people that I realised quite how intimate my story was. I gave myself a bit of a fright half-way through. But I knew it was a story worth telling because though I'm now healthy so many people have been through the same thing.

"I think the trick to the Moth is not sticking to a script word for word. On stage you need signposts along the way but if there isn't an element of ad-libbing I think the audience won't connect."

Judging for the London Story Slam was relaxed: Rachel and Bisi were awarded joint first with American performer Tim Sommers. But founder Dawes Green says for now the competitive element can remain secondary.

"We just want to see how Britain takes to the idea. Maybe people won't tell the same kind of stories they do in America. But that's fine: there are differences of approach between New York and Pittsburgh too.

"People say Brits are buttoned down compared to some Americans. But in my experience they're prepared to drink and become incredibly entertaining.

"The British writer Christopher Hitchens was a great friend of mine and he was a great Moth storyteller. All I want to see is people telling stories in his spirit. That would be beautiful."

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites