The art of storytelling has been around since the beginning of time, from the Lascaux
Paleolithic cave paintings through Homer and Shakespeare. Many eras also proclaimed storytelling's demise: the advent of the printing press, radio, television, the Internet. But audiences are always clamouring for a good true story, as evidenced by live comedy, the memoir glut and so-called reality television.
In New York City , the savviest of visitors make a beeline for The Moth, the storytelling competition where ten audience members volunteer to tell true tales (under five minutes long), which are often broadcast on its popular podcast. But in the 14 years since George Dawes Green created the event, the audience line to get into the weekly New York events - unlike in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles incarnations - can start a couple of hours in advance. More than 100 people are often turned away for space limitations on any given night.
But while The Moth has become a victim of its own success, it also spawned a bevy of other storytelling events around Manhattan and Brooklyn. Some even feature the same Moth winners, as well as authors, comedians, one-person-show stars and non-professionals who just want to share a good yarn. While the Moth StorySlam is the only show that draws all its performers from a lottery and judges it as a competition, other shows in the city feature unique components, such as adhering to a specific theme or mixing in improvisation, music, fiction and audience participation.
The Liar Show features four writers and comics who tell 10-minute personal stories. But only three of them are true. The audience must interrogate the performers to determine who is lying. "I started 'the Lie' idea specifically because at other shows there was always the post-show 'How much of that was true?' or 'You must be exaggerating, no?' -- that kind of thing," said Andy Christie, the host who founded the show nearly five years ago. "I thought if the doubt is already there, why not have fun with it?" Recent stories included a man whose stomach staples opened up, a preschool trip to the butterfly museum gone awry, being attacked by a pit bull and a surprise party whose guest never showed.
Many storytelling shows like Ask Me Stories, Stories at Perch and N.Y. Confidential: Stories Exposed explore changing themes like "tripping" and "secret identity". But at The Story Collider the theme is always science. "I discovered I was more interested in talking about how science affects people, about the emotional side", than "becoming an expert in something maybe 10 people cared about", said Ben Lillie, who was a high-energy particle theorist before he founded The Story Collider.
For a more risqué evening, try Stripped Stories, about people's sex lives, This is Awkward: Stories About Love, Lust and Lubrication and RISK! "a fun-house mirror version of This American Life", said founder Kevin Allison, referring to the popular US public radio program, currently based in New York, featuring many personal stories, including some told in The Moth. Allison tries to feature people like comedians Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo and Kevin Nealon, as well as actors like Lili Taylor of Six Feet Under, to expose lesser-known sides of themselves. Recent themes included "son of strange eex" and "in the flesh".
Instead of searching for a particular show, you can also head to a venue that offers various storytelling shows. The Belleville Lounge in Brooklyn hosts The Do What's in Your Heart Show, of live hope-inducing storytelling, and Real Characters Storytelling, which weaves fictional character performances into real stories.
The Brooklyn bar, Pacific Standard , hosts The Story Collider, The Standard Issues, a thematic storytelling show that invites one hat-picked "mystery guest", and Mimsy, an experimental show featuring a regular cast of eight who mix storytelling with improvisation, skits and audience participation.
Under St. Marks, a performance space under a church in the East Village, features the poignant StorySlam winner and host Peter Aguero, whose BTK Band improvises a chorus to accompany four raconteurs' true tales. "It's as if Tom Waits and The Moth delivered a baby from the gaping maw of Chaos," Aguero said. [The venue also features Told, which is hosted by This American Life production manager Seth Lind.
Lind said the podcasts from The Moth and This American Life have made storytelling popular. "Now shows are popping up everywhere because it is accessible - everyone has had something happen that is worth sharing, and you don't have to have insane performance chops to pull it off. I think there will be a storytelling TV show pretty soon, then we can all say it was cooler way back when," said Linde, who recently filmed a TV pilot of Told.
Unlike comedy clubs, storytelling is not always funny. "The first story I ever told at The Moth was about taking my father off of life support," said Daisy Rosario, who works as a producer of the live Moth shows and hosts her own storytelling show called Sunday Stories. "Afterward a few people came up to me and told me they had been through taking someone off life support, but that they rarely, if ever, talked about it."
Stories can be funny, poignant, long or short, said Leslie Goshko, whose show, Sideshow Goshko mixes trivia games and giveaways with storytelling. "A good story [has] conflict, fleshed-out characters, story arc - but really, a huge thing is honesty. Be true to your personality, your situation, and your emotions at the time of the story," she said. "One of the best compliments I can get after a show is, 'Oh my god, I can totally relate! That reminds me of this one time... '"
Storyteller Steve Zimmer, winner of 12 Moth StorySlams and two GrandSlams (the final round featuring 10 slam winners), explained the appeal of this burgeoning form. "The best thing about storytelling is that you can hear a good movie in six or seven minutes. There's nothing like it if it's well done." Hear a Zimmer story here.