Moth Ann Arbor StorySLAM unites with personal tales of human experience

By Karen Hua, Daily TV/New Media Editor
Published February 22, 2015

Fluorescent colors illuminated the ice as they steamed from neon signs. Even before the show, Circus Bar had us wound up in a line that stretched down the block, a line of locals eager to wait despite the chill of midweek blues.

I met my English class and my professor as the day was growing dark, but Circus was lighting up. We were lucky to have tickets in hand already because, as one of Ann Arbor’s hidden gems, the Moth StorySLAM sells out instantly every month. As a University student, it’s especially easy to get caught up in the “Michigan bubble” (the furthest I’ve ventured from campus is probably Main Street). But, for that Tuesday night, I felt like a local among the eclectic crowd, simply gathered by the fascination of storytelling.

Cradling our sodas and popcorn bowls, we squeezed around to find seats despite arriving an hour and a half early. The bar emitted a welcome vibrancy from the frigidity of the outdoors, an enthusiasm that embraced us in warmth. Next to us lounged a rambunctious guy who cussed every other sentence; behind us sat two elderly girlfriends on their GNO; by our right was a group of alternatively-dressed college students. It was a snug venue for the popularity of the event, but our physical proximity forced us all to small talk and share our own minute stories while we waited.

The idea of StorySLAM is simple: real people face a live audience to tell a true story about themselves in just five minutes. The event is hosted by NPR’s Moth radio hour, and in Michigan, the event comes to Ann Arbor’s Circus Bar every third week of the month and Detroit’s Cliff Bells club the first week of each month.

There are usually 10 performing storytellers among 300 in the audience, where most attendees are either regulars or newcomers. Throughout the entire night, the audience remained receptive, clapping heartily for every performer and reciprocating the same energy that radiated from the stage. For storytellers, both first-timers and veterans, the experience can be daunting – but the audience was there to provide support rather than critique. After all, the theme of the night was “adventure.”

The general public’s understanding of “storytelling” is muddled – appreciated by some, ambiguous to others. The oral tradition lies at the root of the written word: what we read in print, on screen, on social media. However, storytelling is often an overlooked art, overshadowed by digital media’s domineering presence. Thus, the Moth aims to spread awareness about storytelling’s growing prevalence – to debunk myths about its archaic nature.

At the core, the event spreads poignant stories that need to be shared. In doing so, people may learn how their mundane lives can evoke primal understanding from larger audiences. In their ordinary lives, there may be inspiration for others. In turn, these storytellers may gain a newfound understanding of themselves.

Patricia “Patty” Wheeler, the Michigan StorySLAM producer, introduced us to the concept with an infectious vivacity. Doubling as emcee for the night, she encouraged audience interaction by asking for anonymous contributions in response to the prompt: “Tell us about a time you had no idea what would happen, but you went for it anyway.” Between performances, she read the micro-stories aloud – short but earnest anecdotes of finding future spouses, discovering beauty amid the chaos of parenthood and other life-changing experiences summed up in two sentences.

First to perform was Grace, a stout middle-aged woman who fervently recounted her – tragic, albeit hilarious – diarrhea experience in Mexico as an adolescent. The irony between her maternal appearance and her zany tone set the vibe for the night – an atmosphere of honesty and mutual acceptance.

Many stories proceeded to narrate comedic misadventures like hers – study abroad experiences gone awry, evading responsibility or inciting debauchery as adults. It became difficult to discern the novices from the veterans, as the environment allowed for a comfort among all parties. Each performer carried a natural ability to speak candidly without concern of being rehearsed or well-versed. What mattered most was the story delivery over content. Simple stories were often the most affectively complex.

Such was Emily Elizabeth “E.E.” Scott, whose story added a deeper dimension to the night’s predominantly humorous vibe. She spoke sincerely about her mother’s memory loss, a tragedy turned into an “I fear no fate” tattoo. Her performance elicited tears, but also occasional chuckles of recognition – dual sensations that left us in speechlessness afterward. For Scott, a young Ann Arbor regular but first-time storyteller, her ease onstage convinced us all she had done this dozens of times before.

Scott explained, “Storytelling in person is different from any other type, because it’s almost like you have less control and you might not know what’s going to happen. You might surprise yourself in your words, whereas in writing, you know what you’re going to do, or you have the power to edit, at least.”

Scott proved that storytelling’s heart lies in its primal nature. Most of the audience probably had never had explosive diarrhea in Mexico or a mother fading away with memory loss – but we did have our individual experiences with love, loss and adventure that translated into shared understanding.

Wheeler started as an essayist and Moth volunteer three and a half years ago. She mentioned how just after attending one event, she saw the three-way link between the writer and the speaker, and the importance of hearing the story as a listener. Writers and speakers alike are storytellers, but sharing experiences aloud for a responsive audience can be cathartic and revitalizing in ways writing in solitude cannot.

She told us, “When you hear somebody and you see their face … hearing the emotion in somebody’s story helps connect to your own life and the emotions that you have.”

As evidenced by the night, there’s so much to be learned from fellow human experiences. With live, spoken-word stories, there’s an immediacy and an intimacy, a holistic sensation that accompanies each tale told. By seeing and hearing the speaker face to face, their emotions are unadulterated by our own interpretations when we read.

Theorist Walter Benjamin calls “the author as producer,” referring to how oral tradition gives authority back to the storyteller. In true tales, the facts will remain, but storytelling inspires communication with listeners and control over the presentation. Whereas novels and written word distance the reader from the writer, storytelling has an accessible closeness.

“Everybody has stories in their lives that have stuck with them, and if we give the opportunity for everyday people … to get up and tell true stories … that helps everybody else know that their lives are also special and dynamic, and that they have stories that are worth sharing,” Wheeler said.

Though many bemoan the decline of the oral tradition, events like StorySLAM attest to the revival of true stories, and how they are becoming increasingly important in our technological age. Ultimately, the Moth’s greater mission is to elucidate how we all can be storytellers, and then to use digital means of storytelling to share this honesty we put forth. Wheeler noted similar foundations – 2nd Story in Chicago, massmouth StoriesLive in Boston, the National Storytelling Network in Tennessee – and many more with aims akin.

“There’s this giant resurgence of oral storytelling that’s happening all around the country and all around the world,” Wheeler said. “It’s only going to get stronger and stronger through community experiences like this.”

At the end of the event, we left buzzed from the heartwarming vibes of good people, good art and a good night. As we departed for the cold outdoors, many of us vowed to return next month to add our own kindling to the fiery passion for stories.