For four years, Manhattanites have been coaxed out of their lairs to attend an evening of old-fashioned yarn spinning called "Stories at the Moth." Six storytellers, some best-selling novelists and some off the street, each take the small nightclub stage and weave a spontaneous tale 12 minutes long—a tale funny or scary, spoken or sung—but always emotionally (if not factually) true.
The Moth is the brainchild of novelist George Dawes Green (The Juror, The Caveman's Valentine
). Green longed to import the yarn-spinning intimacy of the barbecues he loved growing up on St. Simon's Island, Georgia, to his adopted island of Manhattan. "We used to sit around and drink bourbon and swap stories on my friend's porch, and the porch light would draw moths," he says. "We were a mix of artists and rednecks, a congeries of odd people. We called ourselves the Moths." When Green chose Joey Xanders to re-create that dream, the Moth found its queen bee.
Green and Xanders met in 1988 when Xanders was a young preschool teacher and stage manager for a women's community theater group. The two became friends and nearly a decade later, the first Moth evening was held in 1997 in Green's living room. Since then, Xanders has perfected the unusual art of helping someone develop a tale, with themes ranging from melancholy to the seven deadly sins.
"Telling a story, and hearing one, is like jumping on a train," explains Xanders. "A story is about creating what's possible in the world, about taking action, not about being a passive receiver of events. Stories tell you that you can shape the narrative of your life. It's a way of being in the world. That's huge."
Convinced that having your story heard "translates into self-respect, a sense of worthiness," Xanders has organized a network of outreach volunteers who lead workshops at homeless shelters, AIDS hospices, youth programs and young mothers centers throughout the city.
One evening at Project Renewal, a Lower East Side organization that helps the homeless, a man named Darryl talked about his longing to play football when he was 13 years old. Over the course of five Moth outreach sessions, Darryl perfected his tale. The first time, he practiced it with his back to the workshop group; the second time, he looked at the ceiling and kept trailing off. But when he finally told it in front of 200 men, he used props, different voices and costume changes—and was outrageously funny. The audience gave him a standing ovation.
"In our outreach program, I am very clear about saying that this is not therapy, this is an art form we're learning," Xanders stresses. "At the same time, I believe that storytelling is healing."
What You Can Do
- For more about "Stories at the Moth," go to www.themoth.org