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Originally published Saturday, November 30, 2013 at 9:49 PM

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The Moth fans the flames of storytelling

Nicole Brodeur chats with Catherine Burns, artistic director of the storytelling organization The Moth, about plot twists, interconnectedness and Harper Lee.


/ Seattle Times columnist

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One of the fallouts of the digital revolution is that people don’t listen anymore.

We’re too busy, our minds are racing, we’re on our phones. Sitting still, just taking things in, seems like either a luxury or a waste of time.

The Moth wants to change that. The nonprofit storytelling program offers people a chance to slow down and listen to the journey of one person, either in person or in a podcast.

“We used to have systems in our world to stop and reflect, and those things are disappearing,” The Moth’s artistic director, Catherine Burns, told me the other day. “We’re trying to create a forum for us to talk about what really matters.”

On Dec. 3, The Moth will bring five storytellers to the Neptune Theatre. The show will be hosted by Dan Kennedy, an essayist, author and the host of The Moth podcast.

The storytellers are mostly local: Josh Axelrad, author of the book, “Repeat Until Rich” and winner of Moth StorySLAMS in New York; Michaela Murphy, a writer, performer and director; Stephanie Peirolo, a staffer at the Wexley School for Girls and the author of the novel “Radio Silence”; Glenn Rockowitz, a comedian and four-time cancer survivor whose book, “Rodeo in Joliet” may become a film in 2014; and Los Angeles-based comedian and actor Hasan Minhaj, the host of MTV’s “Failosophy,” who has appeared in the latest season of “Arrested Development.”

Burns will be here, too, fresh off the publication of “The Moth,” a collection of 50 true stories that she edited, and for which she wrote the introduction.

They include the story of the press secretary for President Clinton who oversleeps on his first foreign trip and misses Air Force One.

The woman who returns to her hometown in the wake of her father’s death — and faces a community who remembers her as a man.

The astronaut who trains for months and is shot into space to do repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope, only to be undermined by a single screw.

“Few of us will go into space,” Burns said. “But who can’t relate?”

All contain what every Moth story requires: An element of surprise. A change in the person telling the story. An openness and vulnerability because, as much as we love stories of triumph, we love stories of failures a tiny bit more.

“These are people being willing to tell on themselves,” Burns said, “and show us their boo-boo.”

Since 1997, The Moth has allowed some 10,000 people — some novices, some polished — to stand on stages all over the country and tell a story.

Moth stories are limited to 10 minutes, and storytellers are coached before they get on the main stage. They are taught to memorize their first and last lines of their stories, and then coached on the “bullet points” of the stories, Burns said

“We figure out what the beats of the story are, and the basic structure,” Burns said. “Ten minutes go by very fast.”

Not so at Moth StorySLAMS, where hopefuls put their names in a hat and are picked to take the stage and show their mettle.

To support its programs, The Moth has taken on consulting work with corporations seeking to better tell the story of their brand or products.

“Companies are looking for authenticity, for ways to really explain to the consumers they are trying to reach what is unique and special about them,” Burns said.

The money “helps keep the shows clean,” she said. “Raising money from the corporate program allows you to say yes to the show sponsors who make the most sense.”

Burns, 44, went to her first Moth show in 2000, two days after moving to New York City, where she had just taken a job as a television producer. Over time, she became a volunteer and 18 months later, was hired with the Moth Shop Community Program, which teaches storytelling to the elderly, prisoners, the homeless and teenagers who have a sibling with is physically or mentally handicapped.

“The simplicity, how honest everyone was,” Burns said of her first Moth show. “I started coming to all the shows.”

She eventually put her name in the hat during one of the slams, was picked last, and won with her story of how her mother invited someone new to their Alabama town over for lunch.

It turned out to be the author Harper Lee, who had come to research a follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” (Burns has a signed copy of the book — in which she scribbled as a child).

“Years later, I put it all together,” Burns said. “‘Mom! You invited Harper Lee for lunch?’ And she said, ‘Well, you have to get to know your neighbors when you’re new in town.’ ” And that’s the idea of The Moth. You have to be kind to people in the grocery store because you don’t now what’s going on with someone.”

We need to remember that when we interact with someone, “We enter the story of their day,” Burns said. “And being aware of that is a nice way to try to live your life. Knowing the truth of what is really going on in people’s lives. Stopping and slowing down and thinking about what is really important.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.



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Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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