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The Moth gives wings to young storytellers

By James Rainey Los Angeles Times August 6, 2011 In the minutes leading up to the student storytelling performance Thursday at the Colburn School, Zoe Lateju didn’t know whether she had it in her. She already had been working on her prose with one nonprofit that helps girls and young women with their writing. And she had spent four days with coaches from the Moth, the nonprofit organization that promotes storytelling, learning how to talk about a racially charged incident in one of her classrooms. But the 20-year-old didn’t know whether she could get up in front of all those people. Her distress was a part of the drama beneath the drama — watching everyday people tell everyday stories, with nothing more than their memories and a microphone — that can turn out to be extraordinary. That’s the formula that has turned the Moth, now in its second decade, from a sensation into something of an institution. The outfit modestly born in a New York City living room now operates in multiple cities and in varying forms, supporting budding actors, alongside the odd barista or accountant, who will never take a stage again. It’s a flowering that has been enhanced with the help of partners, big and small. Los Angeles has become one of the most vibrant hubs for the Moth, as exemplified this week when it packed a Santa Monica club for tales of food and cooking one night and then, the next, inspired a wildly enthusiastic reaction for Lateju and nine other student storytellers. Root for the teller The tweeting and texting generation, it turns out, has a latent appetite for non-digital diversions. Fans set aside their glowing screens for a few hours at a time, in favor of a more primal form of communication. And they check their cynicism at the door. Moth story crowds almost universally root for the “teller,” be they waitress, weightlifter or foster child. Word of mouth, appropriately, has helped drive up attendance for regular, thrice-monthly open mike events, held in Santa Monica, Silver Lake and the Mid-Wilshire area. The brand got another boost last year when KCRW-FM (89.9) began airing “The Moth Radio Hour,” which is now heard on more than 200 public radio stations. (A new crop of Moth shows is expected to return to the station this fall.) “You see people up there who are naked in a way,” said Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food,” which promoted this week’s open mike (a.k.a. “StorySLAM”) event at Zanzibar in Santa Monica. “It’s a very old medium, but it’s so inflected with modern sensibilities — irony and sharp-edged disappointment and a lot more. I love it.” Kleiman led off the evening with ruminations on a tomato, the one that could have killed her decades ago. She had been eating a Greek salad when she began to choke. Her boyfriend had to rescue her with the Heimlich maneuver. To this day, she never slices a tomato without at least a passing second thought. About 300 people packed the club for the Wednesday night event. About 100 more had to be turned away. That’s compared to the few dozen who would show up when the Moth first ventured to Los Angeles four years ago. Sometimes there would not even be the minimum 10 volunteers, each speaking for five minutes, to fill out the evening, said Kerry Armstrong, producer of the L.A. StorySLAMs. On Thursday night, another arm of the organization, the MothSHOP Community Education Program, introduced 10 L.A. area students to an audience of a couple of hundred at the Colburn School on Bunker Hill. The theme of “Standing Up” resonated not only in the kids’ tales but in their uneven and, in some cases, fraught paths to the stage. Starring in the stories were an expected share of bullies and one really mean teacher, but the weightier matters of foster care and mental illness also loomed. A lanky kid talked about his time on medication, in the hospital, in a “bad” group home and then a better one, which seemed, in comparison, “like sunshine and rainbows.” (Because of the sensitive nature of the stories, including some confidential foster-care cases, I agreed to withhold some of the performers’ names.) His story culminated with the decision, despite progress made in group care, that it was time to go home. “I knew, either way,” he concluded, “choices come with costs.” Like the others who performed, the teenager had spent four days in training with Moth coaches, who travel the country putting on such workshops. Among the biggest challenges is getting the young people to move beyond speech-making (they started with prepared essays) and to speak as themselves. The Colburn crowd cheered with abandon, some rising out of their seats. They would do the same for one of the girls who followed. One of the most poised and articulate of the teenagers on the stage, she described the day in sixth grade when her life changed. Reconnecting On a birthday trip to Disneyland she suddenly felt removed from all the hubbub, smiles and noise around her. “I was not part of it,” she said. She slid into a mental state she could not explain and doctors could not completely diagnose. She missed entire years of middle school, then part of high school, unable, at times, to get out of bed. One day, as she poked around Facebook she noticed she had missed a school discussion about the Romans. There had even been a rap about the Romans. She realized she loved the Romans. “I can’t believe I missed this,” she thought. “I can’t believe I might miss this again.” Now she is looking forward to her senior year. “No one can say what is wrong with me,” she said. “It just matters that now I know I have choices. I can move above it. I can move beyond it.” Poet and novelist George Dawes Green created the Moth in 1997 in his New York City living room, an ode to the summer nights in his native Georgia, where he and friends would tell stories on a front porch. Moths flew to the light, just as storytellers and audiences have been drawn to the warmth of the age-old form. The workshop series supporting young storytellers next moves to Chicago. The events are sponsored by Participant Media, one of the production companies behind “The Help,” the upcoming film in which African American maids in the South puncture racial humiliation by talking about their lives. Such partnerships have been crucial to the Moth’s expansion. The Moth public radio show is but one of multiple footholds for storytelling on public radio. What with “This American Life,” “Story Corps” and “The Story,” audiences have come to expect narratives that are emotionally honest, told in an informal voice. “You connect with a whole community of people you might never have connected with before,” said Sarah Austin Jenness, the Moth’s producing director. “You have inward shifts for people that I think are very important and very magical.” The rank of performers grows along with the audience. Still beaming a half hour after Thursday’s student show, Lateju was asked what she had learned. “I learned,” she said, “that even if you are crying and crying right before your performance, saying you can’t do it, things can be OK.” james.rainey@latimes.com