There is something very fitting about The Moth being in Harlem for the most recent Harlem Week. Harlem is known for its large African diasporic population, and oral storytelling traditions have deep roots in African culture.
“Africa is the second-largest continent, with more than eight hundred different languages spoken among the various ethnic groups,” stated Madafo Lloyd Wilson in a 2002 issue of the Tar Heel Junior Historian. “Each group has its own term to describe the storyteller.”
During Harlem Week, the team behind the massively popular storytelling radio program The Moth Radio Hour and corresponding Moth podcast, set up its own pop-up booth lined with glistening white listening stations, outfitted with touch screens and earphones. Visitors could get a taste of what fully formed stories and pitches sound like, and what grabs the attention of the directors and curators who listen to and choose the pitches. Moth facilitators, who assist those chosen in preparing their stories to be performed, were on-site to offer guidance and constructive advice to those who wanted to pitch stories.
Rust went on, “They get to sit with one of our facilitators and start to build out their story. From there, they can record it and call our pitch line. We listen to all of those.” Larry Rosen, a master instructor at The Moth, explained, “What makes it a story, is what these events did to change [your] life.”
The Moth Senior Curatorial Producer Suzanne Rust spoke to the Amsterdam News saying, “We wanted to be here for Harlem Week. We’ve had several shows in Harlem at the Apollo and the Africa Center. So we’re really trying to connect with this community because we know it’s a community rich with raconteurs. We want to get Harlem familiar with us so that we get people coming to our events and sharing their stories with the community. This was the perfect opportunity.” To that end, The Moth will hold a StorySLAM on Oct. 22 at The Schomburg.
Listening to the pitches is one of the most rewarding parts of the job reveals Rust. “I laugh out loud and cry almost every day. Some of the stories are so gorgeous.”
Brooklyn resident Marguerite Ricks pitched a story at the Harlem Week event. Speaking to the Amsterdam News, she shared, “I came to America during the Liberian civil war 40 years ago so I have a lot of stories to tell. I hear The Moth all the time but I never thought I would get a chance to tell my own story.” Of the pitching experience she said, “They were encouraging. They make you listen to someone else’s story. Then they listen to your story and then they turn it into a two-minute pitch.”
The Moth was founded 22 years ago by a novelist, George Dawes Green, whose award-winning first novel “The Caveman’s Valentine,” was adapted into a screenplay directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Aunjanue Ellis and Samuel L. Jackson.
Green spent a lot of his youth on St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia. St. Simons Islands is itself a locale rich with African oral tradition by way of its Gullah community. Rosen explained, “At nighttime, people would come together and tell each other stories and they would see the moths come into the light, so they started to call themselves “the moths.”
When Green moved to New York, he sought to recreate the feeling of sultry summer evenings in his native Georgia, when moths were attracted to the light on the porch where he and his friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales. The first New York Moth event was held in George’s living room and the story events quickly spread to larger venues throughout the city.
It has since grown to be a cultural phenomenon, with a program syndicated on public radio across the country, and a popular podcast. Now, The Moth is expanding even more.
The Moth team is looking to make it a cultural staple in Harlem. “We’d like to have a StorySLAM. We host shows in the Bronx, and we have Brooklyn covered, but we don’t have a regular presence here. And I think that would really be a huge thing,” Rust said.
A less formal version of The Moth “Mainstage” performances are the StorySLAMs. Rust explains, “Every StorySLAM has a theme. It could be fear, it could be hunger, or love. People come with an idea of a story with that theme. It’s not read so they have to have the story in their head. They show up at one of our SLAMS, they put their names in a hat. Ten people will get called on to tell a five-minute version of that story.” Then, there’s a panel of judges picked from the audience that votes on the winner.
The pop-up appearance at Harlem Week was also sort of a test case of something that they are planning to roll out for the rest of the country in the near future. Rust explained, “This is the first foray into taking it somewhere as a pop-up experience. We want to take it across the country to places where we can find diverse and inspiring storytellers to invite onto our stages.”