Behind the Scenes at The Moth

An image from a 2014 Moth event, under a Creative Commons license.
An image from a 2014 Moth event, under a Creative Commons license. Kene Sperry
“The Moth is a battle of narcissists,” says Morley McBride with a laugh, standing at the front of a stage at Swallow Hill as the room fills with a crowd eager to hear the stories of strangers. It’s the third Friday of July, which means that assistant producer McBride, a blonde in a black jumpsuit, is seeing to the final steps of preparing the monthly StorySLAM event, a live offshoot of the main New York event. At the StorySLAM, Denverites tell and receive scores on their narratives of personal experiences. If you’ve ever wondered what the in-person Moth events are like but haven’t yet managed to snag the in-demand tickets, here’s your answer:

The Background
The Moth began in 1997, the brainchild of Georgia native George Dawes Green, who wanted to bring the feel of late nights spent spinning stories to New York. Since then, it's branched into a podcast, a radio hour and a variety of satellite events, including the StorySLAM in Denver. It’s not the only storytelling event in the area — The Narrators, Raconteurs and Art of Storytelling are similar exercises in vulnerability — but it has name recognition and a format among, in McBride’s words, “judged open mics.”

The Pre-Show
First, you have to score tickets, which go on sale a week before the event and sell out fast. If that doesn’t work, you can also snag at-the-door tickets if you arrive at 6 p.m., at Swallow Hill’s Platt Park location. Then you can grab a drink, purchase merchandise like an “I (Moth Symbol) Stories” shirt and take a seat in the low-key theater, which has string lights suspended from the rafters. Upon entry, volunteers hand out a slip of paper with a story prompt of your own. The July one reads, “Tell me about a time that all that glittered wasn’t gold.” You’re supposed to write your own bite-sized anecdote down and then turn it in at the front of the room.

As people deposit stories, McBride rifles through disclosure forms in a tote bag. They’re people who have thrown their name in the proverbial hat to take the stage; at 7:10, there are eight, which McBride is pleased by. People “usually get courage right before the show,” she says, and then wait in trepidation to see if they’ll be called as names get pulled out of the bag after each story.

The Judges
A Moth StorySLAM is by the community, for the community, so attendees can volunteer to rate each tale. McBride roams the crowd, looking for a friend group to volunteer for the job. Halfway back, a group of short-haired, retirement-aged women flag her down. They say they’ve been frequenting StorySLAMs for about a year. McBride runs them through the basics: It’s one-decimal-point Olympic scoring, like for gymnastics, and they have a series of numbers on binder rings to rifle through and hold up, 1.0 through 10.0. Here’s a secret: Nobody gets a ten, or really below a seven. The team also needs a name. “How about Charlie’s Angels?” one suggests. (Ultimately, they settle on “Eye of the Beholder,” in keeping with the night’s theme, which is Beauty. Each Story Slam has a set theme with which the narratives are supposed to engage.)

The two couples on a double date celebrating a fiftieth birthday become the judicial team known as Skin Deep. The women were freshman roommates at UCLA. The last judges I don’t see, only hear them yell their names out in loud bass voices from the balcony seats: “And the Beast.”

click to enlarge A rough approximation of the view from the stage. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
A rough approximation of the view from the stage.
Wikimedia Commons
The Vibe
The room hums by the time McBride and the host, Kevin Carlin, sit in black-backed chairs on the stage and kick things off. A lot of the audience must be regulars, because when McBride announces that the regular producer, Betsy Lamberson, has “been busy with a production of [her] own” — a newborn son — and mentions there will be a card at the edge of the stage to sign during intermission, they cheer with vigor. The crowd, which McBride described as more gray-haired than its New York equivalent, is varied. I pass a man with an oxygen tube and meet a pint-sized woman who timed her trip from Virginia Beach to overlap with this event. My seatmates are a vocally enthusiastic man and, on the other side, a woman wearing cat-print tights accompanied by a man with an impressively waxed curly mustache.

The Show
Carlin starts with a tale of his own and cracks jokes on stage, a friendly but not overwhelming presence in cargo pants and a yellow shirt. He reads out the name of the next storyteller, who walks up to the stage and has five minutes to recount a beauty-related yarn. Approaching the time limit, McBride blows a tiny train whistle. Then the judges hold up scores, which McBride records on a giant whiteboard.

The Stories

The stories are warm-hearted, personal and (the best ones) funny. Matthew Taylor, a British man with expressive hands and an easy smile, goes first and shares how his son Alistair once asked for a Jesus piñata for his birthday party. He gets lots of laughs and scores of 8.7, 9 and 8.9. Then there are stories about mothers and sons and gender roles, a boy-meets-girl love story with the backdrop of chronic illness, stories from Red Rocks and the U.S.-Mexico border, tales of stints in ski towns. A young guy wearing a green-brimmed snapback speaks about struggling with premature balding, while a blonde with her foot in a medical boot gets raucous laughs when she mentions how one date slept with a katana.

Between each tale, Carlin pauses to read the audience’s mini-stories. The best answer to “tell me about a time when all that glittered wasn’t gold”? “When my lawyer informed me that being the president does not give me the power to pardon myself.”

Before tabulating the final scores, Carlin invites the three would-be-storytellers whose names weren’t drawn on stage to tantalize the audience with just their first lines. Then Beth Bradley is announced as the StorySLAM victor. There’s no trophy, but Bradley will get to compete in the Grand Slam this November. “I was nervous, but it was very exhilarating,” Bradley says of her first time telling a story live (hers was about gaining confidence during a hectic New York fashion internship with a larger-than-life supervisor). For his part, Stephen Cognetta, another first-time storyteller, says the experience is relieving: “It felt like I took a long pee,” he recalls. Summing up the art, my enthusiastic neighbor leans over and tells me that, well, the StorySLAM makes him feel human.

The Logistics

Denver StorySLAMs by the Moth happen every third Friday; tickets are available online one week in advance and in limited quantities at the door if you show up early. This month's StorySLAM (theme: Caution), at 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 18, at Swallow Hill Music, 71 East Yale Avenue, is sold out; for information on future events or to find the weekly podcast, visit The Moth online.
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Lila Thulin recently graduated from Stanford University, where she earned a Human Biology degree with a minor in Creative Writing (she also learned to bike no-handed). She’s an aficionado of libraries, bagels and art in all forms; she covers the latter as a Westword intern.
Contact: Lila Thulin