Understanding The Moth: True Stories Told Live

Audio Transcript

Tig Notaro: And like even down to dropping out of high school. My mother would brag to people. Yeah, Tig dropped out. She’s doing her own thing.  

Adam Kampe: That’s comedian, Tig Notaro. The audio is from an amazing story she shared in December 2012 as part of a Moth main stage show at the Avalon HOLLYWOOD. What’s The Moth? Here’s Executive Director, Sarah Haberman, with the answer.

Sarah Haberman: Well, The Moth is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the art and the craft of storytelling. Moth stories are told live, without notes, in front of audiences across the country. We’re now in 19 cities, and we are also in London and Dublin. We’re also soon to be in Sydney and Melbourne, starting next month. So you can hear The Moth in just about any city, live, across the country, but you can also hear us, now, on the radio, on 450 radio stations, thanks to the NEA. And you can also hear us on our podcast, which is downloaded now about 30 million times a year.

AK: So how Does The Moth work? I asked producing director Sarah Austin Jenness to run us through the process.

SARAH JENNESS: First, we try to figure out what kind of story you want to tell. We pull all the pieces out, we put them all back together, and then we run it a few times. We run it for time. We run it also to make sure that the story is not memorized. It sounds funny, but we ask for storytellers to memorize their first line and their last line, and just the real bullet points in between so that they know the direction that they’re traveling, at any time. But the story is not meant to be a monologue. You’re not delivering it to the audience. You’re finding new pieces and new details as you move along.

SH: I also want to add that at The Moth we have a core of directors on staff, among which Sarah Jenness is a part, and what they do is, there’s a discipline to it, I would say. In fact, Adam Gopnik likens it to trimming a bonsai tree. They’re very careful about how they craft it within 10 minutes. Not one word can be wasted. And I would have to give a nod to our directors for the extraordinary work that they do to bring out the best in every storyteller that takes the stage.

AK: TO UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS IN ACTION, Sarah Austin Jenness EXPLORED her collaboration with tig NOTARO as she prepared her story, “R2, Where Are You?”

SJ: So I’d say Tig and I had maybe four conversations before the in-person rehearsal, and then she ran her story for everyone in a room at the Redbury in Los Angeles, next to the Avalon Hollywood, where she then told it the next night.

And the story really becomes about her identity and her love for her mother, and their relationship, but it’s really about her new relationship with this man who was her mother’s husband. But when she’s talking about Ric with me on the phone, she’s saying, “Well, he’s, you know, he’s a lawyer, and he’s a former…he was in the military.” And I said, “Okay, what are some scenes, or some instances, where you can really show me who Ric is?” And we went through a couple, and we decided that this--cleaning up her room--was a terrific way to enter the story.

RIC & THE CLEANUP

TN: So when I was little I made a mess of my room like any other child my age. The difference between me and other kids was the person overseeing my clean-up was my stepfather, Ric. And Ric was an attorney and in the military, he’s very stoic, removed, emotionless. And I used to joke and say that he was kind of like C3P0, but with less emotion. And then it dawned on me recently that that joke doesn’t make any sense cause C3P0 is very emotional. He’s like “R2, Where Are You?” You know. Like my stepfather was never in a panic looking for me the way C3P0 was looking for R2. So cleaning up my room I was given an allotted time and Ric would come in and whatever was out of place he would put in a large trash bag and then he’d lock it in the trunk of the car. Then, I had to do chores to earn money to buy my toys back. It sounds harsh, because it is

SJ: And the idea of a story comes from a moment of change, a big decision you had to make, a moment that you’ll never forget in your life. You start with the idea, and then you dig. You dig deeper, you dig deeper, you dig deeper, till you come to something that feels meaty. So, as we look at her mother it brings us into the next step of the story. So, where is Tig’s movement, as a person, as the main character of this story; what does Tig want in this; and how close is she to her mother? It was the next logical step in the story.

MOM MEMORY

TN: Meanwhile my mother was very emotional, and passionate, and affectionate, she was wild and funny. She was originally from southern Mississippi in a very conservative house. And she was always just wanting to make sure that I knew the most important thing in life was to be happy. And she just supported, anything I did was so cool and I always looked adorable. And like even down to dropping out of high school. My mother would brag to people. Yeah, Tig dropped out. Yeah, Tig dropped out. She’s doing her own thing.

SJ: She moves on from this clip to then talk about how she found standup comedy, and how her mother was really a driving force in her life, and was very, very supportive, and only wanted what Tig wanted, even if it was unconventional. And the fact that her mother wanted nothing but Tig’s happiness also reinforces this strained relationship that she has with Ric that she brought up in the very beginning of the story. And so with Tig, she was going through so much. She was in the midst of turmoil. And within I believe it was a one-year period, she had a condition, an infection, called C. diff, she went through a terrible breakup, and then she was diagnosed with cancer, all within one spell. And there was a phone call that came from “parents.” And, as she says in the story, she thought that it was her mother wishing her a happy birthday, but really it was Ric.

THE PHONE CALL

TN: And he was calling to tell me that my mother had fallen and hit her head and was not gonna make it. And I immediately pictured her lying in a hospital just barely hanging on saying call Tig, tell her to come to Texas to say goodbye. And I said, “can I talk to my mother?” And he said “no, you can’t ever talk to her again.” My mother had suffered massive brain hemorrhaging with zero chance of recovery.

SJ: Well, we talked a lot about this as we were crafting the story, and death is cut-and-dry, but relationships are not black-and-white in that way. And I think this clip and this moment, she’s so telling on herself, and she’s so vulnerable, that-- and because of how she’s set Rick up, we, as listeners, immediately put ourselves in her position. What would it be like to get a call like that from someone who we have a rough relationship with, or someone who we don’t feel close to, or someone who we feel at incredible odds with? And so we are suddenly right there next to her, as she receives that call. And when she says, “Put her on the phone,” and Rick says, “I can’t, she-- you’ll never talk to her again”... yeah. Even listening to that clip now, it’s like we are receiving that news for ourselves.

SH: That’s right. I mean, when a Moth story goes well, the storyteller really connects with the audience, and that listener really feels as though the storyteller is talking directly to him or her. And you can feel that sort of crackling in the audience that comes through in the Radio Hour and in the podcast, and I feel like that experience translates really well-- that live experience translates really well-- over our audio and podcast and Radio Hour. It’s amazing. So, true stories told live, that’s the key.

AK: AND FOR YEARS NOW, THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS HAS BEEN SUPPORTING THE MOTH. IN FACT, WE’VE GIVEN THEM 12 GRANTS IN TWO DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES: 6 IN THE LITERATURE DISCIPLINE FOR THE MOTH MAINSTAGE SHOWS AND 6 IN MEDIA ARTS FOR THE PODCAST.

SH: What is so critical to our work is to be able to have the Mainstage shows. The Mainstage shows often end up on the Radio Hour, and without funding to be able to have these incredible storytellers, to have the wherewithal to find them, develop them, bring them in, in some cases, to our stage, depending on how far away they may be, it’s critical, so we can then transmit those voices elsewhere, through the radio waves and on the podcast, as I mentioned. And we really do count on the support of the NEA and individuals to make this happen, to make this art form happen, so that it can be free, it can be on public radio, it can be free on podcast, and it’s-- you know, keeps the tickets low. It allows everybody to have access to these incredible stories. And, ultimately, we want people to hear how we can see ourselves in all of these storytellers, and that’s what we believe will make the world a better place, and the NEA really does play a significant role in that.

What’s exciting is that this last month, we turned 18, and that means not just that we’re coming of age, but that we had 15,000 people tell stories on our stages, across the last 18 years. And what’s interesting is that we’ve had very different kinds of people tell stories. Whether they’re Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientists, or a voodoo priestess, or an astronaut, they all share one important quality together, and that is the courage and willingness to tell on themselves, their willingness to be vulnerable, and that’s an extraordinary and courageous thing to do onstage. But what’s also extraordinary is that that vulnerability really connects them with the audience, and allows us, as listeners, to keep an open mind, and to really understand something about ourselves, by listening to someone else’s story. And I think that is really what makes The Moth special.

AK: THAT WAS THE MOTH’S EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR SARAH HABERMAN AND PRODUCING DIRECTOR SARAH AUSTIN JENNESS TALKING ABOUT THE MOTH: TRUE STORIES TOLD LIVE.

A SPECIAL THANKS TO THE MOTH STAFF FOR ALL THEIR HELP, PAUL RUEST, THE ENGINEER WHO ALSO PRODUCES THE MOTH RADIO HOUR, AND TO THE AVALON HOLLYWOOD WHERE TIG’S STORY, “R2, WHERE ARE YOU?” WAS RECORDED IN DECEMBER 2012. AND OF COURSE, A WARM THANK YOU TO SUPERHUMAN, TIG NOTARO.

THE NEA TURNS 50 ON SEPT. 29 AND WE’RE CELEBRATING BY SHARING IMPORTANT STORIES ABOUT THE ARTISTS AND ORGS WE FUND AND ALSO BY SHARING YOUR ART STORIES. FOR MORE STORIES LIKE THIS ONE, AND TO SHARE YOUR OWN, SIMPLY CHECK OUT ARTS.GOV. YOU’RE GONNA SEE A LOT OF WONDERFUL, NEW CONTENT COME SEPT 29. STAY TUNED!

FOR THE NEA, I’M ADAM KAMPE.

MUSIC CREDIT:

Song excerpts used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on WFMU’s Free Music Archive at www.freemusicarchive.org

Excerpt of “Hello Sunny” composed and performed by Johnny_Ripper from the album, Songs for a Film That Doesn’t Exist. 

Excerpt of “E is for Estranged” by Owen Pallett from Owen Pallett - Live @ KEXP 5/8/2010