Phoenix act 

Missoula storytelling night rises from the ashes

Every story has a point. At least, that's what I kept telling myself during Missoula Moth's debut last January. An old friend and the event's sole organizer, Pat Duganz, had asked me to help out by taking the stage; I grudgingly caved, thinking I had the stones. But in truth, it's not chutzpah that allows a fool to stand before throngs of half-drunk strangers and share the most embarrassing moment of his life. No, it's more a lapse of judgment.

Here's the story: It was fall 2007, and I'd just started as the arts editor for UM's student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin. With Hasidic Jewish rapper Matisyahu scheduled for a Missoula concert, I arranged for a 3 p.m. phone interview on an otherwise class-choked weekday. The timing had to be perfect, I told the artist's press rep. I had an upper-level history course at 3:30.

I camped out on the third floor of the University Center on the appointed afternoon, my notebook flipped open and my battered Motorola Razor on vibrate. 3 p.m. rolled around. No call. 3:05. Still no call. 3:10. I was growing anxious. Unfortunately, so was my last meal.

I dashed to the restroom to address my digestive concerns before class, and my mind drifted far away from Matisyahu. Until my phone rang, that is. Faced with the choice of either missing the interview entirely or conducting it while seated in the most intimate of situations, I went with the latter, hoping against all friggin' hope that my note taking wouldn't trigger the toilet's motion-sensor flush.

The Badlander crowd erupted with laughter at that last line and at the distinct squatting stance that, in spite of Duganz's pleas, I'd committed to in the interests of thorough on-stage storytelling. I felt justified that I had, as I'd promised myself, told a story with a point: Never conduct business by phone from an automatic toilet.

Missoula's storytelling night had a rough initial run this year. The freshness and mystique of the event drew sizable audiences the first few months. But as the months passed, crowds waned. Story quality and adherence to the 10-minute rule became iffy. By May, the night had moved to the Palace with less than 20 people in attendance. Missoula Moth died a slow, quiet death that Duganz compares to getting served too much cake. "Eventually you want dessert to stop."

"The initial reaction was positive overall," Duganz says. "What followed toward the end was inconsistency in stories, as well as length...I guess people were busier on Tuesday nights than I'd ever imagined."

This month, a revitalized storytelling night rises from those ashes. The kick-off will take place at the Missoula Art Museum Dec. 15 and feature a carefully selected lineup of six speakers. Future storytelling nights are already scheduled on a quarterly basis at the Top Hat through next year, each built around a single theme and enforced with a 10-minute buzzer.

The inspiration for Missoula's storytelling event debuted in a New York City living room in 1997. George Dawes Green called it The Moth. He sought to mimic the intimate atmosphere of friendly storytelling nights on a porch in his hometown in Georgia, during which moths would fly in through a hole in the screen. It worked. The Moth quickly migrated to clubs and cafes across New York, evolving into a theme-based and note-free event. The Wall Street Journal hailed it "New York's hottest and hippest literary ticket." The Moth is now a nonprofit with chapters in L.A., Chicago, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Pittsburgh.

Duganz initially pictured Missoula's storytelling scene as little more than "a dozen friends drinking beers and telling stories, but with a stage." What he got was a steady stream of stories—some comedic, some tragic—from dozens of individuals. The challenge came in holding the public's interest long enough to build a following.

"So many people I spoke with were outgoing and wonderful, until you say, 'Well would you tell that on stage?'" Duganz says. "That was a problem and one I was not able to fix...While I understood the social anxiety issues, I thought, and still feel, that [Moth] was a chance to overcome those issues."

Due to concerns from New York over Missoula's use of the Moth name, the new coordinator, Marc Moss, opted to rename the event shortly after he began promoting the MAM premiere. He and the UM Bookstore—the storytelling night's primary sponsor—are calling it "Tell Us Something." Moss says The Moth has no problem with Missoula openly drawing inspiration from the New York model.

Moss, like Duganz, recognizes a hunger in Missoula for a storytelling outlet. The way stories are told live, he says, can be more engaging than the way they're told on the page. But feeding that hunger can be difficult. Moss was a regular storyteller earlier this year and acknowledges the setbacks.

"People have little patience for stories that ramble for a long time and have no real sense of direction," Moss says. "Having a theme will help avoid that. [Duganz] was stoked just to get people to show up and get on stage. I am too, but I also want to keep [stories] to 10 minutes."

I won't venture any guesses as to how long Moss can keep the flame of live storytelling flickering. Many of the stories featured earlier this year were excellently crafted. Those that weren't made three hours an exhausting commitment. If there's any lesson in the ashes of Missoula's first storytelling night, it's to exercise caution.

"In retrospect, maybe it was bad to have someone tell a story about the time someone he knew killed a dog," Duganz says. "But to me that was really honest and true, and so I wanted to hear it...My advice for going forward is to realize that some stories are probably too much."

Tell Us Something kicks off Thursday, Dec. 15, at the Missoula Art Museum at 7 PM. Free.

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