Tale of a city 

Marc Moss and Tell Us Something offer a little bit of everthing

On a December evening in 2015, Marc Moss stood in front of a packed house at the Wilma and told a story about the end of his first marriage. He hadn't planned on doing it. Over the past few years, the executive director of Missoula's storytelling series Tell Us Something had been predominantly hosting the event in the much more intimate space of the Top Hat. But for this particular night, Nick Checota, who owns the Top Hat and had just recently acquired the Wilma, needed Moss to switch it to the bigger venue for logistical reasons. Moss balked. He had 10 nervous storytellers who were under the impression they'd be speaking to a much smaller room. Now they'd have to do it from the grand stage of the Wilma?

"I was like, 'Okay, this is going to be crazy,'" Moss says. "But I decided that I'm not going to ask people to do something I won't do. I have to tell a story and I have to go first. And so I told a story that I was not the hero of—about how I left my first wife."

Moss has had a few years under his belt to learn the art of storytelling, and that night his talent for it showed. The theme of the evening was "Illumination Revelation," and for his story, titled "Set the Night to Music," he began at the end: Walking back from work one night, he rounds the corner and sees candles flickering in the windows of his house. He enters through the back door and smells the aroma of vanilla and cinnamon from candles his wife would load up on at Costco. From that point, Moss backtracks to how he met her. He was 17 and she was a sophomore in college. He was "a good Catholic boy." She was sick. He was in love with someone else, but he showed up to their wedding and married her anyway. And then Moss returns to the scene with his wife sitting in the middle of the floor in her wedding dress, illuminated by candles, listening to their wedding song. (You can hear the full 10-minute story—including the fateful ending—on the Tell Us Something podcast.)

"The whole time everyone in the audience is going, 'What a dick,'" Moss says. "But [the other storytellers] were saying, 'Marc just got up there and did it. I'm going to get up there, too.'"

Tell Us Something is based on the famous New York City storytelling event and podcast, The Moth. And in fact, in its infancy, Tell Us Something was called MissoulaMoth (before infringement on the Moth brand became an issue). In the beginning, it was a much looser deal: Anybody could show up and tell a story from memory about anything they wanted and take as much time as they needed. It was originally founded by Patrick Duganz, who was then a blogger for the now-defunct 4&20 Blackbirds. Moss heard Duganz was recruiting storytellers and he signed up. The first event was held at the Badlander in 2011 and Moss came with a story about how his parents first met at the public library in Akron, Ohio, and his mother gave his father a fake name: "Cleo Patra." Moss had never done any public speaking, save for teaching some grade school English classes. He told the story from his father's point-of-view. He felt totally out of his comfort zone—but elated.

"When I walked off that stage I felt listened to for the first time," Moss says. "I felt valued and confident and like my story counts. It was incredible. I was 40 years old and it was life-changing for me. I wanted to do it again."

click to enlarge Marc Moss told his first live non-fiction story at the Badlander in 2011. Now he serves as the executive director of Missoula-based storytelling series Tell Us Something. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Marc Moss told his first live non-fiction story at the Badlander in 2011. Now he serves as the executive director of Missoula-based storytelling series Tell Us Something.

Duganz moved four months after MissoulaMoth started, and Moss ended up taking over the event, with the help of Matt LaPalm and Amanda Peterson, who deal with logistics and sponsorships. Moss tightened up the rules—the stories have to be about 10 minutes and he vets them beforehand. He started running a required workshop last year so storytellers had a chance to practice and get feedback and Moss could organize the lineup.

"I didn't want to have five really funny stories at the beginning followed by two really sad stories and then the night is over," he says. "Like, 'And then my dad killed himself, and that's all we've got. See you later!'" He laughs.

On a recent Saturday night, Moss and his wife, Joyce Gibbs, host eight storytellers in their living room for the upcoming Tell Us Something, with the theme "Why Didn't Anyone Tell Me?". The Northside home is a book- and art-filled space, plants entwined across the ceiling trim and furniture gathered around to create a cozy atmosphere. Almost everyone is a stranger to each other—even to Moss and Gibbs. But everyone's brought a dish to share for dinner and the beer is flowing.

Moss likes to keep the stories and the identity of his storytellers a surprise up until the event.

"The reason is," he says, "I don't want anybody to say, 'I'm not going because I don't want to hear John Engen tell a story' or 'I'm only going because Pat Williams is going to be there.' I want people to come and listen to their community, and if it turns out Jeff Ament is up there—awesome."

He catches himself before adding, "No, I don't even know him." But you can see the wheels turning in his head.

At the workshop, everyone gets a chance to tell their story and receive feedback. There are certain guidelines Moss lays out for everyone, including that it should be a nonjudgemental atmosphere. Even as a leader, Moss doesn't dominate the room. He lets the other storytellers give their notes first before he chimes in. When Moss does weigh in, it's with an honest but kind sensibility. He explains how to tell a story like this: When you give directions to someone, you don't include every detail. You give landmarks. You tell them to turn right at the hospital, then left at the blinking yellow light. Likewise, a teller doesn't need to memorize the story they're telling if they use landmarks to jump from one part of it to the next.

Tell Us Something now has over 200 stories in the bank—many of which are available on its website. The stories are often raw and surprising, and they come from politicians, policemen, local actors, high schoolers, bartenders and standup comedians. One young girl tells the story of coming out. A woman talks about meeting her birth mom for the first time. There are stories of sheep shearings gone wrong and con artists uncovered.

Moss clearly loves telling stories—even in an interview he unveils things with an animated and confessional air. But it's obvious his greatest passion is in providing a space for the community to be bold and vulnerable and discover its own voice.

"Everyone has a story," he says. "Everyone's story matters. I only want to be the conduit that allows people to get their stories heard."

Tell Us Something presents "Why Didn't Anyone Tell Me?" at the Wilma Tue., March 29, at 7 PM. $5 at the door. Visit tellussomething.org for more information.

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