You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll listen and, maybe, learn something about yourself in the process.
The oldest known art form takes over the Wheeler Opera House stage on Thursday, as The Moth brings five storytellers to town.
A nonprofit launched in 1997, The Moth presents live storytelling performances from mostly ordinary folks with extraordinary stories to tell. “The Moth Radio Hour,” a program featuring the best of The Moth’s curated live presentations, debuted in 2009 and now airs on more than 200 stations in the U.S, including Aspen Public Radio, which broadcasts it on Sundays. The show won a Peabody Award in 2010.
The organization was founded by poet and novelist George Dawes Green, who sought to recreate the impromptu storytelling gatherings he enjoyed on a friend’s screened porch in his native Georgia (the organization takes its name from the moths that would enter the porch through a hole in the screen). Events began in Green’s living room in New York, before graduating to clubs and stages around the city, and then taking hold nationwide.
“You can expect five storytellers, each telling 10-minute stories — true stories from their lives, live without notes,” says the show’s director and story coach Maggie Cino. “They’re all very different stories from very different storytellers, showcasing a broad range of people. We try to get a broad cross-section of humanity.”
All of The Moth’s performances have themes, with storytellers approaching them from various angles that illuminate the human experience. The theme for the Aspen show is “On Thin Ice.”
The cast of raconteurs for the Wheeler show includes two writers, one woman with Aspen roots, an emergency room chaplain, and an actor/comedian. It’s hosted by Ophira Eisenberg, the comedian, writer and host of NPR’s “Ask Me Another.”
Their stories include one about the death of a relative, another on aging, one about crossing international borders to build a new life in the U.S., and a tale of an unusual job near the South Pole that literally takes place on thin ice.
“We pride ourselves on getting different points of view,” explains Cino. “Immigration, Antarctica, dementia, grandma, the prom — just another night at The Moth.”
The Moth has been on the Wheeler stage before — last at the final U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2007. The festival was the first venue for the show outside of New York City, where The Moth also hosts an open mic competition, titled The Moth StorySLAM, along with a community education program and corporate trainings.
Its “Main Stage” offerings, like the Wheeler show, include storytellers who have been selected by the nonprofit, and coached to make their stories work in a live setting. Performers take the stage alone under a spotlight. The series has hosted seemingly everyday people along with literary luminaries like Richard Price and Annie Proulx.
“You’ll hear their heartbeat, hear what makes them human, and you’ll hear some things that happened to them and maybe be surprised by how alike it is to some things that have happened to you,” says Cino.
The show typically includes darkness and light, honesty and vulnerability — with humor in some unexpected places. The last Moth show in Aspen, for instance, included a story from the late comedian Mike DeStefano about taking his wife for a motorcycle ride shortly before she died of AIDS that wove the deep pain of his loss in with a hard-won humor that drew laughs from the Wheeler crowd.
“We don’t want it to be an evening that’s so heavy that people walk away overwhelmed,” says Cino. “But we’re not a comedy show either. We want to have a balance — and a balance of personalities, too. Some people are naturally funny, and others offer something more somber and contemplative — it’s all about getting that range.”
The Aspenite among the quintet of speakers is Petra Hanson, who spent time here as a child and whose father is still a ski instructor on Buttermilk. She lives in New York, works as a fashion designer, and is currently writing a memoir. She unexpectedly enjoyed something like pop stardom in Japan with her band Gaijin à Go-Go. Her story, titled “Christmas Cake,” she says, deals with her time in Japan, feminism and aging, with an Aspen-related punchline.
Hanson has previously performed stories for The Moth’s open mic series in New York, and has volunteered with the organization over the last decade. She says it’s one of the main reasons she’s stayed in Manhattan.
“I loved the concept of gathering and listening to someone tell a story, rather than all the other types of entertainment and distractions out there,” she says. “It’s a central part of my life and my community, and brings people from all walks of life together in a way that’s very cool.”
The lineup also includes Dori Samadzai Bonner, who grew up in Afghanistan during the Russian war there, before escaping to India and then the U.S., where she’s made a name for herself as a writer, along with actor and stand-up comic Les Kurkendaal and writer Adam Wade. Storyteller Zac Willette, who currently serves as an interfaith chaplain of a hospital emergency room in Chicago, boasts occupational adventures as a teacher, facilitator, grant writer, pizza delivery man, canoe guide, and Antarctica research station hand.
Sharing stories live — not in a radio studio, not from a script, not through the remove a blog or a book — is the heart of The Moth. It aims to create a palpable connection between storytellers and members of the audience. Cino compares it to the rapport between friends swapping stories over a cup of coffee.
“It’s one of my favorite things about these shows,” says Cino. “The feeling in the room is extraordinary. I think the audience appreciates that these are normal people who are getting up to talk about something and [who] feel really passionate about what they have to say.”