Storytelling program looks to revive a fading art

Storyteller Josh Melanson unveils his experience of decisions and choices to a crowd at Verve in Orono, Jan. 9, 2011.
Michael York
Storyteller Josh Melanson unveils his experience of decisions and choices to a crowd at Verve in Orono, Jan. 9, 2011.
Posted Jan. 30, 2011, at 5:08 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 31, 2011, at 12:46 a.m.
Jessie Moriarty relives a moment's satisfaction in the telling of a story at Verve,  Jan. 9, 2011.
Michael York
Jessie Moriarty relives a moment's satisfaction in the telling of a story at Verve, Jan. 9, 2011.
Many people come just to listen and enjoy the time such as at the January program held at Verve in Orono, Jan. 9, 2011.
Many people come just to listen and enjoy the time such as at the January program held at Verve in Orono, Jan. 9, 2011.
Writer Sarah Smiley is visible through the front window of Verve on Mill Street in Orono, Jan. 9, 2011. Smiley was one of the participants in the Moth Up storytelling program for January.
Michael York
Writer Sarah Smiley is visible through the front window of Verve on Mill Street in Orono, Jan. 9, 2011. Smiley was one of the participants in the Moth Up storytelling program for January.
Anya Rose gets things started at the Moth Up storytelling program held Jan. 9 at Verve in Orono.
Anya Rose gets things started at the Moth Up storytelling program held Jan. 9 at Verve in Orono.

The oldest form of human communication is storytelling. Before computers, TV and the printing press, people would gather together to tell stories. That’s where Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Beowulf” come from, and the myths and folktales that form the basis of cultures around the world. It’s part of what it means to be human.

So it comes as no surprise that even as we can now communicate important details about our lives in 140 characters or less, sharing stories live and in person becomes ever more vital. That’s why Anya Rose, Jessie Moriarty and Zack Pike started the Bangor area Story Slam, a monthly gathering of anyone interested in getting up in front of a microphone and relating a true personal anecdote to a crowd. The next event will be held at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, at the Charles Inn in downtown Bangor.

Rose is a Philadelphia native who came to Orono to study for a master’s degree in wildlife ecology. She and her cohorts were inspired to start the Bangor-area Story Slam after Rose attended a similar event in her home city. All three were also avid listeners of “The Moth Radio Hour,” a storytelling program broadcast on NPR stations across the country.

“I think a lot of people are familiar with ‘Moth,’ and are really drawn in by how authentic and personal everything sounds on that show,” said Rose. “Live, it’s even better. It makes you feel really connected to people. It’s an ancient art form, and it’ll never go out of style.”

Verve burrito shop in Orono and the Fiddlehead Restaurant in Bangor have played host to the events, which have been held three times since November. The setting is informal, an even split between men and women, with audience members gathered closely together in chairs, sipping coffee, snacking on treats provided by the organizers and chatting comfortably. Those interested in telling a story put their name in a bucket, and cross their fingers that they are one of the 10 individuals drawn and invited to speak, for a maximum of six minutes.

Stories cover the full gamut of human experience — from humor and personal triumph, to sadness and fear. They’re also loosely blanketed under a common theme for each event. Thus far, the themes have included “The First Time,” “Holiday Disasters” and “Never Again.”

“A lot of times, yes, the stories are very funny, and have that ‘Something totally crazy happened to me this one time’ kind of thing going on,” said Rose. “But other times it will honestly make you cry, or will shock you. Not all of them are amazing, either. Some are better than others. Sometimes the best ones are about nothing.”

Story Slams have cropped up in cities all over the country. There are Moth-sponsored slams in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, and until this year, those interested in hosting a “MothUp” Story Slam event could register with Moth to do so in their hometown. Moth is not currently taking applications for any new MothUp events, but that did not daunt Rose, Moriarty and Pike in starting up their own slam last fall.

As an example, the Jan. 9 slam at Verve, which had the theme of “Never Again,” featured stories about getting lost in the Andes Mountains in Peru; finding a family of mice living inside someone’s car, and why someone will never ride a bike again. Some readers were completely natural onstage; others were a bit nervous, like Laurel O’Connell, a Bangor native who lives in Somerville, Mass., who related the story of getting into a car vs. bicycle accident, and how she ended up with her tattoo.

“Oh, yeah, I have terrible stage fright,” she said. “I listen to ‘This American Life’ on NPR all the time, so that kind of inspired me to do this. It was kind of nerve-wracking, but I’d still do it again.”

Though there’s a performing element to the slams, it’s clear from the beginning that the events are all-inclusive and nonjudgmental — though a winner is picked by popular vote at the end of each slam, and awarded a small prize. Last names aren’t used, but the organizers capture a number of the stories on video and upload some to YouTube.

Sarah Farnham of Bangor won the January slam, with her story about learning how to keep secrets. Farnham is now a Story Slam regular, and finds the entire experience life-affirming.

“The impulse to share with others is felt by every human being. The impulse to share in front of 50 people or more, not so common,” said Farnham. “I find the exhilaration to be worth it all. The risk of vulnerability heightens the joy, and what you share instantly becomes just a bit more real … words spoken out loud have real life.”

The November slam was won by Sarita Field, a Bangor resident who shared an extremely intimate story with the audience.

“The story I won with was about the death of a friend. I actually hadn’t told that story in public before. I saw the slam as an opportunity for catharsis,” said Field. “To be able to get up and share what I had learned from that experience, I feel, was just one more step in my journey towards healing.”

For information about the monthly Story Slam events, look up “MothUp Bangor” on Facebook.

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