Ryan LaPerle is a story junkie. He got hooked four years ago when he moved to Massachusetts from New Hampshire and a colleague turned him on toNational Public Radio’s “This American Life.”
“I had never listened to NPR,” the 30-year-old music teacher said. “NPR was kind of old-people stuff.” But “This American Life,” with its funny, moving stories of everyday people, was different. LaPerle fell hard: He started catching up on old episodes in marathon sessions.
“I spent some Saturdays listening to ‘This American Life’ for six to seven hours on end,” he said. “It wasn’t healthy.”
And it didn’t stop there. “This American Life” proved a gateway habit. Through it he discovered the narrative-heavy science podcast “Radiolab,” public radio’s “Morning Edition” feature “Story Corps,” and the storytelling series called “The Moth Radio Hour.”
LaPerle eventually discovered there were live storytelling events going on all around him. Throughout the year, local and national groups put on dozens of shows in and around Boston. Massmouth, Story Space, Story Collider, Speak Up, Mortified, and The Moth itself routinely host events pairing those with something to say and those clamoring to hear them say it.
Storytelling is, of course, among the oldest forms of entertainment. According to longtime observers and participants in the storytelling scene, one contemporary iteration, the competitive slam, with its emphasis on vulnerability and confession, has arisen and spread in the past 15 years or so — a period that also saw the ascension of reality TV, tell-all memoirs, and share-all social media. Storytelling events are growing in popularity all across the country thanks in part to the New York-based nonprofit The Moth and its radio reach.
The Moth started in New York in 1997 as a live storytelling event and quickly gained a following. It drew performers from those outside the storytelling world: writers, actors, and comedians all took the stage for its events. In 1998, “This American Life” aired a segment on a yarn about a road trip performed at a Moth event and introduced the series to a national audience. Since then, The Moth has toured the world and in 2009 debuted a public radio show of its own called “The Moth Radio Hour,” now airing on 200 stations nationwide. In September, it started a series of monthly story slams at Cambridge’s Oberon, the second stage of the American Repertory Theater. Counting its Massachusetts events, The Moth hosts slams in 11 cities at 14 venues. In 2007, it put on 62 shows; this year the total hit 221.
LaPerle’s favorite Moth story, delivered in Aspen, Colo., by comedian Anthony Griffith, is also among The Moth’s most popular. In it, Griffith talks about struggling to launch a successful comedy career, his back to the wall financially, while his 2-year-old daughter’s cancer has returned with a fury. A YouTube video of the performance has been viewed nearly a million times. LaPerle returns to it regularly and gets choked up every time.
He decided to make the leap from listening to talking when cancer touched his own life: His mother was diagnosed in March. Suddenly, he was seized with the desire to speak publicly about his family’s experiences with cancer — but he figured he’d start small.
A few months ago, he and his girlfriend made a pilgrimage to New York to attend a Moth slam. Instead, he got lost in the Bronx. He planned to tell a story about that at a Moth event at Oberon in early December.
Performers at Moth slams are chosen at random, and LaPerle put his name in to be called up to the stage. It was a bold move: More than 200 people packed the sold-out club. A luminous Moth logo — “The Moth” spelled out in white letters over an abstract background — was projected onto a giant screen at the back of the stage. Between stories, local writer Steve Almond gently heckled contestants and judges. Storytellers were competing for a slot at The Moth GrandSlam. “The winner of that gets to date [‘This American Life’ host] Ira Glass,” Almond quipped. What’s more, they were getting a chance at a national audience: The Moth airs stories from its slams on its podcast and radio show.
The theme of the night was “happy accidents.” As LaPerle waited for his name to be called, he listened to tales of car accidents, cancer diagnoses, and vacations gone awry.
The night’s winner, Rebecca Nesson, told a story about a high school study-abroad trip to Ecuador during which she felt excluded by her preppy peers but made friends with the locals, ending with a dance party and a decision to switch to public school.Continued...