On an island off the coast of Georgia, moths beat against the screen as George Dawes Green and his childhood friends stay up late telling stories on a cozy summer porch.
Years later, Mr. Green sits in New York city growing tired of the loud, crowded and fast-paced parties of his adopted home.
“They were just so rapid-fire — no one could possibly squeeze in a word,” he remembered. “I just got tired of cocktail parties because I had been nurtured on stories and people telling them.”
So one night Mr. Green gathered his friends for a night of stories.
“It was pretty free-form then, the rules were that the stories had to be personal and true... or true-ish.”
What started as a handful of friends gathered in a New York city loft has over the last decade become a phenomenon with more than five thousand people across the country — from drug dealers to astronauts to celebrities — sharing their stories through the Moth, a nonprofit organization supporting and hosting live storytelling, both on stage and radio. On Monday, August 13, the Moth comes to Oak Bluffs.
“People responded instantly, as if this was a secret art form,” said Mr. Green. “But people have always been telling stories — these spontaneous personal true tales. It wasn’t until the Moth brought them up on stage that people began to think this was an art form, too.”
Since its beginnings in 1997, the Moth has celebrated both ordinary tales spiced up by well-spoken raconteurs and extraordinary tales told by everyday people.
One memorable night of stories for Mr. Green was during the theme Homecoming Night. The lineup that night included an astronaut who had piloted a shuttle back to earth, author Frank McCourt, who returned to Ireland after years in the U.S., and a man who had escaped from a war camp in Germany and eventually made his way to Ohio and the porch of his beloved who had believed him dead.
“It was an amazing spectrum of stories, all about that one theme of going home,” said Mr. Green.
The Moth operates on the principle that everyone has a story to tell.
“It seems to be a transformational experience,” said Mr. Green. “It’s also very terrifying. We had a man who had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, without any legs, come up and tell his story. When he was finished with his Moth talk, he said ‘Well that’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done.’”
Bliss Broyard, one of many Moth storytellers, remembers the night she told her first Moth story.
“It was the most scared I’d ever been,” said Ms. Broyard. “I thought ‘Oh my God, your knees really do shake when you’re scared!’ It was incredibly exhilarating.”
A month before Ms. Broyard’s father, Anatole, died, he told her a secret. Mr. Broyard was a writer and editor for the New York Times who had, during his lifetime, passed as a white man. On his deathbed, though, he revealed that he was, in fact, of mixed-race heritage.
“He was a light-skinned black man from New Orleans,” Ms. Broyard recalled. “That’s why we never had any contact with his family.”
But the story she told with the Moth was not just about her father’s revelation. Rather, it was also the journey she went on after his death, finding and meeting her father’s estranged sisters and cousins, deciding who was black and who was white, and who she was among the colors.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Ms. Broyard said of her first Moth talk. “A lot of people, they find their voice doing storytelling on a stage in a way they haven’t before.”
For the first time in the Moth’s history, the organization will be offering here on the Vineyard a MothSHOP workshop to the general public, with Ms. Broyard as host. The workshops are typically reserved for corporations and underserved communities as part of the Moth’s regular programs.
Kate Tellers, producer and MothSHOP corporate trainer, will be codirecting the workshop, helping participants find, shape and deliver their stories.
“When we decide to tell a story from our lives, the process of crafting the story invites us to revisit each moment. In all great Moth stories we look for a moment of change — when the storyteller becomes someone different,” said Ms. Tellers. “When you as a storyteller look for the moments that change you, it can be a really powerful thing.”
Ms. Broyard said the only requirement for the workshop is to tell a true story live, without notes.
“I think why this is happening on Martha’s Vineyard is that it’s reminiscent of the roots of the Moth. There’s a similar feeling here — the mood of storytelling, sitting around at night on the porch with moths, sharing stories of what happened years ago. There’s so many colorful characters here on the Island.”
Fishermen, poets, painters and politicians sprinkle the Vineyard with one-of-a-kind tales. But Mr. Green and most Moth storytellers would agree that it’s not just a sparkling story that’s necessary — it’s courage, too.
“The key to storytelling is to be vulnerable and to be able to reach inside and bring out part of yourself that’s a little difficult to show people,” said Mr. Green. “That is what makes a story beautiful.”
The Moth peformance on August 13 is already sold out. The MothSHOP Storytelling Workshop has a few spaces left and will be held at Stone Farm in North Tisbury from August 14 to 18, from 9:30 a.m. to noon each day. The cost of the workshop is $550 and includes a ticket to the Moth show. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to register or stonefarmworkshop.com for more information.