Moth attracts students with its, er, light

Professor Allyson McCabe likes hers both funny and sad, intimate and yet fundamentally, humanly, true.

But that’s a matter of personal opinion.

This Friday, The Moth, a live storytelling organization based in New York, is coming to Yale with its first-ever college pilot program. A collective idea between Professor McCabe and several students in her English 120 course, The Moth at Yale will provide undergraduates with the opportunity to tell personal stories to a community of their peers, while learning skills of oral narration through workshops with established storytellers.

Any undergraduate who is interested in sharing her story is able to do so through The Moth, regardless of preparation or background. While unscripted, stories are not impromptu and will be judged by the audience. As such, the orator must consider how a story will be compelling and connect to its listener.

McCabe likened the techniques of the personal essay to those of live personal storytelling. She described English 120, “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay,” as a “special space,” in which students are able to explore individual expression as a means of making a broader statement. Students’ essays are workshopped by other members of the course who offer comments and constructive criticism. Similarly, during Moth SLAMS, speakers construct live personal narratives of roughly five to ten minutes in length. The audience then offers feedback. Each session, known as a “SLAM,” has a theme (such as “Near Death,” “Secrets,” or “Stories of Transformation”) and the winners of each slam compete in a “GrandSLAM.”

McCabe contacted several former students to help bring The Moth to Yale. Miranda Lewis ’12 and Brandon Jackson ’12 — who took English 120 with McCabe in the spring of 2009 — volunteered and later recruited Alexandra Brodsky ’12 to the project. McCabe then approached the national organization. She coordinated the launch of Yale’s group in close collaboration with Catherine Burns, The Moth’s artistic director, as well as the three student leaders, over the summer.

But the Moth didn’t have the framework for a college program, and the group had to make adjustments to accommodate a student demographic. One of the trickiest conflicts involved scheduling. Moth groups meet on a monthly basis, but the college program was amended to suit the academic calendar: meetings will not take place during the summer or over breaks when students are not on campus. Although the logistics are coming together, the student leaders said the program is not yet perfect.

Several questions remain, which will have to be addressed along the way. For now, Moth SLAMs and workshops are open only to Yale undergraduates (“If James Franco showed up, we wouldn’t say no”), but it is conceivable that events may be open to the New Haven public in the future, Lewis said.

Community-building is key to The Moth’s philosophy, which aims to connect individuals through the common thread of narration. There is something mystical and yet simple about the vocabulary that surrounds the organization: the spinning of tales and gathering of moths around a light, spellbound by its flame. The group’s founder, George Dawes Greens, hoped that listeners would be drawn to storytelling in a similar manner. He derived inspiration from late evenings spent exchanging narratives with a close circle of friends on a porch in his native Georgia.

Several Yale students have qualms that the college offshoot will stray from these values, taking on an intellectual attitude that will become inherently self-contained and insular. They should be reassured, however, that The Moth at Yale will not be an “experts only” environment and that the leaders are receptive to collaboration.

“If we are discussing people getting together and talking honestly with each other, then there is probably a lot of need for that outside the Yale campus,” Brodsky said.

Lewis added she would like to see storytelling workshops in New Haven public schools in the coming years.

With a huge interest within the student body, The Moth at Yale is certainly not positioned to become a small organization. The thirty spots for its first workshop, which will be held at 3 p.m. today, were filled within 20 minutes of the event’s announcement, and the Facebook event had over 62 guests RSVP as “attending” by press time.

But Brodsky stressed that storytelling is more appropriate in an intimate setting.

“It’s more suited to a cabaret than to an auditorium,” McCabe said.

The group has already been contacted by students at other universities about bringing The Moth to their schools. Yale’s Moth leaders have been keeping track of the startup process to potentially share with other colleges once the group is on its feet. They are also discussing new ways to accommodate the large demand and are considering increasing the frequency of SLAMs or choosing a larger forum for their future events, which are currently planned for Saint Anthony’s Hall.

The Moth at Yale already has several high profile guests lined up for the semester, including Jack Hitt, contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and This American Life. Hitt has participated in SLAMs hosted by The Moth and will be leading the second workshop on October 15th. Dan Kennedy, author of “Rock On: An Office Power Ballad” and regular host of Moth SLAMs in New York, will be conducting the first SLAM on October 30th.

“It will be a great setting to bring nationally known contributors to campus who are not typical journalists, such as comedians, who don’t have many opportunities to come to Yale besides the

Fall Show,” Lewis said.

Another benefit of operating under The Moth is the possibility for student stories to be picked up by the organization’s podcast or National Public Radio. Brodsky was very enthusiastic about the group tapping into the national network of The Moth, which she characterizes as a form of “intimate but interactive literature.”

The only drawback of being a part of a national organization is that the student leaders of The Moth at Yale were unable to choose their own name for the group. But Brodsky said she only had one suggestion for a potential name anyway: “Modern Love,” she said. “WEEKEND was taken.”

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