Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez ’07 is editing an account of his first kiss as if stripping a jawbreaker down to its white core. The Yale alumnus sits beside me in Park Slope’s Southpaw club, a trendy dive and the venue for this evening’s storytelling competition, the Moth StorySLAM. While any contender can brave the audience’s judgment, the line-up is chosen at random. Ashton-Gonzalez and I wait for the first of ten names to be drawn. One might be his.
Ashton-Gonzalez — whose deftly modulating voice makes me laugh at all his ramblings — writes, performs, and produces comedy in New York City. When we first met, his identity was hyphenated by the rising and setting of the sun: video game designer by day, comedian by night. As an undergraduate English major, he wrote for the Yale Record and was a member of the Red Hot Poker sketch comedy group. Since moving to New York after graduation, the 24-year-old has studied comedy at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater and performed over 100 shows with his long-form improv group, Froduce. Recently, though, he has devoted his energy to resurrecting entertainment in its oldest form: “Storytelling is where my heart’s at now,” Ashton-Gonzalez said.
This evening at the Moth StorySLAM, we are, as emcee Peter Aguero assures us, “at the apex of competitive storytelling,” or the hottest literary event in town. In this week’s round of the monthly competition, the culmination of which is a GrandSLAM among four champions, a “burned” theme will frame ten true stories, each to be told in five minutes. Three teams from the audience volunteer to judge each contestant on a scale from one to 10. Aguero chooses the first name from a bag, and Joanna wends her way from her seat in the audience, mounting the stage to bear her soul before the mike and a tipsy crowd.
Autobiographical storytelling at the Moth, a non-profit organization that hosts events and live performances around the country, is an ancient art form redesigned by the poet and novelist George Dawes Green. It belittles one’s credentials, exacts self-exposure, and threatens traumatic failure. At its most poignant and humorous, it celebrates those life choices we make that hindsight best explains.
Green founded the Moth in 1997, determined to transplant the intimacy of sharing stories with friends on his porch in Georgia to public locales in New York. The concept took — especially in the past three years, sold-out storytelling slams in this city have drawn viewers by the swarms. The populist forum has spread to Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago; overall, it has delivered more than 3,000 live stories to over 100,000 live audience members nationwide. Moth stories have also been broadcast on 70 public radio stations and in the podcast realm, where archived recordings are free to subscribers. In the age of Internet overshare on sites like Facebook and Twitter, the human voice still transcends the typed word.
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For aspiring comedians like Ashton-Gonzalez, storytelling is rapidly supplanting stand-up as the likeliest avenue to prominence. If he’s lucky enough to be chosen to perform and persuasive enough to enthrall his audience, literary agents, actors, and directors lurking among blasé hipsters may catapult him to stardom. The number of Cinderella stories has surged in recent years; at least a dozen Moth storytellers have scored entertainment deals. Take David Ellis Dickerson, a former evangelical Christian whose anecdotes about how writing Hallmark cards led him to lose his faith and his virginity have landed him a book contract and appearances on NPR’s “This American Life.”
Ashton-Gonzalez found storytelling through the life’s work of writer and monologist Spalding Gray. A driven, neurotic man, Gray related rueful, philosophical, often hilarious narratives crafted from his own foibles. The first was “Sex and Death to the Age 14,” which describes the author’s childhood in a Christian Science household in 1950’s Rhode Island, and, according to Gray, is “basically about the death of goldfish and masturbation.” He premiered the piece in 1979, and Ashton-Gonzalez first read it during his winter break in 2005, when his grandmother Liz gifted the book to him. “I remember thinking ‘Damn, how did he get away with writing a whole book full of stories about himself?’”
Three years later, the recent grad was ready to see what he could get away with and enrolled in Storytelling 101 at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, which offers all varieties of comic instruction and has minted comedians the likes of Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz.
Ashton-Gonzalez had the right blend of ego and humility, of fearlessness and introspection, to impress his instructor Margot Leitman, a regular on the New York mainstream and indie storytelling circuits.
“He wasn’t afraid to get serious, and look for a deeper meaning in his story. Often students want to be the funniest person in the class. Eugene just wanted to do his best and wasn’t afraid to take risks,” she recalled.
“If I always played it safe and smart, I doubt I’d experience anything new or unexpected in my life,” Ashton-Gonzalez concurred. As the Storytelling 101 syllabus promises, he’s surmounted the fear of being judged for his honesty and experiences. The way he lives his life now is balanced as precariously as the tone of a storyteller’s tale, wise but naïve.
Five minutes seem hardly enough to tell it all.
Since Yale, Ashton-Gonzalez has lived and analyzed his post-graduate life as if it were a story he’d tell at a Moth Slam — rehearsed as far as necessary, but ultimately off-the-cuff.
As many indecisive English majors do, Ashton-Gonzalez arrived in New York during the summer of 2007 to work in publishing and to dream of writing. He acquired a succession of credible notches in his belt: six months at the Columbia Publishing Course, a ghostwritten chapter in Columbia Professor Victor Navarsky’s satirical Mission Accomplished!: How We Won the War in Iraq, and a Department of Education grant proposal touting a computer game adaptation of the kids’ show, “Between the Lions.”
Ashton-Gonzalez neglected to pursue an editorial position, what most with his résumé would, “because God knows I read things by reading Sparknotes at Yale, and I can’t read manuscripts,” he said. Employment at a publishing house stipulates that “every night you go home with 120 pages, and I was like ohhhh, I need Adderall.” It was a condition Ashton-Gonzalez couldn’t accept. He later renounced all ambition in the industry.
There was still, however, the pressing issue of finances. When he moved to the city, Ashton-Gonzalez acknowledged that his then “unemployed graduate student mother and [his] twice-divorced, unemployed pot-smoking artist father were not ‘guarantor’ material.” He spent the sum of his bank account on an unfurnished apartment sublet. Feral cats in the basement of his Upper West Side building led him to his brand-new mattress that August, and Craigslist found him what was potentially the perfect job one year later.
With charisma but without marketable skills, the closet gaming nerd took employment as an office manager at a video game design company on the corner of Park Place and Broadway. He wore sleek suits and spent the majority of his time managing menial chores — until he demonstrated the motion-sensor Microsoft Kinnect camera that rivals Wii to Beyoncé’s father, Matthew Knowles. He spiced his pitch with jazz lingo, but suspects Knowles and his impeccably pressed pants didn’t notice.
Ashton-Gonzalez suggested the technology would lend itself to the perfect dance game in Beyoncé’s marketing empire, and the diva agreed. In six months of negotiations, they never once met; he remained, nevertheless, intoxicated by the seductive idea of her power and their alliance.
This June, when his boss announced the company was relocating to Stamford, Connecticut and demanding an 80-hour workweek, Ashton-Gonzalez reclaimed his sobriety.
“Do I want to be … helping someone who’s already famous belt out another product in her product line, or do I want to be writing my own stories?” he asked himself. He concluded that his sexy, steady paycheck wasn’t his lifeblood, but rather, his embalming formaldehyde. He chose to devote himself to his comedy — to write comedy and his life as one, intertwined narrative.
By nature, Ashton-Gonzalez is an instigator, or in his words, a Machiavelli. Whatever he calls himself, he knows how to network and spark activity. In his time as an undergraduate, Ashton-Gonzalez reinvigorated Red Hot Poker, a sketch comedy troupe founded the year before he matriculated. The students who had registered the group abandoned him and his co-director, Adam Kinon ’07, in their junior year, leaving four members to “spout bullshit” in the Branford Common Room and distract MCDB majors from their homework, Ashton-Gonzalez reminisced. “Basically, the people who founded it had the idea that the comedy scene at Yale was too homogenous” and “too erudite,” Harvard Law School alum Kinon told me on a break from studying for his bar exam.
But Ashton-Gonzalez knew that Yalies weren’t like the common man, and that populist humor wouldn’t draw them to the shows he began to organize. “They need to hear stuff that reminds them they’re so damn smart. So I started putting high fallutin’ diction into the shows, and…making highbrow allusions to film noir,” he explained.
Though Ashton-Gonzalez isn’t cynical or conniving, he has a flexible disposition that makes him a man of some virtù. He adapts his conduct and his wardrobe to the situation, as a certain affected nonchalance is key in the comedy world: “If you try to be cool, you’re just never going to be funny,” he says.
Kinon said his friend has “realized that succeeding in comedy is not tied exclusively to turning out a quality product, but is also about finding venues, networking with other performers, and working to get your name and brand out there.”
This is just as true of Ashton-Gonzalez’s role in his New York City improv team. He founded Froduce, “the comedy that’s good for you,” in 2008 with UCB classmate James Ferrarella to keep himself in good comic form. The troupe has come to depend on Ashton-Gonzalez for his perfectionism, business acumen, and social dexterity. “People have to know who you are in order to do your show,” Ferrarella said of finding amenable venues. “It’s good to put a face with a name,” and in Froduce’s case, that face is Ashton-Gonzalez’s, marked by his alert but sagely creased eyes.
Thanks in some measure to Ashton-Gonzalez’s passion and commitment, Froduce — unlike most improv teams, which dissolve after at most a year — has now performed at over 200 shows and celebrated its second anniversary, proving that the group that drinks, brunches, sings, and screams with unadulterated terror at Six Flags together stays together. If the troupe isn’t the comic’s passage to fame, it’s the family he’s worked hard to keep.
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Several Sundays ago, at Froduce’s weekly show, Ashton-Gonzalez warmed up with his teammates on the sidewalk outside the performance space. They spiritedly cooed, roared, and howled at each other in the dark night, accelerating their heartbeats and their minds. When they began the Harold on stage — a long-form improvisational game that begins with a suggestion from the audience and gradually weaves accordingly themed vignettes together — they were ready to act on the premise fortune sent their way.
Ashton-Gonzalez believes in the variety of fate that opens a window when a door closes, or at the very least, delivers poetic justice — Boethius’ rotating wheel, not Machiavelli’s raging river. In the final weeks before his graduation, he spent an evening sitting on his Saybrook balcony, “cradling a cigarette [he] had no business or talent at smoking,” and wishing for an epiphany as effortless as wafting smoke. “Everyone else in the senior class was out getting shitfaced at the Last Chance Dance, while I was staring off into the stars over Elm Street, trying to divine my future and assay my past in one golden moment of terrified reflection,” he said. The revelation never came. He did, however, sit outside long enough to see the partygoers evacuate Ingalls Rink when the machinery there started leaking ammonia into the ventilation system.
Ashton-Gonzalez has, in part, inherited his superstitious, story-tailored outlook from his parents. His mother Alice, then working as a car mechanic for the Navy, and his father Arnaldo, a runaway Mexican poet who looked far older than his 19 years and “wore too much patchouli,” almost aborted their son, the fruit of their impetuous tryst at the foot of a Mexican volcano named Mount Popocatépetl. But on their bus bound for Mexico City, Alice and Arnaldo met an otherworldly boy who somehow knew that a male playmate was maturing inside Alice’s uterus. They re-envisioned their child as a biracial vanguard for “La Raza Cosmica,” philosopher Jose Vasconcelos’ hypothetically, happily unified “cosmic race.”
Ashton-Gonzalez’s mother, first mechanic, then maid, then graduate student in linguistic anthropology, and now a government employee developing cultural curricula for soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, and his father, an oil painter, “infra-realist” poet, and once self-professed Anarchist in the San Francisco Bay Area, can hardly deny their son an errant path to self-realization. They’ve been largely content to let Ashton-Gonzalez, who collects fortune-cookie strips and scenic-inspired epiphanies, boldly master the course of his life.
Ashton-Gonzalez has put the water wheel of fate and his ruminative urge to analyze its ups and downs to good use through storytelling. In his UCB class, “A lot of the exercises were questions: why we think this way, how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us….” his fellow student Ted McAdams explained. “Then you found stories in the reasoning behind those [answers].” Ashton-Gonzalez’s therapeutic art is about reviewing the course of one’s life and remaking it as slightly more rational.
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Having found other forums for his own stories, Ashton-Gonzalez produces a storytelling event called “1001 Nights” in Long Island City and a new show in Williamsburg, “N.Y. Confidential Stories Exposed,” for his colleagues. At these Moth spinoffs, the veteran monologists that Ashton-Gonzalez invites to perform further hone their skills, find closure for the past, and even win recognition for their craft. Essayist and screenwriter Lisa Lewis had a story published in the April issue of Elle.
Ashton-Gonzalez confided to me that when he began to frequent storytelling shows on the indie circuit and fantasize about his own, he would nervously introduce himself to the producers he admired. He thought, “‘Why don’t I have this sick bohemian show down in the Cornelius Street Café where all of the guests are people who live in the Chelsea Hotel and knew Bob Dylan?’”
In April 2009, the owner of The Creek and the Cave, a Mexican restaurant/performance venue in Long Island City where Froduce was already a weekly fixture, agreed to give Ashton-Gonzalez a slot for storytelling in its schedule. Ashton-Gonzalez took the opportunity and has created new ones.
This June 16th, the now monthly show was a “traveling”-themed night. The basement at the Creek sparkled in the light of a disco ball. The floor was striped black and white, and the casual seating was arrayed as if transposed from a dorm common room. Add the suave stage personalities of Ashton-Gonzalez and his co-host Ted McAdams, a tasteful iPod playlist, and chatty audience to that cocktail: the result was a nice Friday night buzz.
“Who writes this shit?” demanded the first raconteur. Louis Katz was narrating the story of how he had contracted a case of urethritis that doctors misdiagnosed as AIDS — the same week that he met his ideal woman in Atlanta. “I felt like I was being ‘punked’ and the Lord was some great kind of Ashton Kutcher in the sky,” he said.
After Katz’s affair fizzled to a pathetic conclusion, he read a newspaper caption that served the final stroke of divine justice. Beneath a week-old image capturing a passionate kiss with his now unreciprocated love interest appeared the words: “But will she still love you tomorrow?” Cosmic fate had hysterically betrayed him.
Ashton-Gonzalez’s inspirational icon, Spalding Gray, lived his life so it was worth sharing. In the 1987 minimalist movie “Swimming to Cambodia,” Gray narrates the experience of swimming in rough Thai waters off the coast of Phuket to find what he has called one’s “perfect moment.” Through the experience, he overcomes his fear of waves and sharks, and we wonder: did he really find this perfect moment or did he construct it? Gray’s brief transcendence exists more concretely in his recollection and retelling than in the past.
Tonight, the waves are mounting. The Moth slam is nearing the selection of the final name, and having rehearsed his story for hours, having listened to his recorded voice again and again on his iPod, Ashton-Gonzalez will not be picked to compete.
The Moth website assures unselected contestants that “some variation of your theme will surely rise again. All stories have multiple themes and stretching them to fit can be fun and even bring out elements you hadn’t recognized before.”
Ashton-Gonzalez has already adapted his story about his first kiss to suit the evening’s “burned” theme, so he can revise it again. A new perspective can make that narrative so much more compelling.
That moment re-told can be “perfect.”