By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
Photos by Kene Sperry
BIG SKY – Sometimes the most important thing about a story is that it’s heard.
The Moth Mainstage show on Feb. 15 clued Big Sky in on this significance. With all 280 seats in the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center filled – and another 150-plus on the waiting list – the audience witnessed the oldest and purest form of communication: storytelling.
Five people from all walks of life took the stage that night and told their stories, with only a microphone separating them from the crowd. Audience members afterward called the experience “raw,” “emotional” and “moving.”
Touring internationally, The Moth Mainstage is a series of live, unscripted storytelling performances and podcasts that’s gaining immense popularity the world over. Without props or effects, the stories flush to the forefront. That’s exactly the intention, according to Moth Senior Producer Maggie Cino.
“We’ve had people before pitch us ideas about [adding] music and other ideas, but want it to be as clean and simple as possible. There’s nowhere to hide,” Cino said.
Mainstage shows allow storytellers approximately 10 minutes to tell a story. “What we really want is for storytellers to get to the heart of [the story],” Cino said. “It gives them enough time to dig into something big, but still have parameters,” said Cino, admitting that this can be difficult when storytellers bare their souls.
New York filmmaker Kimberly Reed told of the struggle she had coming home to her native Montana, and said she believes the audience is as critical to a story as the speaker.
“The most important thing is not what the stories are,” Reed said. “But that the stories are heard.”
The Moth Mainstage operates under The Moth, a New York City-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling. Poet and novelist George Dawes Green founded it in 1997, as a way of recreating the nights he spent spinning yarns with friends in his native Georgia. The group referred to themselves as The Moths after the insects that entered Green’s porch through a tear in the screen, attracted to the light.
Audiences flock to Moth performances because they see how each speaker, no matter who they are, becomes important, says Horace H.B. Sanders, who also performed at the Big Sky show. “With The Moth, it’s amazing,” Sanders said. “For 10-12 minutes, everybody can be special.”
Sanders has been traveling the world with The Moth for two years now, after he saw his first performance on a date night in his hometown of Detroit, Mich.
But taking the stage in front of an audience is never easy. Even Sanders, as a stand-up comedian, says The Moth can be intimidating. “I respect all the other storytellers so much. It keeps me humble.”
Stephen Koch, a snowboard mountaineer from Jackson, Wyo., who also spoke at WMPAC, said he’s comfortable giving presentations about his experience snowboarding the Seven Summits, the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents. But, he said, because The Moth requires him to leave behind the notes and other visual aides he usually brings to presentations, it’s a different animal.
“It’s just you up there, alone, vulnerable.”
The evening’s first speaker, Los Angeles-based writer and artist Jessica Lee Williamson, talked about the fear she faced in following her writing passion.
“You could hear a little tremble in her voice even though she’s a pro,” said John Zirkle, Artistic Director for WMPAC.
Williamson graduated from the Second City Conservatory, an improvisation and sketch comedy training center in LA.
The Moth’s host Dan Kennedy says serendipity brought him to the Mainstage. And of course, that too, has a story.
Kennedy, now 46, had a slim chance in 2000 of becoming the show’s host. His introverted nature aside, the show wouldn’t return his multiple calls after he saw his first Moth performance at Nell’s nightclub in Manhattan, N.Y.
“I walked in,” said Kennedy, “and there was Ian Faith from Spinal Tap hosting the show, and I was like, ‘What is this? How do we join this?’”
Then one day the phone rang – a stage curtain rising – to put Kennedy in front of an audience, for which he has an uncanny knack. It was Joey Xanders, executive producer for the Moth. Kennedy did one show, and the rest of his story has transpired in the 14 years since.
“I found out years later that [Xanders] had hundreds of phone messages at the time … Her therapist had told her to return one [call] a day, and it would make her feel better. So, that day she closes her eyes and picks a message. And my phone rings.”
Instrumental in bringing The Moth to Big Sky, Zirkle first heard the group on a cross-country road trip in 2010. After many hours, music had become tedious, so they began listening to podcasts.
The difference in seeing a Moth performance live, he said, was that he could watch the connection between the speakers and the audience. It’s something he says the show’s directors work tirelessly to create, comparing the result to an artist composing on a blank canvas.
“To me, it’s just honest expression,” said local Bill Erickson after the show. “Whether you like the story or not, whether it appeals to you or not, it’s a human telling honest emotions. That’s the attraction.”
The evening began, fittingly, with a story: Host Dan Kennedy told the audience about his first day in Big Sky and how The Moth allowed him the opportunity to discover this special place. It ended, too, with a story about Big Sky, and about freedom, courtesy of Warren Miller.
Having Warren Miller tell a story about freedom, skiing and what it means to live here aligned seamlessly with WMPAC’s ideals to reflect the world-class nature of Big Sky.
“We saw a little bit of Warren’s soul, and he bore that for us,” Zirkle said. “It was so emotional, and you can only do it when it’s presented that way. It was just a man and a microphone and his story.”
Find more information on The Moth and listen to podcasts at themoth.org. Find more on WMPAC including performance schedules and tickets at warrenmillerpac.org.