...And Now I'm Self-Conscious About Titles
I was hopeful, but nervous, because if you Google "storytelling"---or, for that matter, listen to too much NPR---you'd be justified in suspecting that storytellers are mostly itinerant hippies just a branch or two over from Renaissance Fair magicians in the Geek Family Tree. Every time I hear a storyteller on NPR (not on This American Life, but as a guest on Morning Edition or some such), they seem a little overeager, a little loud, and slightly too artful to be truly believed. It's clear from the usual mode of presentation that they're geared to winning over rather large crowds with highly structured, slightly corny stories in poorly miked venues. Since my work is more like a comic reading, this wasn't really what I was after, and I definitely never want to be billed alongside a guy retelling a Navajo creation myth who uses all the voices.
So I went to Brooklyn to see the show at a place called Night and Day. (This was, by the way, my first intentional trip out of Manhattan, since I'm not counting the time I hopped on the E going the wrong direction, then overcorrected and wound up just taking the F even further into what was either Brooklyn or Queens. It all looks the same if you never leave the tunnels.)
It was perfect. These were real people telling real, amusing and touching stories. And while they obviously cared about their craft, much of the craft also seemed to involve making it look artless, so there were no overdramatic sound effects or big eyes and show hands or any of that. As it happened, the two best stories were told by older men---who, I was later told, are the two best storytellers in Manhattan---who both turned out to be ex-hippies. But both of them used this as a springboard for irony: these were my ideals, and then the world surprised me. (I'd go into more detail, but I've only got ten minutes left on my lunch hour.) From talking to the performers afterward---and there were eight performers, and five of them were amazing, and no one was less than engaging---I learned that the center of the scene is an organization called The Moth, which divides its time between two venues, and which holds storytelling slams every two weeks. The next one's July 31st, and just try to stop me from going.
The downside, of course, is that there's simply no money in this---it's not like someone's gonna see me and offer me a show on Comedy Central. But having done comedy, and having seen this, I realize that that bartender was right about me: I'm much happier hanging around storytellers than I am comedians. Because, for one thing, to be a good storyteller---to tell a truly satisfying anecdote---you have to have some real human feeling, and a sense for what moves us to smile or wince. Comedians, by contrast, can often make entire careers out of neurotic, unexamined reaction formations. No one ever accused someone of using storytelling as a defense. For another thing, the crowds are much more attuned to my rhythm and my style. Whenever I was doing stand-up, I was artificially amping myself up to get an audience's attention, and I always felt, "If I do what I really want, it won't be commercial enough to attract the average bar crowd." I don't have that fear among this crowd, and I really can't wait to test my chops. It's too early to tell, of course, but this scene feels very, very tantalizingly like home.