Wednesday, November 18, 2009

MOTHS TO THE FLAME

First off, can I just tell you how totally under-dressed I felt last night at "The Moth Ball," the big black-and-white formal benefit for the "The Moth"?  Let's just say, very. The recommended attire was, of course, black and/or white, and a mask if you could manage it. I'm not a real clothes horse to begin with, and on top of that, a bunch of my clothing is in a box right now, since I just moved into a new apartment. So I wore gray cords, which I figured was the most suitable pair of pants I had readily available. I also had a pair of white painters pants, but those make me look like a Moonie or, well, a painter. And I was going to wear a white shirt and cool vintage black jacket with those pants, but then at the last minute figured I'd distinguish myself by wearing my fancy embroidered party shirt, it's a Western shirt with shiny multicolored threads in a flower pattern that I got in a used clothing store several years ago, after my friend George helpfully informed me that what I considered my "party shirt" was actually just a drab old rag. Problem is, the shirt is blue, and it doesn't really go with the grey cords, and to make matters worse, I was wearing brown shoes that I'd thrown on because my one pair of black shoes catch me in the heel and are kind of uncomfortable. What can I say, I got them at PayLess. So when I got to "Capitale," the very fancy venue for the ball, and saw pretty much everyone dressed to the nines in black and/or white -- and creatively done, too, especially a lot of the women -- well, suffice it to say I felt like I might as well have just been in my underpants. Come to think of it, that might have been better, because at least my undies were white. 

Radio personality Garrison Keillor started off the evening's show by noting that the Moth was started by people "not from here." (I'd just learned from a Danish guy with a prop theatre hat that several of the staff members of the Moth are from Denmark.) Anyway, Garrison's point (we're totally on a first-name basis) was that New Yorkers will interrupt you every 15-20 seconds "to test your commitment," and if you were brought up in a place where the tendency is to yield to others in conversation, then any story you try to tell will be a series of opening lines. (Big laugh line, that.) And so, for people telling stories at The Moth, having five minutes of uninterrupted time is like having a handicap parking permit. "That is why The Moth started," he said, "to give people a fighting chance." 

Garrison then presented the 2009 Moth Award to playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith. Anna (we actually are on a first-name basis, as I used to work for her) interviews people about a given event or theme, and re-enacts portions of those interviews on stage in one-woman shows. Her new show, "Let Me Down Easy," at Second Stage Theatre through December 6, is about health and the human body. Check it out, or if you're not going to be in NYC, the theatre's website  has video of Anna's recent appearance on Bill Moyers, in which she discusses the play. Anyway, Anna says that hers are "hand-me-down stories," and told one that was related to her by oral historian Studs Terkel, who in turn got it from Mark Twain (in books, that is, since Studs Terkel was not THAT old). Anna then launched into what I thought was a pretty great Studs Terkel voice,  repeating verbatim what he'd told her about how important it is to question "the official truth," and using Huck Finn as an example. Anna added that Bill Moyers had asked her if acting was lying, and she said no, that instead it was about getting at other truths. That's what storytellers at The Moth do.

"Everyone has a story" is the simple, compelling message of The Moth -- and part of the "brand" campaign developed for the organization by the ad firm of Ogilvy. The new tag line for the organization (or at least its "story slams") is "You, a microphone and a story." Aside from the "story slams" and other performances, The Moth sponsors storytelling workshops for students and marginalized adults living in New York City. One of those students was Terrence Buckner (pictured above), who last night was awarded The Moth's $5,000 college scholarship. I had heard Terrence's story "Last Laugh" on The Moth podcast a few months ago. Terrence has got a lovely, sing-song teenagery voice (he was 15 at the time of the telling) and an adorable laugh, and told a story about coming out of the closet, and getting beat up, and pressing onward. Terrence is totally the gayest thing, and in case it's not clear I say that in respect and admiration. So, Terrence is challenging the official truth by telling his story, and also looked pretty sharp while doing it.

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