Truth, Consequence, and Complicity at The Moth

The Moth Book

I’m sitting in a plush red velvet orchestra seat amid a well-heeled New York City crowd, as the lights in the lavish old theater dim, and the spotlight falls on a cellist wearing a black shirt and a broad smile. She arranges her body around her instrument and lifts her bow, a signal that the stories are about to begin. Five performers are about to take the stage, one after another, to tell stories on the evening’s theme of "Rights and Lefts" -- that is, places, journeys, decisions, and turning points. The cellist, Marika Hughes, remains on stage as timekeeper, her bow poised to warn anyone who strays over their strict ten-minute story allocation. Otherwise, the stage is bare but for a microphone, a spotlight, and a person with a story.

On September 6, the long-running, much-beloved storytelling show The Moth held the premiere for its seventeenth season. The event, introduced by executive director Sarah Haberman and artistic director Catherine Burns, also heralded the 10,000th story told at the Moth in its sixteen-year history, and celebrated the launch of The Moth’s first book. A collection of fifty true stories, as previously performed on stage, the collection showcases the best qualities of the Moth’s live shows: true-life stories that are unpredictable, unvarnished, and impossible to put down.

The evening’s host, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, welcomed guests to New York’s historic Town Hall, and described the three "C'"s that define Moth stories -- confession, comedy, and complicity, or the power of a story to "entangle" listeners in another person’s life. All three were on display in the performances that followed.

In keeping with the night’s theme, Gopnik had asked the performers before the show to describe where they would be if not performing that night, to which fashion icon Simon Doonan replied, "at home in bed with Liberace." As it turns out, Liberace is a Norwich terrier belonging to the British-born designer and pundit whose story of thwarted Hollywood ambitions gets the evening off to a comic start. The movie: The Devil wears Prada. The role: a gay fashion editor who lends a sympathetic ear to the heroine. Doonan gleefully describes his confidence that he is perfect for the part and his dreams of stardom, before he slowly realizes that every other gay fashionista in town has been invited to audition, in what turns out to be research for the role played by Stanley Tucci. He doesn't even get a ticket to the premiere.

Journalist Kemp Powers’s story begins as a funny culture-clash tale of a tough, street-smart father raised in 1980s Brooklyn, who can’t handle the fact that his son is growing up shy, thoughtful, and nervous, "a caramel-colored Woody Allen." As it unfolds the story becomes heartfelt and moving, as Powers is forced to challenge his own beliefs about education and masculinity, and ask himself why he mistakes sweetness for weakness. He’s followed by Sasha Chernoff, the founder of the humanitarian charity RefugePoint, with a story that transports the audience to a hotel room in the Congo, where he and a colleague are fighting over whether or not they can fly an extra group of refugees out from a camp to safety. He’s a young white American, six years out of college, who has to weigh a decision that might cost hundreds of lives, not in the abstract, but people he has met and looked in the eye. Here’s where the quality of "complicity" comes out -- as he tells his story, the audience hears the struggle and choke in his voice, and shares for a moment the responsibility of his experience.

After a break, the actress Eve Plumb -- elegant, grown-up Jan Brady -- takes the stage to tell her story of child stardom and the bond she shared with her mother, who accompanied her on set and worked alongside her until the day Plumb turned eighteen. Overnight, her mother was out of a job -- and equally suddenly, several years later, Plumb lost her mother just before her wedding. As Adam Gopnik pointed out between stories, one thread that connected them all was the theme of the "asymmetry of love" between parents and children, down the generations.

The final, and perhaps most powerful story of the evening starts out as a sardonic tale of parenting, and becomes a fierce expression of faith and fury. Scottish writer, actress, and comedian Lynn Ferguson describes how her accidental pregnancy at thirty-seven entails an increasingly harrowing series of tests, which reveal that her unborn child is severely damaged. As the pressure mounts to terminate the pregnancy, she finds herself resisting more invasive tests, and ever more determined to meet her son.

Included in the book are stories by Adam Gopnik and Kemp Powers, along with popular writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Joyce Maynard, and Moth founder George Dawes Green. There are tales of saving lives, cheating death, losing at love, and winning at poker -- proving together that there’s nothing funnier, more surprising, or more moving than other people’s true-life stories.