sun 31/05/2020

theartsdesk in New York: Story Slamming in Greenwich Village | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in New York: Story Slamming in Greenwich Village

theartsdesk in New York: Story Slamming in Greenwich Village

Open-mic surgery: the art of oral narrative is alive in America

It’s 6.20 on a chilly Monday evening. The doors at the venerable Bitter End club in Greenwich Village don’t open till seven but already the line for the open-mic Moth StorySLAM is snaking down the block, way past the corner of Bleeker Street into La Guardia Place. It’s a chatty, hyper crowd, mainly in their twenties and thirties, some nervously eager to take the stage for five minutes and tell their stories, some, like me, there just to listen. We know there may be agents in the audience, scouting for talent. Tonight the topic is Disaster, very suitable for post-Thanksgiving.

Interesting snippets of conversation filter through the queue’s hubbub: "I wish there were literary saints, like if you wanted to get laid you’d pray to Saint Bukowski." "Beer with caffeine - getting fucked up but being wide awake, it’s the American dream." By the time I pay my $8 and get in there’s nowhere to sit, just a sliver of red brick wall to lean against, using my down jacket as a buffer. The hundred or so people nearer the back of the queue must have been turned away. The place is heaving but no one looks stressed out. Yellowing posters of Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan - they all played here - look down on us benevolently.

Stories start at 7.30. We’re ready to be amused, knocking back pints of Guinness. Writer and comedian Sara Barron, the host, takes the stage to tell us how it works. There are three tables of judges - you can volunteer beforehand or just on the night, though judges are likely to be old hands at Moth events. If you want to tell a story, put your name in the hat. Ten people will be picked, but you won’t know it’s you until your name is called. The rules, and the judges’ criteria, are simple: stick to the five-minute time frame, stick to the topic and have a story that sticks - one that has conflict and resolution. Get yourself a great first line and know your last line before you begin. And no paper - you have to remember it without notes. No stand-up routines, no rants. Leave your anger issues with your therapist.

slamphoto1While people settle down, before the first name is picked, Sara rattles off a hilariously rude story about being a waitress and hearing Diane Sawyer, the perfectly composed blonde news anchor, tell a drunken joke about anal sex. She sets the bar high. Then we’re off, with a small dark woman who describes herself as half Irish-American, half Latina, raised by Jews ("that’s a story for another time") who hoped to rescue her bad marriage by making great coffee. She’s full of manic verve. "If I make the perfect cup of coffee, that will be it. That was what the jones was this morning." It ends with her almost throwing up in a lift. It’s amazing what you can fit into five minutes. Her score is 8.7 out of 10. Everyone whoops and claps.

More vomiting stories follow, at least three of them, the more outrageous the better. Some involve diarrhoea and planes, adding to the disastrous element. All are warmly received. No booing - we all know that it takes incredible guts to get up there and take the mic. Interestingly, Thanksgiving is never invoked. Mainly these are tales of hilarity and humiliation, but a few are softer, more subtle, like the teacher who deliberately missed his "Michelle Pfeiffer moment" and allowed his disadvantaged students to find their own way without his disempowering them by taking control.

In between each story, Sara returns to an ongoing tale involving a friend, a one-night stand, a blocked toilet in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and a plastic bag. There’s the good-looking accountant from Florida, desperate to get away from home, with a girlfriend he loved only because she was rich. He was the funniest guy in the auditing department - so "I figured it would be six months tops before I’m famous in New York." He ends up in New Jersey - disaster, obviously. Then Amy, with her LA plastic surgery that left her cheeks so smooth and tight that, well, she doesn’t want to spell it out, but so tight that she can’t open her mouth very wide and "for my boyfriend, that was a big, big, problem". She scores an 8.9. Everyone loves her. But not as much as they love Caroline, a Mia Farrowish little thing in a demure Peter Pan collar and cardie who, when the recession hit, became a marijuana deliverer on her bicycle, making constant trips across the Williamsburg Bridge. Her delivery is deadpan, her comic timing perfect. She carried the weed in her panier. "I could just waltz into doorman buildings with no problem, because no one expects a cute girl with a French cycling bag to be a drug dealer." All goes well until she loses the bag. Weed, tons of money, all gone. Someone emails her to tell her they’ve found it but she’s too paranoid to pick it up.

She gets the highest score - a 9.3 - so will go on to take part later in the year in a GrandSLAM where all the winners compete. Afterwards, I ask her if she’s been on stage before. No, not since grade school, and even more amazingly, she hadn’t rehearsed at all. "I had a different story in mind but, midway through the night, realised I had something better suited for the evening's theme." Was she nervous? No - "The initial surprise of being selected was enough of an adrenaline rush."

There must be something in the New York air that lets these people soar on Moth wings, although there are Moth slams in other US cities: Detroit, Chicago, LA. But New York is where it all began when, in 1997, novelist George Dawes Green held the first storytelling event in his living room. By now the Moth has presented over 3000 stories. There’s also the Moth Mainstage which tours nationally with high-profile raconteurs like Malcolm Gladwell, Ethan Hawke and Jonathan Ames. Salman Rushdie’s got in on the act, so has Annie Proulx. There’s also a Moth ball, a podcast and a radio hour. But nothing can beat these sell-out slams - four of them each month in New York. My feet are killing me from all that standing but I walk to the subway feeling drunk on the essence of New York, distilled into 10 stories.

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