“An art form unto itself.”
George Dawes Green, novelist and founder of The Moth storytelling event in New York, uses some version of the phrase repeatedly when he talks about the true, personal stories delivered onstage, without notes, at every Moth show in New York. And at every Carapace event in Atlanta. Another of Green’s favorite words: “raconteur,” in place of “storyteller.” He probably intends the French word, despite its uppity cachet and rather dandyish lilt, to distinguish this new brand of vocal narrative from the older, more theatrical sort. “Raconteur” works.
So the fresh breed of raconteur tells neither the rote bedtime tales of childhood nor the grand, work-the-stage-and-gesture-profusely mode of “adult” storytelling that’s been popular for a while, and often involves no disclosures about the teller herself at all.
Georgia native and novelist, Green has watched The Moth grow since 1997 into a popular podcast and iTunes download, with special events hosted by the New York hub and more than 50 cities around the world hosting regular offshoot events, “MothUPs,” where ordinary local people try their hands, voices, and nerves at raconteuring.
“Everybody’s terrified,” Green said with a smile. “Well, not everybody, but the ones who aren’t usually aren’t very good.”
Atlanta’s own MothUP, founded in 2010 by artist Joyce Mitchell and writer Randy Osborne, grew fast and became independent about a year later under the name Carapace. Wildly popular free shows are staged on the fourth Tuesday of every month at Manuel’s Tavern. Names are drawn from a hat, and volunteers tell stories on a pre-chosen theme. Green spoke at Bound to Be Read Books in East Atlanta Village during a visit on Jan. 15 to promote The Unchained Tour, a traveling Moth-style show featuring storytellers and music.
The nine-city, mostly-Georgia sojourn – intended to draw attention to the plight of independent bookstores faced with competition from the likes of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and (until recently) Borders – ends in Atlanta for two shows at Manuel’s Tavern, the weekend of Feb. 11 and 12.
“We have a whole new batch of storytellers,” Green said.
Or almost. A repeater this time around is the much-loved Edgar Oliver, the New York poet, actor and playwright, born and raised in Savannah. Oliver’s low, cooing, melodious voice, with its rasping consonants – some have described the effect as “Transylvanian” – along with his elegant, flowing gestures lend an edge-of-your-seat charm to any story he tells.
This year’s trip honors a longtime friend of George and raconteuring, the late Wanda Bullard, who was part of the Unchained Tour last year. Long ago, Bullard hosted Green and others at her St. Simons Island, Ga., where they shared stories on the back porch. Moths that flitted around the light bulb would later inspire Green to name the event he started in New York as a way to keep the light burning. Bullard died in September.
To sense the mood and spirit of story as told by raconteurs, Green said, “people have to just come and watch them. The [stories are] unscripted, usually stories about vulnerability, but the kind of stories you’d tell in your kitchen, late at night. There doesn’t have to be a moral in tow. It could be a story that just exists for the delight of the story. ‘This is what I did last week,’ or, ‘As a kid, this is how I felt when that girl disdained me.’”
Nor do the tales typically involve fancy language. “Heightened language actually detracts from the stories,” Green said. “You’ve just got to be there and make some kind of connection with the audience,” – which, on the best nights, gets a rare treat. “You’re seeing some honest slice of someone.”
There’s suspense, too, and not only inside the stories themselves.
“Everybody who’s watching it understands that it’s sort of like walking a tightrope,” Green said. “They understand that they’re watching someone who’s been cast into a perilous situation, that is, up in front of a bunch of people and having to maneuver through this story. So there’s sort of a sports appeal to it. Will he do it? Can he survive?” Typically, he or she does, and with “a feeling of freshness and wit” that Moth (and Carapace) audiences are starved to find elsewhere.
The mascot – and, with any luck, enabler – of the tour is the former school and church bus that Unchained artists hand-painted to illustrate some of the stories told by the raconteurs aboard. Last year, the colorful wagon broke down at the start of the tour, but a fundraising effort raised $10,000 to put it back on the road for 2012.
“People are writing from all over the country, asking if we’ll bring the bus there,” Green said, the tour may expand with another bus. For now, “people come great distances to hear these stories,” he said. “It’s an amazing, vibrant art form.”
Carapace raconteurs Shannon McNeal and Randy Osborne will be part of the Unchained shows, Feb. 11 and 12, respectively.
Tickets are on sale for both Atlanta shows and eight other cities, right here.