The Moth at 20: How it helped spark a modern storytelling movement
These days, personal storytelling is revered as an art form, celebrated globally with hundreds of podcasts and live events. But when The Moth first launched in 1997, most of its performers had only ever told their stories around the dinner table.
Back then, The Moth was an informal network of people who gathered in New York City's parks and apartment buildings to share true stories from their everyday lives.
It's come a long way in the two decades since.
This week, The Moth is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its first storytelling event.
Often in these stories, there's something that speaks to who we are... And if you dig a little, it's easy to find deeper meaning in them in a genuine way.- Catherine Burns, Artistic Director of The Moth
Over the years, the organization has hosted more than 3,500 live events on six continents, featuring stories by everyone from Salman Rushdie to Carrie Brownstein. It's developed an award-winning podcast and inspired spin-off events in countries around the world.
Catherine Burns is the Artistic Director of The Moth and the co-producer of The Moth Radio Hour. She's also the editor of the new book, "All These Wonders: True Stories about Facing the Unknown."
As she tells Day 6, we all have a story to tell.
"One of the things I sometimes say to people is, like, 'What's the story that when you have a new friend, that you can't wait to tell them? Or what are the stories that your friends ask you to tell to their friends?'"
"They might be anecdotal, like some crazy car crash story or something funny that happened on your trip 20 years ago. But often, in these stories there's something that speaks to who we are, and there's a reason we tell them over and over. And if you dig a little, it's easy to find deeper meaning in them in a genuine way."
The early days
When Burns first started going to The Moth performances in New York City in the 2000s, there were no advance tickets.
But she was immediately entranced.
"There were these magical nights of stories where you would have an astronaut on stage with some famous writer who wrote a movie you'd just seen and loved, next to, like, a dental hygienist. It was just such a wide variety of people."
The Moth was founded by novelist George Dawes Green, who had grown up on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia.
You would have an astronaut on stage with some famous writer who wrote a movie you'd just seen and loved, next to, like, a dental hygienist.- Catherine Burns, Artistic Director of The Moth
"He and his friends would sit around on their friend Wanda Bullard's porch. And they would tell stories and drink whiskey and play cards," Burns says.
"And there were holes in the screen, and so the moths would flutter around. So they started calling themselves 'The Moths.' They were like, 'The Moths will meet for cards and stories tonight.'"
Homesick for those nights on Bullard's porch, Dawes Green decided to try to recreate the experience after he moved to New York City.
"He invited a hundred of his close friends to this loft where he lived, and asked five friends to come and tell personal stories. The idea was that everybody had to sit quietly and just listen while that person had the floor."
"And that's how The Moth began."
The power of stories
For Burns, The Moth inspired a new recognition of the power of everyday stories.
"Obviously, storytelling is maybe the oldest art form — people standing around the campfire, relating the events of the day," she says.
"But what I think they did that was different, was this concept of taking a dinner party story, or a story you might tell at a bar, and elevating that. And putting that on stage in front of a live audience, and recognizing it as an art form."
"It was the first time that I know of that people were standing on stage telling personal stories in that way."
What I think they did that was different was this concept of taking a dinner story party, or a story you might tell at a bar... and recognizing it as an art form.- Catherine Burns, Artistic Director of The Moth
Burns has heard hundreds of stories over the years. But certain ones have stayed with her, including one by Canadian comic, writer and performer Ophira Eisenberg.
In the story, Eisenberg describes a car crash she experienced as a child, when a teenager ran a red light and crashed into her mother's vehicle.
She and her mother both survived the accident but Eisenberg's best friend Alanna, who had been strapped into the seat beside her in the car, was killed in the crash.
Years later, at age 16, Eisenberg stumbled on a letter in her mother's desk drawer. The letter, addressed to her mother by Alanna's father, expressed his forgiveness for the death of his daughter.
"Ophira, for the first time, sees the accident through the eyes of her parents," says Burns.
"It's all about that moment where we grow up and suddenly see our parents as human beings, and not just 'Mom' and 'Dad.'"
Coming together in the Internet age
Burns says stories like Eisenberg's are powerful because they resonate, even for people who have never had a similar experience.
"It's so specific to her, but when I hear it, I can pull out things from my own life that connect me to it. And in this way, the tellers and the audience leave feeling more connected than they did when they arrived."
That every story comes from an eyewitness — I think that's something that, as human beings, we never stop needing.- Catherine Burns, Artistic Director of The Moth
She says it's no coincidence that the modern storytelling movement began in the 1990s, alongside the rise of the Internet.
"We live in a world where I think people talk to each other less and less. I think we're all aware that we communicate through these devices and Facebook and email."
"And I don't think there's a coincidence that… the more we are siloed with our little blinky machines, the more we actually have a desire to go out there and connect in an authentic way with people one-on-one, and [to] hear a story told by the person that it actually happened to."
"That every story comes from an eyewitness — I think that's something that, as human beings, we never stop needing."
To hear our interview with Catherine Burns, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.