Warm Glow of The Moth Attracts Storytellers to The Sugar Club

The Moth idea is simple: a stage, a mike and your story.

Monday night in the city and there is a bite in the air. A queue of people stretched from the door of the Sugar Club on Leeson Street past the Lee Fields mural and Hourican’s pub to just shy of Stephen’s Green. Hundreds of expectations are piqued in the queue. We chained our bikes up and joined it. The Moth is in town for the first StorySlam Dublin. The Moth Mainstage event was in Dublin in September as a part of the Sounds Alive Festival, the StorySlam is The Moth’s less choreographed offshoot.

The StorySlam is basically an open mic night. 10 stories are delivered by volunteers from the audience whose names are plucked from a hat. The story has to be true and you have five minutes to tell it. There are three teams of judges, also selected from the crowd, who decide the winner based on a scoring system out of ten. Each night has a particular theme – Monday’s was ‘Home’.

There will be ten Dublin StorySlam events and after they are complete the winners will return to face off in the Dublin GrandSlam Championship.

***

Comedian Colm O’Reagan from Cork ably MC’d proceedings in the packed Sugar Club. Over 200 clicks were registered at the front door, he told us: almost a full house. Three groups were selected from the audience to judge. Judging was by no means an exact science,”score generously but remember 10s are unheard of because, well, James Joyce never told stories at The Moth.” We were ready for the first Moth story.

Fished from the middle of the crowd was Chandrika, carried from her seat to the stage on a wave of applause. She stood at the mike wearing a bright orange skirt and launched into her story with aplomb. The night before she’d been to the National Concert Hall around the corner to see Clint Mansell of Requiem for a Dream fame. While there she’d realised that she had a permit to work in Ireland but didn’t have a permit to live here; yes, there is a difference. This took her and her story to an immigration queue on the quays at 7am the next morning. Chandrika was number 62 in the queue – a number, but hers was a lucky one.

An Indian by birth she hasn’t been there for 14 years, “it’s more foreign to me than here now”. Home is a place that she has chosen and in her five minute story the audience was shown how lucky Ireland is to welcome her, “Dublin is a home worth queuing for.”

***

The Moth is based on the traditional storytelling style of the Southern United States where folks would gather on porches and recount tales. It originated in 1997 when George Dawson Green wanted to recreate in New York the style of storytelling that he was used to from his native Georgia. The first event was held in his Manhattan apartment but people were quickly drawn by the warmth and power of the stories, like moths to the light.

Cafes and clubs replaced Dawson Green’s apartment before eventually spreading to cities across the country. Since then it has grown exponentially thanks to the success of the podcast series (downloaded over 25 million times a year) and because of speakers such as Christopher Hitchens, Malcolm Gladwell and Martin Scorsese who have delivered their five minutes of truth to a live audience on a Moth stage.

The Hitch

***

Throughout the night the question ‘what makes a story work or not?’ played on my mind.

A German girl told her story about a fever (no, not Ebola) and noises heard in the night. The story was full of suspense. She held the audience for a few minutes but in the end the mystery of the radio in the night wasn’t much of a mystery at all.

Next, Neil Horgan bounded boldly onto the stage. He reenacted the many races he came second in during his school days evoking his great school rival Dermot O’Dea brilliantly. O’Dea was his nemesis who won all the gold medals, their was one of them in every school.

The story had an arc, good characters and a subtly poignant backdrop – it worked. We rooted for Niall as the monotony of silvers was broken the year that Dermot O’Dea was out sick on sports day. For five minutes he was our hero. He was able to evoke the sprints and dashes with a storytelling craft evinced perfectly by the subtle way he hinted at a broken home. The undercurrent of scars hidden inside his family abode, neither laboured nor forced, were there for the audience to grasp. This small victory meant the world to a young Niall, “A broken home had a golden glow that night.”

***

During the interval I made my way through the crowd dipping in and out of gaps. At one point I stepped to the side to allow a tall elderly man who was dapperly dressed and using a walking stick to pass. As he went by me he said, “is it because I’m old or is it because I’m beautiful?” We both laughed. This was an audience all of whom were interested in words and stories and telling theirs.

The most popular stories were delivered by two Irish women. They were simple jovial tales that struck a colloquial chord with the audience.

“Patricia the stripper, who is all lips and hips” opened the first. It was the story of a party piece that has stayed with Colleen her entire life. Patricia is her alter ego foisted upon her by pushy parents and maintained sporadically through the years by vino.

Again subtly is the key to this one as Colleen criticised the crassness of Celtic Tiger culture (Paul Howard isn’t the only one who can do it). She and her recently married husband both lost a parent soon after they were married. In 2001 “at a time when emigration was voluntary” they chose to leave. The rampant consumerism of the Tiger, “where looks and handbags were more important than decency”, didn’t sit right with their grief so they left for Melbourne. While in Melbourne Colleen gets drunk and Patricia, her suppressed alter ego, takes over the bar. She’s booted out and Colleen has a realisation that she must return home. Thankfully she and her husband return home to an Ireland less interested in Gucci.

The eventual winner Catherine tells of a budget holiday to Greece, to visit the Acropolis. Budget not because they were tight but because they were poor. It was the first time she was on a plane or had left Ireland. “It didn’t rain. Not the first day, the first night or the second day – not for the whole week! Now that was a miracle, for us.”

The family camped out in the shade under a tree. The tree turned out to be Samaras’ fig tree. Every morning the Greek man would arrive with figs and coffee as a gesture of hospitality.

“It was a simple holiday but that fig tree in Greece remains my home from home.”

***

Stories of grief overcome chimed with the audience. The stories that work are the five minute journeys, the ones laced with self-deprecation, humour and vulnerability. Boasting doesn’t have its place here; we have social media for that – to project our best sides no matter how manufactured they are. They call it a news feed but all it really feeds is one’s own ego.

Here the emphasis is on the real and the real is oftentimes difficult – but it remains universal. This is no therapy session, however. The teller has come to terms with the events and it is instead the audience who is moved. Moved by the story. Moved by the human in front of us telling of having overcome adversity. Also something called truth, which always resonates, especially when told with loads of colloquial humour thrown in. This event was made for the Irish.

Bike lights flashing, we’re guided home by the warm glow of a night at The Moth.

The Moth StorySlam returns to Dublin on November 17th.

2 comments

  1. Ken Baldwin · October 23, 2015

    Only recently discovered The Moth website and have been listening to it nightly for about 3 weeks. Love it. Your post captures very well what it is all about. We all really need a good dose of reality in our lives and The Moth is a good source for that.

    • Breffni Cummiskey · October 23, 2015

      Thanks Ken. Really recommend catching it live if you’ve the chance.

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