Storytelling events in Boston give platform to artists

Mary Everett
Connector Contributor

Alex Glover was not expecting to share a personal story with the crowd when he went to Laugh Boston on a Tuesday night in October.

“I showed up and I didn’t know that it was a participatory event. I actually thought I was going to see a stand-up comedy routine,” Glover said, a pretty safe assumption when going to a comedy club.

But what Glover, a 28-year-old musician from Jamaica Plain, actually attended was a story slam. The evening was part of a larger national storytelling series called The Moth, sponsored by Boston University’s radio station WBUR and Public Radio Exchange.

Although he had not planned on sharing, Glover said that when he saw what the evening’s theme was and what the organizers were looking for, he knew he had something to share.

Glover’s story is just one of many told in the Boston area as part of the growing popularity of live storytelling, and some are sponsored by The Moth. But there are many others, including Story Space, which is somewhat of a Boston institution.

There are many variations of live storytelling, and Glover participated in a popular version: the slam. Slams are competition style evenings, where teams in the audience vote on the stories told based on criteria such as story length and adherence to the night’s theme. These events welcome first-timers to put their name in the hat, or rather, the tote bag, for a chance to share.

That theme of that evening was competition, and Glover’s tale about jumping off a cliff into a quarry and breaking his back was the winner of the slam. Glover said the short prep time made for a better experience, giving him less time to rehearse his tale. “The goal was just to talk about something I hadn’t talked about before. And I guess also to sort of widen myself,” he said.

The Moth has been hosting storytelling since 1997 and now hosts events in over 30 major cities within the United States. The Moth has told 20,000 stories since its start, said publicist Meryl Cooper. The events in the Boston area range from StorySlams and GrandSlams, which are evenings of competitive storytelling held in small venues with a predetermined theme, to larger mainstage events, with storytellers who have worked with Moth directors to refine their tales.

This month in Boston, the Moth is hosting two more slams and one mainstage event. On Nov. 15, a StorySlam with the theme of revelations will be held at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville. On Nov. 21, a StorySlam will be held at Oberon in Cambridge with the theme of control.

Tickets to slams can be purchased one week prior to the event via their website, themoth.org. Price of admission is $10; all seating is general admission with stories beginning at 8 p.m. The Mainstage event will be on the Nov. 16 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.

Storytelling events as a whole have been increasing in popularity with nights and festivals dedicated to different types of tales popping up across the country. Boston is no exception with events each week ranging from curated, competition-style story slams like the Moth to more relaxed events such as those hosted by The Story Space every Tuesday night, which features a blend of personal stories, fantasy and folklore.

The Story Space has been holding storytelling nights each Tuesday for the past seven years, although its origins go back to 1992 when a man called Brother Blue and his wife started a weekly storytelling event in Porter Square. Although he has since passed and the group’s leadership has shifted, the current iteration is still going strong as a weekly event, welcoming any manner of storytelling – true, embellished, fantasy or folklore. All are welcome at Story Space.

There is also a featured teller for their events. Story Space organizer Michael Cohen said he looks to book anyone with an interesting story, whether they are a storyteller, a musician working on a new album or a comedian looking to strip back from a formal set and talk about their creative process instead. Cohen said the goal is give these people an opportunity to talk about their art and to give listeners an understanding of what it is like to be in the teller’s shoes.

The evening’s time is otherwise split between first-time storytellers and those who have shared at the Story Space before. Cohen said that even if someone is a seasoned storyteller, if they have not told at Story Space before, their name goes in the first-time tellers can. This rule belies the type of experience that can be expected at Story Space: a group dedicated less to scoring and the competition-style telling of slams and more to the idea of hearing someone else’s experience, whatever it may be.

“We don’t have any content restrictions. We don’t have a theme because when it started, Brother Blue said he wanted somebody who had a story, who never had the chance to tell [it], to walk in off the street and share this incredible story and just be able to do that without judgement,” Cohen said.

To get a fix, one could head down to Somerville on any given Tuesday. Nov. 7 marked their move to a new location: Havurat Shalom in Somerville. The evening begins at 6:45 p.m, and ends at 9 p.m. Those wishing to share are asked to submit their name by 7 p.m.

Cohen said that the starting intention back in 1992 was to have something like a jazz club for storytelling, where anyone could improvise and “riff” on a tale, true or otherwise. “You’re right there, seeing the fires of creation – someone tells a brand-new story that no one’s ever heard before and it’s interactive between the listener and the teller, because they feed off of each other,” he said.

That sort of relationship between the teller and the audience is something that Cohen says many people do not realize they crave: “You can just sit there and hear people’s stories, all kinds of stories, and it’s ok, and you realize, hey, I’m story deprived.”

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