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The Moth is bringing its live stage event to Bismarck this November. We revisit a conversation with Executive Producer Sarah Austin Jenness.


Ashley Thornberg

We are so excited to be bringing The Moth and this live storytelling event to North Dakota. Sarah, as someone who has listened to thousands of stories being told, as someone who reads the pitches as they're coming in, can you just start with what it is like to hear a story live in person at an event in an audience and the energy that that brings in a way that maybe just doesn't quite work the same reading it on a page or even listening to it on a show as well done as The Moth?

Sarah Austin Jenness

Well, we're so excited to be in North Dakota to come into a shared space and hear stories that you've never heard before from people who you might know or might not know is electrifying.

It makes you feel better about the world. These stories will make you laugh and maybe make you cheer up, but they'll make you think about your own life experiences too. And so we're always happy to be out on the road with The Moth main stage.

No two main stages are ever the same. And so we'll be looking at some fantastic storytellers that I know and have worked with before, and some people who are local and to North Dakota. And so we have a Moth pitch line and we are excited to include all sorts of local voices.

And if you have a story you'd like to tell, you can check out themoth.org and leave a pitch of a story that you might want to workshop.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. How many story pitches do you get in, let's just say a month?

Sarah Austin Jenness

Well, we used to have them trickling in many years ago when we first started the pitch line, but now we're up to a few hundred a month, a few hundred.

And the pitches are so wide ranging. They're about a trip gone wrong. They're about a moment you'll never forget.

They're about something that shocked or surprised you. But it's important in the pitch to leave the bones of the actual story. So every once in a while we'll have someone say, I've got a good one for you.

Call me back. But they don't actually tell us what the story is about. While we laugh, we don't have time to call everyone back who leaves a pitch like that.

So tell us what your story is actually about. The live events, it's important to stress that the stories are true as remembered, but that this is not something that you are reading. You should mostly have your story memorized, but be aware that speaking live, there's always something that can happen.

Ashley Thornberg

Another storytelling tip that I really enjoyed on the website is have some stakes. Why is it so important to go into live storytelling with the awareness of vulnerability?

Sarah Austin Jenness

Yeah. So I'm so happy that you say that.

Stakes are probably the most important part of a story. The audience has to understand why you care about the events of the story. Why do you want what you want in the story and why are we rooting for you? So if you can really clarify why this moment in your life meant so much or why this journey was one that you had to go on, then the audience will just be applauding you and be putting themselves in your shoes as you tell the story and really wonder, my gosh, how is this going to end? And hang on with you until the very last moment.

And so for vulnerability, sometimes we like to say, if you woke up and you thought, I am awesome, and you went through your day and it just kept getting better and better. And then when you put your head on the pillow, you said, man, I am even better than I thought I was. And what an awesome day that was.

I mean, that's incredible for you. I'd say call your best friend and have a moment, but it doesn't necessarily make an impactful story because we need for storytellers to almost tell on themselves. What's the decision that you made where in retrospect, maybe it wasn't the right decision or a moment when you didn't think you could do it.

I mean, those are the moments that connect us to one another.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. In my family, we call those type one, type two and type three funny.

You know, type one, funny when it happened. And that's great. Type two, not funny when it happened, but it's the story that you tell over and over on vacation.

Type three, never going to be funny. We still don't talk about it.

Sarah Austin Jenness

It's true.

I mean, a lot of stories go beyond this thing happened. This thing happened, but it's the why and the emotion behind it and really how at the end of the day you were transformed. And so moth lovers or story lovers of any sort will know that some stories are hilarious, but they bring you somewhere.

And some stories are so somber and sad, but they bring you somewhere. And so at the end of a Moth night, you feel like you've really gone to five different places with all five storytellers and you've been on a journey of your own.

Ashley Thornberg

I want to talk, Sarah, about your role as I want to call you a steward of somebody else's story.

And as I was reading the prologue of this latest book from The Moth, How to Tell a Story, there is this section where a woman is trying to convince herself to get up and tell a story. And it was the classic, you know, dialogue of nobody cares about this. Get over yourself.

You haven't saved a life. You know, why do I deserve to get up and talk about, you know, me and put yourself in this sort of self-important role. But then, you know, very much you get the sense of anybody at The Moth that beneath the story itself is this idea that there is connectivity, that there is something bigger than ourselves.

Even if we tell a story that happened maybe just to us, there's a universality there. So, Sarah, your approach as someone who maybe sometimes needs to convince somebody else they have a story to tell and how to take care of it.

Sarah Austin Jenness

It's called How to Tell a Story, a very direct title. And it basically is I'm one of the co-authors and it's all of the techniques that the directors have used in coaching stories for the last years that the moth has been around.

And over the course of those 18 years, I have, as you say, been a steward for many, many stories. And I like to say that stories are like fingerprints.

So they're unique to you. Only you can tell your stories. And so when I'm working with someone new, I ask, what are the building blocks of your life? What are a few stories that will help me understand what makes you, you? So a story that only you can tell, a story that is unique to you, and a story that helps me walk for five or 10 minutes in your shoes.

Because the best way to get to know someone is through a story. And stories can be used on dates, and they can be used in job interviews, and for toasts, and in eulogies, and family gatherings of all sorts. You know, stories show up everywhere.

You just have to really listen to hear them.

Ashley Thornberg

As somebody who goes to live events, and you think that it all just happens sort of magically or inorganically, and yeah, there's some of that. But what you don't realize when you are an audience member is the level of work and attention to detail that goes into curating an event.

Can you walk us through The Moth process, Sarah, of finding that blend of controlling what you can, being thoughtful, but then allowing there to be space for what can only happen when it's live?

Sarah Austin Jenness

Yes. So The Moth is like live documentary. It is like theater, but you play the role of yourself.

And this is why I love it so, so much, because the stories are not exactly memorized. You live the story, so you know what happens. What you do with a moth director, like myself, is you take an experience that you've had, and then you mine it for meaning.

And you would work with me to develop it to be a 10 to 12-minute story, but you might not have all five characters in it. You might not include the move that you made when you were in second grade. You might not include, you know, your first love, but you would go deeper into the relationship that you had with your mom.

So we work together to streamline so that it's only one story that you're telling. And there's a very clear beginning, middle, and end, and there's a very clear arc, and there's very clear stakes, like we talked about before. And many times when you're telling a story, you have no idea how long it's taken you, how long you've been speaking.

And so I have some storytellers through the years who have told epic tales, but they've only been three minutes long, you know, and it's kind of a shorthand for what you should know about me. Or they tell a story, and it's a half an hour long, and it's incredible, but we need to find a way to really zoom in to a few different scenes and find the details and the emotion to bring the audience into your journey. So for a live event, it is like walking the most exciting tightrope.

I mean, we are like story midwives in a way. And so I'm in the front row, sharing the storytellers on, but the story will never be told in the exact same way. Because again, we ask that you know your first line and your last line and the basic bullet points that you've worked out ahead of time, but not to memorize, because then you're reciting a script, or it becomes a monologue.

Instead, we ask that you try to relive it on stage. And so it's like a dance between you and the audience. And it's a little different every time, because the audience is coming in in a different mood, and it's in a different theater, and you're in a different mood.

And you may remember some sweet details or poignant details in one telling that you didn't remember in the last. And we ask that you just go with it. So in some cases, audiences will laugh in a place you're not expecting, or they'll be so quiet that you can hear a pin drop.

And that's also the excitement about being live and in the room with the storytellers, because anything can happen.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you approach this story coaching differently? Because The Moth does get a lot of very big names up on the stage telling these stories.

But then you know, there is supposed to be this focus of everybody has this story, but people who are not trained actors, trained writers, people who don't have this experience day in and day out. Do you approach teaching them how to tell a story a little differently?

Sarah Austin Jenness

I do. You know, at the end of the day, everyone has a story, everyone has multiple stories to tell.

And so in some cases, with people who have incredible stories, but are maybe not used to the stage, it's a building up of their competence and their excitement and the structure of their story. And in other cases, if you're extremely well known, it may be just a shift of the style. So if we've had a lot of musicians tell stories, we've had a lot of comics tell stories.

And so when I love working with comics, because they already know structure. But the trick with comics is to make sure that all of the last lines and the jokes are really related to the backbone of the story. And so I've found through the years that some comics will throw in a joke right when the emotions start to pop through, right when they start to feel vulnerable, right when they start to feel vulnerable, or they start to feel like they might be losing control or might be cheering up, you know, they'll throw a joke in.

And so the point is to stick to the storytelling form. And this becomes really exciting for actors or celebrities, or even politicians who've told stories, because it's what they know, but it's like a different angle to what they know.

Ashley Thornberg

Sarah, as I'm looking at The Moth website, in addition to just being totally jealous about the number of people that work on this show, it's overwhelmingly female.

So I want to talk about the role of women as the keepers of culture.

Sarah Austin Jenness

What a wonderful thing to notice. Thank you so much.

And to talk about that. You know, the Moth was started by a gentleman, but you're right that it was grown and nurtured and loved and changed by a group of women. And the writers of this book, How to Tell a Story, are women.

There are a few directors who are men at The Moth. But really, we are like, I mentioned this before, but we are like midwives. We help you to birth your story.

So I never tell people what their story is supposed to be about. I never tell them what they should say. What I do is I listen, and I help them to craft what it is that they choose to say.

So I'll help you better communicate the point that you want to make. So I'm like a brand new test audience every time I listen to your story. And I really relish that role.

And I feel like the Moth is helping people to tell stories and is elevating incredible, fresh, new and surprising stories. But it's really a place that also inspires people to listen and to sit back and think about long held views that they've had, and really allow themselves to be transported by another person. And there is a very nurturing quality that's there.

There's a warmth there. There is a family vibe that's there. And it may be a distant cousin family vibe, you know, but you're getting to know someone in a different way than you did before.

You know, and I also love after working here for so many years that I hear stories everywhere in a way that I didn't before. I hear stories on buses, I hear stories or the beginning of stories on a line at the grocery store, or in reunions with friends. And I feel like The Moth is helping us to stop and listen to these stories that are everywhere, and to ask questions to better understand our neighbors.

Ashley Thornberg

And that's really the greatest act of love that a person can put out into the world.

Sarah Austin Jenness

I appreciate that so much. It's why we do what we do.

It's I think, during the pandemic, and in the last couple of years overall, we've seen a real spike in listenership. And it's because people want to feel more connected, even more connected than they than they were before. And stories will help you do that.

And so I applaud all the listeners of the Moth and anyone who's able to come out to see our fantastic show in North Dakota, and anyone who has a story that they think they might like to share. I mean, we do listen to all these pitches and find storytellers for shows, we have stories, shows all around the world. Many, many times a year.

And yeah, always looking for those fresh, new, fun stories.