The Moth Wash U turns ordinary stories into something extraordinary
For the past two years, The Moth Wash U has given students of all majors and backgrounds the opportunity to stand up in front of a group of their peers and tell a true story about themselves. Inspired by The Moth Radio Hour—the podcast of NYC-based, story-driven nonprofit, The Moth—the student group was founded by now-seniors Abby Gordon and Lena Crown during their junior year.
As their upcoming graduation will end the opening chapter of The Moth Wash U, I sat down with Gordon and Crown, along with the third part of the directorial team, senior Kim Rogers, and the incoming artistic directors, sophomores Katy Brainerd, Grace Fellman and Isabella Levethan, to hear more about the initial drive behind the organization and where it will go from here.It all began in August of Gordon and Crown’s junior year, when the two friends were grabbing lunch and recapping highlights from summer break. Crown had just come from a road trip where she had listened to The Moth podcast every day for six days straight, and Gordon had spent the summer listening, too, while logging footage as an intern at a documentary production company.
“As we got to talking about it,” Gordon said, “I realized it had brought me and Lena together, and had done the same for me and my intern friends over the summer. At Wash U, there wasn’t really a performance opportunity available for non-performers, and Lena and I both thought, ‘Why not bring a version of The Moth here?’”
With the advice of Gordon’s friend at Middlebury College, who was part of a similar organization inspired by The Moth, and the assistance of professor Kathleen Finneran in the writing department, Gordon and Crown threw The Moth Wash U’s first story slam that same semester. In keeping with The Moth’s style, they decided that each slam would have a predetermined theme—and the first slam was aptly themed, “Firsts.” Themes for the following story slams were “Losing It,” “Obsessions,” “Out There” and “Mismatched”—all chosen for their diverse array of potential interpretations.
Rogers, who was brought on as a co-director by Gordon and Crown after the first slam, said, “The unique thing about The Moth Wash U is that we’re really just providing a platform for people to talk about personal stories. It’s less about tackling a big social issue or a thesis, and more about giving students the chance to step out of their comfort zones and share something about themselves.”
One of the most important pieces of advice that the group received from the Middlebury College student was that the artistic directors should workshop each story with the performer beforehand. This process lets the performer bounce around ideas with the directors and get feedback, while allowing the directors to identify interesting threads that the story can follow in order to ensure that audience members get the full experience in the 10 minutes that each story is allotted.
“The bulk of the work is done in the workshop where a performer meets with us individually for an hour,” Crown said. “We flesh out the narrative and pick a first and last line for a punchy beginning and solid ending. But we do like to keep the commitment minimal, so other than that, each performer just has to attend a group meeting, the dress rehearsal and the event.”
Because there are no notes allowed, the stories are granted a life of their own once the performer steps up to the stage—and that opportunity for a bit of improvisation adds to the fun of it.
“It’s cool to watch the stories performed after you’ve workshopped them,” Rodgers said. “You can see moments where the performers will break and react to the crowd or themselves, but it’s still practiced despite some improv here and there.”
That combination of practice and improvisation—the nature of a true, personal story—and the performance setting all work to “make the ordinary extraordinary,” as Gordon said.
Next year’s artistic directors, Brainerd, Fellman and Levethan, are filling big shoes. The Moth Wash U’s most recent story slam last Thursday had a packed house, with every seat filled and people sitting on the floor. But the current directors are sure they’re up for the challenge. Both Brainerd and Levethan participated in a mock workshop as part of the interview process and have shadowed the directors throughout the semester, taking part in choosing the last slam’s performers.
One change to look out for next year is the group’s name. In the fall, The Moth Wash U will be rebranded as “Unscripted,” with the subtitle, “Inspired by The Moth Radio Hour.” This will allow the group to differentiate itself from The Moth nonprofit, which includes a larger set of storytelling events beyond that which the Wash. U. group has adapted.
Levethan, who’s been a fan of The Moth podcast for years, is eager to keep The Moth WashU’s current momentum going. “The important thing is keeping everyone engaged and wanting to come back,” she said. “Right now, the audience and applicant pool is still mostly people in our own circles, so I want to diversify that in the coming year.”