Tuesday, December 1, 2009

discovering The Moth

The sky is sunny again, and so am I. My friend Lynn, who taught high-school and several times took her classes on trips, told me she'd always instruct the kids at the start, "Stop complaining. The first day is always hard. Wait till the third day to tell me your problems." I should have heeded her advice.

Last night, a grand adventure. I first heard about "The Moth" a few years ago and have been following its progress on the internet. It's a storytelling forum, founded in the south where moths would beat on screen doors at night as the storytellers recounted their tales inside. It now sponsors evenings of storytelling and "story slams," highly competitive events, in New York and L.A. Sometimes famous people, Garrison Keillor types, are involved, but mostly, it's amateurs - you put your name in a hat when you arrive, and if your name is drawn, you have five minutes to stand at the mike and tell a great story. Ten people have their five minutes, are judged, and the highest score goes on to the national competition. There are topics. Last night, at last, I was in town on a Moth night, so was thrilled to be able to go. The topic was "Nerve."

But first, I should tell you another reason I was sad yesterday. Last night, there was another event here in New York. The Folksbiene Theatre, the Yiddish theatre, held a special evening last night in honour of the hundredth anniversary of my great-grandfather Jacob Gordin's death in 1909. They showed a film of one of his plays, and an elderly Yiddish actress was the guest of honour.

I do not know why this theatre has no interest in the author of a book about Gordin, one of the best-known Yiddish playwrights whose plays have been produced in this very theatre for decades, and who is, incidentally, Gordin's great-granddaughter - but it doesn't. I have written letters, emailed and left phone messages about coming to speak there, or even just to speak to someone about my book. I have never received a response. One of the reasons I'm here this weekend is because when Tom Oppenheim, head of the Stella Adler Studio, heard about the Folksbiene event, he said in his usual enthusiastic, open way, "We should do something together!" But the Artistic Director, apparently, had no interest. Still, until yesterday afternoon, I thought that they might try to contact me.

So yes, I was hurt. But at the same time, I was glad. I've given my life's blood - more than 20 years of research and writing - to Jacob Gordin, the book and the Yiddish Theatre, and now want to move forward. One thing that interests me is stand-up storytelling, so The Moth is something I've been keen to see. And happily, I was free to go.

The event last night - the venue shifts constantly - was at the Bitter End, the famous club on Bleeker Street in the Village, home of so many musicians in the Sixties. I stood in a very long line outside for half an hour, amazed by the popularity of the event, especially among the younger crowd - I'd say the average age was 32. It was packed inside, but I managed to find a seat at a table of young people, and ended up in a fascinating discussion with Nathan, sitting next to me, who's 25, a freelance writer and peace activist who often comes to The Moth and gave me his card at the end of the evening. Nathan is a keeper.

The M.C. was Sara Barron, a stand-up comic who at first I found almost offensive, her stories were so personal, honest to the point of embarrassment, not only about herself but about her former boyfriends whose names she gave us, various friends and family - a long riff on her father's impotence. In the end, though, she won me over - she is relentlessly honest about herself most of all, and she is funny and brave. I would not, however, want to be a friend of hers.

The names were drawn and the stories began, one terrible, several not so good and a few pretty fine, almost all entertaining. There wasn't one I thought was superb, but I agreed with the winner, a thirty-ish woman who told a story about connecting with a man over the internet who turned out to want to be her love slave. It was funny but also moving - in the end, she realises she doesn't want a love slave, she wants love and sends him away.

I'd thought of trying to start The Moth in Toronto - why isn't it there yet? But last night, I realised that I hope someone else does, but it won't be me. I'm interested in developing my own stories and in teaching others to do so, but the amount of work to get this event going would be prohibitive for an old bag like me. Any takers, youths out there?

Today it's chilly but bright. It's World AIDS Day, and I'm thinking of my many friends who died of this plague over the years, but also of the many who are living healthy lives with AIDS or HIV, thanks to science. And mostly, I'm getting ready for my talk about my great-grandfather's life and my connection to it, tonight at the Stella Adler Studio. I just read in the Times that there are two other tiny, boring literary events tonight, which will be no competition at all: Salman Rushdie, Tony Kushner and Siri Hustvedt reading and Olympia Dukakis reciting at the Cooper Union, and Katha Pollitt and Ron Padgett, two marvellous writers, in a series called Poems and Pints. I myself would gladly go to either. Ah well.

Tom had hoped Tony Kusher would come to meet me, as he quoted my book in his recent work about the Yiddish Theatre. But he'll be busy. However, last night I relearned something important: the world is hungry for stories. And tonight, to however many hungry people are there, I'll tell mine.

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