For Middlebury Magazine. A pair of students is using new methods to revive an ancient tradition.
On a rainy night in September, Bianca Giaever ’12 steps onto a small cement-and-bedrock stage in the basement of Gifford Hall. Members of the audience surround her on all sides, sitting on velour beanbags, the floor and one another in various leg-numbing contortions. A few track lights are out, but the microphone works fine. Giaever asks how many are newcomers here; when about half of the room raises a hand, she seems pleased. “Well, you should know that there are only two rules,” she says. “Rule number one is no notes. Rule number two is all stories must be true.”
What happens every third Thursday in the Gamut Room may be underground, but it isn’t a secret. It’s called a MothUP, and it’s simple enough: Giaever and Will Bellaimey ’10 enlist Middlebury students, faculty, staff and town residents to tell a story related to a one-word theme. Like “Summer,” when Michaela Lieberman ’10 took things too far in a theater class she taught to female inmates, or “Family,” who are, for Cody Gohl ’13, relatives that hoot and holler instead of saying amen. Or “Escape,” which came just in time when Professor Emeritus John Elder’s wife un-stuck their car in a less than hospitable part of Uganda.
The original Moth – the not-for-profit, based in New York City – hosts live storytelling performances and slams across the country. Storytellers are famous, familiar and unknown. The best stories air on National Public Radio, and reappear online as free podcasts. George Dawes Green, who created The Moth in 1997, named it for the moths that fluttered around the porch in his native Georgia where he and his friends stayed up on humid summer nights telling stories. Middlebury’s is an autonomous, down-home re-creation of The Moth – a MothUP, complete with an online archive. It’s one of many, from St. Louis to Toronto to Brussels. But unlike its urban counterparts, this MothUP has an audience of winged insects, sometimes seen convening around Gifford’s outdoor lights.
Its creators take the craft seriously. “I love stories so much I decided to major in them,” says Giaever, a Seattle native. “When I first got here, I was going about choosing my classes and I noticed they were all very narrative-oriented.” Not long after, Giaever became Middlebury’s first Independent Scholar in Narrative Studies. Besides co-running the MothUP, she is a Middlebury Fellow in Narrative Journalism and produces audio slideshows for the College website. This summer, she and Bellaimey created a five-part radio documentary about the outsourcing of Vermont’s prisoners called “Out of State, Out of Mind,” which they are seeking to air.
Bellaimey, who grew up in Minneapolis, began chattering at an age when most are still cooing, and hasn’t stopped (The consequences of being a loquacious youth formed the basis of the story he told at an October MothUP). Bellaimey chose sports over theater in high school, but the performance bug bit him nonetheless – at his cross-country team’s banquets. “When I was the captain I would tell a story about each person on the team,” he recalls. The dinners dragged on. “Imagine everyone’s parents, and the whole team – they were just my captives.” At Middlebury, Bellaimey quickly found a home in the Otter Nonsense Players, an improv comedy group that thrives on its members’ abilities to weave narratives on the fly.
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The Moth’s medium is its message. The whole idea is that stories are meant to be told and heard live. And the next best thing is to stream the podcast. In a twist of digital irony, people who hear some virtual echo of a Moth story feel compelled to seek out the real thing. Events on the Moth Mainstage sell out within 48 hours, and someone in a city near you is organizing a MothUP. The Internet, oft-condemned for distracting and introverting us, has been enlisted to help revive an ailing oral tradition. And it’s working.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote in her seminal 1979 essay, “The White Album.” Yet spinning a good yarn is a skill few people possess these days. What looks like extemporaneous musing has often been rehearsed: oratory in earnest. Those who hope to land on The Moth Mainstage must first pitch, edit and rehearse their tales – everything, it seems, but memorize them. Middlebury’s “moths” are prepped with what is essentially a recap of Aristotle’s Poetics. “We tell them, ‘This is not stand-up,’” says Bellaimey. “‘Have a beginning, a middle, and an end.’”
“It’s not an essay. It’s not a rant,” Giaever adds. “It’s action, action, action. Conflict. Resolution.”
With its standing invitation to locals, the MothUP is adding a new layer of reciprocity to Middlebury’s town-gown dynamic. At the first event, held in March, Dr. Mike Kiernan of Porter Hospital’s Emergency Room recounted a recent trip to Haiti. The theme was “Fiasco.” Kiernan briefly chronicled Haiti’s centuries-long history of occupation and exploitation – but that, he said, was not the fiasco. His story’s disaster was the earthquake, his scene a 400-bed hospital tent. The audience, which had spent the night laughing at funny stories, was trying hard to hear a joke. But as Kiernan’s tone shifted from that of a reporter to that of someone who has been transported, the crowd was barely breathing.
“What is this place, this space, this tent? It’s like spending two weeks the Gamut Room. It’s like you spent two weeks in the airplane you traveled in. It’s like a submarine; it’s like – no, I know what it is: You look out over the beds, the cots, you see the external fixators – the metal things that hold people to the beds; you hear the moans in the night. You hear the voices, you hear the breathing, you feel the closeness and the heat…It’s like the hull of the slave ship that brought their ancestors over, is what it’s like.”
“That,” recalls Bellaimey, “Was the gravitas we needed.”
Gown-gown relations benefit too: students get a new take on professors, and vice-versa. Giaever appreciates that professors have had “so much more life to tell stories about,” and Bellaimey has noticed that those who speak enjoy new (or elevated) celebrity on campus. “People who haven’t had these professors now know who they are. And they think of Quinn Mecham as like, the guy who was on the Turkish border, and Dan Brayton as the guy who beat up the mean bully.” Border patrol discovered Professor Mecham’s bag full of Hezbollah propaganda, gathered for his classes; Professor Brayton’s iron fist earned him the high-school nickname “Satan” Brayton. Mecham had prefaced his story with gratitude. “Thanks for inviting me to the party,” he said. “This is exceptionally cool.”
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The sky is a warm November mauve when Giaever pays a visit to President Ron Liebowitz’s office in Old Chapel. She’s here, of course, to recruit a veteran storyteller. After hearing the rules, and suggesting a few themes, Liebowitz agrees to make at appearance at the MothUP, although the date has not been scheduled yet. “I’ll have to time myself. I tend to stretch on,” he says. When Giaever tells him the evening begins at 10:00 p.m., he pauses, then laughs. He’ll still do it. Giaever leaves with Liebowitz’s promise to help her contact another potential “moth” she’s had her eye on: Governor Jim Douglas.
For every hundred people that cram into the Gamut Room to hear stories, hundreds more download the recordings that Giaever posts online. But someone is missing from the archive: her. She blames, of all things, stage fright. “If we’re ever short for people, especially women, I’ll do it,” she says. “I have some stories up my sleeve.”