The Moth Launches New Pittsburgh Initiative | Program Notes
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Friday, August 26, 2011

The Moth Launches New Pittsburgh Initiative

Posted By on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 5:07 PM

While last night's local installment of the popular New York City-based storytelling series was a hit, it was nearly upstaged by an announcement made right in the middle of the show.

Host Rudy Rush told the sellout crowd of 550 at the New Hazlett Theater that in October, The Moth will launch one its story slams right here in Pittsburgh.

The new slam is a sign of The Moth's love for Pittsburgh, where all three of its live shows since 2009, presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, have drawn hundreds and sold out. In fact, The Moth has authorized only four other cities for slams: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.

The Pittsburgh slam is so new it's not even on The Moth's website yet (www.themoth.org). Nor is there a specified launch date. But WYEP 91.3 FM -- a series co-sponsor, along with Essential Public Media -- confirms that the venue is Club Café, on the South Side. 

Each slam will have a theme, with examples from other cities including "Drive," "Food," "Firsts" and "Chutzpah." WYEP General Manager Lee Ferraro says aspiring storytellers at each open-mic style event will put their names into a hat, and 10 names will be drawn. Contestants will perform for a panel of local judges. 

"It's really kind of a workshop for writers and story-tellers," says Ferraro. The events are ticketed ($8 seems like the default price elsewhere.)

Why couldn't Pittsburgh just start its own story slam? Story-telling, after all, is the original art form; we hardly need the Moth brand, swell as it is, to give us license.

On the other hand, brand names boost visibility, and a little institutional oversight couldn't hurt with quality control.

Case in point is the very nice show The Moth put on last night. Obviously, Pittsburgh is literate and loquacious enough to tell its own stories; just as obviously, The Moth brought out angles and talents we might have forgotten about, overlooked or underdeveloped. (Series producers work with tellers over a period of weeks to hone their stories.)

So we got Said Sayrafiezadeh, who grew up in Pittsburgh but had long since left town when his 2009 memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, was released to critical acclaim. (Here's CP's short feature on book and author: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A64118.)

Sayrafiezadeh -- who said that his third-grade teacher from East Hills Elementary was in the audience -- told a painful if sometimes wry story about being singled out as Iranian, and a outsider, at Reizenstein Middle School during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Veteran Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and columnist Sally Kalson wittily told of the professional crisis occasioned some 20 years ago when a couple who were close friends with Kalson and her husband told them, "We are not who you think we are." (They were fugitives from the law, living under assumed names.)

And former City Councilor Sala Udin (whose resume also includes numerous stage credits) displayed actorly pacing in a story that centered on his experience as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the mid-1960s, and the redemption he found in a life of political activism.

Only two of the five tellers had no big local connections. One, Kimberly Reed, recalled events surrounding her father's death, until which her sex-reassignment was still unknown to her brother or the other residents of the small Montana town where she'd grown up male. The alternately comedic and poignant tale also involved former members of Reed's high school football team, which she had quarterbacked, reuniting some 15 years later. 

While Moth tellers work without notes, arguably the evening's most craftily wrought story came from writer Elna Baker. The author of memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is in fact a devout Mormon, and she began by saying that she is 25 and has never had sex.

Yet while Baker's story involved considerable discussion of God, it was also frequently hilarious. "It's kind of hard to live in New York City as a Mormon," she admitted. That's because of all the things Mormons must say "no" to, including but not limited to alcohol, caffeine and sex outside marriage.

Baker's premise was that she was thus free to say "yes" to everything else, encompassing both white lies that got her swag at job fairs to and the bigger fib that got her a seat on a 7-11 corporate-convention dinner cruise around Manhattan.

Her story also included a romance. The fact that its rom-com set up had anything but a Hollywood ending was as moving and aesthetically gratifying as we'd hope from a true story.

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