The MOuTH, Story City Take A Relaxed Approach To Storytelling Onstage

What's my story? Stories. I hosted a storytelling series at a club in New Haven for a few years. All that speaking got in the way of my writing, so I took a break. End of story.

A few weeks ago, I started venturing out into Storyland again — as an audience member. There's no surprise ending to what I discovered.

Storytelling has been around as long as spoken languages. It doesn't die, as evidenced in the current popularity of podcasts.

Public storytelling in clubs, cafes and small theaters was a hot new trend around a decade ago, thanks to splashy acts such as The Moth. Such shows are now a firmly embedded part of any city's arts scene. I recently visited two: Story City at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown and The MOuTH at The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford.

The Moth exists as an inspiration, but Connecticut groups vary from the format. Neither Story City nor The MOuTH, for instance, anoint a "champion" at their shows. They are also less pushy about getting a presenter to leave the stage if they've exceeded their allotted time. The main things in common are obvious: Stories must be true. They are told, not read; printed texts or notes are not allowed. Also, no props. And there is a time limit, usually around 10 minutes.

The main Story City Troupe currently has 14 members, who hold a rehearsal and feedback session a few days before each first-Friday-of-the-month Buttonwood Story City performance. Eight stories were told at the Sept. 1 event, followed by two audience members whose names were drawn from a small wicker basket. The regular master of ceremonies is Michael Isko, who dresses for the occasion in a neat jacket and bowtie. Isko's day job is public defender in the New Britain Judicial District.

"I don't tell stories about work," Isko says. "Those would be confidential. Besides, they're not my stories."

The theme of the Sept. 1 Buttonwood Tree gathering was School Days. Maire Green's tale began "I'm 7 years old, I've just gotten off the bus, going up the stairs of St. Mary's Church." It is the day of her first Confession, but "I don't think I have any sins" — a situation that would soon change.

New Havener Saul Fussiner drew from his college days, injecting references to Sam Shepard, straightedge punk culture and pornography into what was otherwise a tame evening contentwise.

"We began doing this at senior centers" says Story City founder Susan Huggans. "We've been at The Buttonwood Tree now for over a year; as of January, it's been monthly."

The small performance space is packed. Huggans and many of the other Story City Troupe members have taken classes with Matthew Dicks, a Moth Grand Champion who with his wife Elysha runs the Speak Up storytelling series at Real Art Ways.

"Matt teaches us structure," says Huggans, who is in the process of converting one of her own stories into a full-length, one-woman show.

A week later at the Mark Twain House & Museum: The great writer and raconteur's domain is a natural location for a storytelling series. Host Chion Wolf — a WNPR producer and personality — says her series The MOuTH began in 2013 when she noticed that "there was a lot of storytelling in Hartford, but nobody was doing this particular style."

She was invited to the Twain House by its then-Director of Communications and Special Programs Jacques Lamarre, who had been trying to interest The Moth in starting a Hartford franchise there with no luck.

The MOuTH title came about, Wolf says, partly because of Lamarre's displeasure at the cold shoulder, but also because it fit with the weekly The Nose feature on NPR's Colin McEnroe Show, which Wolf produces.

She suggests she'd like to change the name sometime. "I didn't think it would last this long." All the MOuTH programs have been recorded, and Wolf hopes to turn them into a podcast.

The Sept. 8 show was the MOuTH's 24th, and more than 100 people were there to hear tales with the epiphanic theme Realizing the Obvious. Themes are announced weeks in advance on the series' Facebook page. Interested storytellers can email the basic idea of the story they want to share, from which Wolf picks six:

"I want it to be a mix of first-timers and experienced storytellers. I don't meet with them beforehand. I like the spontaneity. I'm also trying for diversity."

Compared to Story City — at least this month — The MOuTH's storytellers are racier, more outspoken, more outlandish. Ben Grippo discussed "the follies of piercing my penis when I was 17." Wolf told about being prescribed opioids after she was hit by a car last year. One of the "Wild Card" storyteller wanted to analyze his feelings regarding the cartoon-animal fetishists known as "Furries."

The storytelling community in Connecticut is close-knit, not competitive. It's common to see founders of storytelling series at each other's events. One of the storytellers at Story City was Arnie Pritchard, who runs the monthly story-sharing series at New Haven's Institute Library. At The MOuTH, one of the wild card slots went to Terry Wolfisch Cole, who runs her own Hartford-based storytelling series called Tell Me Another.

Wolf turns The MOuTH into a true community event. She reels off a list of other storytelling series held in Hartford, while acknowledging that most MOuTH attendees come from outside the city lines.

On Sept. 16, Matthew and Elysha Dicks' latest Speak Up show is at Real Art Ways with the theme Schoolhouse Rocks. Admission is $15, $12 for RAW members; performance dates and venues vary. realartways.org.

Another series that meets at Real Art Ways (though upcoming dates have not been announced) is Other People's Stories, which has the unusual ground rule of "No first-hand knowledge! Tell something that someone else told you." Terry Wolfisch Cole's next Tell Me Another: Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories show is Oct. 21 at the Charter Oak Cultural Center, with the theme of Unexpected.

But those are stories for another time.

STORY CITY performances are the first Friday of the month at the Buttonwood Tree in Middletown. Admission is $10. buttonwood.org

The MOuTH series runs five times a year at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. The next performance is to be determined. Admission is $10. marktwainhouse.org

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