Performing at The Monti must be like dying: You're blinded by a bright light. Memories flash before your eyes. Time toggles through past, present and future before standing still.
Yet since 2008, hundreds of people have voluntarily undergone this near-death experience at The Monti's feature shows and story slams, taking the stage for 12 minutes to tell a true, intimate tale from their lives—without notes—before a full house of strangers.
Jeff Polish, founder, curator and emcee, has distinguished The Monti by recruiting not professional entertainers but everyday people, with a few seasoned writers and public figures in the mix. Editor, coach and therapist, Polish is like a poultice for the storytellers, drawing out their narratives as they prepare for the stage.
"The thrill and the danger is the reason I love it," says author Daniel Wallace, who has appeared at several Montis, including the inaugural one. "It's the only thing I do that makes me nervous. It makes me feel alive."
Held primarily at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro and Motorco in Durham, nearly every Monti sells out, in part because Polish has tapped into our primordial tradition of storytelling and elevated it to an art form.
"There is a huge need in our psyche for stories," says Carter Kersh, one of The Monti's most popular storytellers. "The whole creation of The Monti is a remarkable feat. It celebrates the richness of the area. It's deepened my love for this place."
"As far as like, fist fighting, I've never been in a physical altercation myself. I've been hit but I've never hit back. I'm kind of weak on that." —Jeff Polish, from "The Fight," September 2011
Polish's office is tucked in the attic of his Chapel Hill home, where he and his wife, Allison, raise their three young boys and two dogs. A wall clock is stopped at 6:40. The ceiling is low and sloped and painted white. "I require a blank canvas," he says. "I stare at the ceiling."
A native of the Bronx, Polish, 41, grew up under the thumb of a domineering mother who set the trajectory for his life. "The Monti is not an accident," Polish says. "I was shut down as a kid. I never felt like anything I did was good enough. I was really shy."
To soothe himself, he used to make up stories. "They were all true, except I was always the hero." In his dreams, Polish was Kid Cop, a police officer fighting crime.
Soul-baring is typical of The Monti. Polish starts every performance with his own disarming and often funny ice-breaker to set the storytellers at ease. His bar mitzvah, his vasectomy, his resemblance to Ray Romano: "I tell a story that's very vulnerable," Polish explains. "And I always say 'fuck' within the first three minutes. It shows that anything can happen on this stage."
"If they made a movie out of my college years I would be that lovable and rugged yet cuddly guy that everyone calls Meat." —from "Turning Points," September 2010
At 18, Polish left home for St. Louis, where he enrolled at Washington University. "When I got to college I wanted to express myself. I learned the fastest way to friendship is to tell a story about my past."
He studied genetics, but while pursuing his doctorate, he became interested in teaching. He eventually took a job at Cary Academy.Then in November 2007, Polish picked up an edition of The New Yorker and saw an ad for The Moth, a storytelling performance series in New York City. "I was captivated by it," he says. "That you could make a living telling stories, everything real, the pain and messiness. I didn't think there was a market for it, but here are people are lining up to hear these true stories told by normal people."
In April 2008, The Monti debuted to a sold-out crowd at Spice Street in Chapel Hill. The success of The Monti spawned The Monti StorySlam in 2009. Still, more than a third of each audience is new. "To pull this off as fabulous as he has takes a lot of courage and hard work," says Amy Scott, a storyteller and occasional Monti emcee. "Jeff makes it seem effortless."
Polish coaches each storyteller on pacing, narrative and presentation—the art of being in the story and yet aware of the audience. "The best stories are authentic," he says. "The hardest thing is for people to be themselves when they're standing up before 300 people. It's a heightened state of reality, and you can lose sense of who you are."
"He puts his hands on my shoulder and he looks at me dead in the eye and says Jeff, let me tell you something: 'You'll be swell, you'll be great, gonna have the whole world on a plate ...'" — from "Call of the Wild," April 2012
Polish and Anton Zuiker, who, inspired by The Monti, started Talk Story (it's now on hiatus), are collaborating on another Monti offshoot, Voices of Medicine.
"Every day I see people in the hospital with a story," says Zuiker, a blogger and the director of communications for the Duke Department of Medicine. "Everyone who walks through the doors."
Polish is recording stories from doctors, caregivers and patients in hopes of securing grant funding to create booths in all major medical facilities in the U.S. People could type in a keyword, listen to stories and record their own. In addition, people could listen to the stories on a computer or mobile device.
"People feel very isolated and scared," Polish says. "You can go on WebMD and know what the doctor knows, but you don't know what people are really going through."
The Monti begins its sixth season Sept. 6 at the ArtsCenter. It will likely sell out.
"It's humbling," Polish says. "I'm not that special. I'm just the luckiest SOB around."
Disclosure: Lisa Sorg performed at The Monti in May 2012 and contributed a story to Voices of Medicine.