Once upon a time, there was no television or Twitter to aid in the creation and dissemination of stories. In those days, if one wanted a story, someone would have to tell it.
Storytelling may be a nearly lost art, but on a recent Tuesday, there were glimmers of its revival. Sure, there was no blind guy named Homer or inventive girl named Scheherazade; instead, visitors to Alivia's Bistro in Durham listened to New York comic Sara Barron talk about snogging an old crush and heard other tales, including one from a man who awoke one night as a child and found a bat on his chest.
This gathering, founded one year ago by Cary Academy science teacher Jeff Polish, is called The Monti. A showcase for raconteurs, it brings personal narratives and old-fashioned storytelling to a live audience. Polish started the group, named for an old college friend, after seeing an advertisement in The New Yorker for a New York-based storytelling organization called The Moth. The group encouraged people from all walks of life to stand on stage and tell a story—no notes, no script, no fiction.
Polish, who has a doctorate in genetics from Washington University, said that the experience "sounded like everything I'd always wanted to do but didn't have the guts to try."
"I had no idea it would become the phenomenon it has become," he said.
In April of last year, Polish opened the first Monti show at Spice Street in Chapel Hill. So far the group has sold out all 12 of its shows, with tickets going in as quickly as 30 minutes.
"The stories are compelling. They turn life experiences into a story, the banal into something interesting," said one attendee, Amanda Marvelle from Durham, a graduate student in genetics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
This particular evening was the second Monti StorySlam, an event best described as a combination of karaoke and a poetry reading. Audience members submit their names into a hat (or, in this case, a Samuel Adams pitcher) and are chosen at random to come to the mike and tell a five-minute story. Audience members also serve as judges, giving each a score from 1-10 based on how well the story flows, stays within the time limit and fits the night's theme.
The evening's theme, "Animal Instincts," seemed perfect for Barron, its guest host. A delightful combination of Saturday Night Live's Kristin Wiig and a frizzier-haired Lucille Ball, Barron took the stage (a 3-foot-by-3-foot wooden box) in a flurry of skinny jeans and purple fingernails.
"Since tonight's theme, Animal Instincts, is sort of sexual," she said with a growl, "I thought I'd read a little something to get us in the mood." She pulled out a gift from her dear Jewish grandmother, a copy of How to Talk So Men Will Listen, and set the crowd rolling on a night of touching, hilarious, gritty, real stories.
But there was far more to the event than the polish of a professional like Barron. The success of the evening would ride on the amateurs who, in a fit of bravery or foolhardiness, signed up to talk. "I can't eat my meal I'm so nervous," said Mark Solomon, a clinical neuropsychologist from Durham, before he was called to the stage. But he captivated the crowd with his tale of discovering bacon after 12 years in a strict vegetarian home. "
"Where did you get this?" he asked, mimicking his mother when she found him sneaking bacon home in his jeans pockets after a sleepover. "Is this responsible for your drop in grades at school?"
Only after Solomon told his story could he eat his dinner peacefully. His meal? A bacon cheeseburger, of course.
There were tales of taking on Florida panthers wearing only a towel, fighting off hippos in the Zambezi River, and eating goat in Kyrgyzstan under the threat of explosive diarrhea. Someone with a double-lung transplant shared the story of fleeing her apartment when she thought she was being robbed, and a man told how his life was changed by the Coalition to Unchain Dogs.
As judges assessed each story, Barron kept up the room's energy with tales of growing up dorky in suburban Chicago and by flirting with the dude from The Regulator who was there with copies of her book, People Are Unappealing.
"I'm staying at the Days Inn, people," she said. "What is the point of staying at the Days Inn if you can't have weird sex with a stranger?"
Montek Singh, an assistant professor of computer science at UNC, shared his story of choosing graduate schools and coming to this country from India. He was told that schools in California have beautiful weather and women, and schools in New York were surrounded by grit and crime but many restaurants.
He shared the question he pondered before making his choice: "Food? Or sex?"
After a well-timed pause, he continued, "So I landed at JFK airport...."
"I'm really impressed with the people willing to get up there," said Briana Brough of Durham, a photographer for Durham Magazine and Chapel Hill Magazine. "The stories are great and very entertaining. It's way better than TV."
Barron, a New York comedy veteran, deemed the performances even stronger than ones she has seen up north. "I was impressed with the caliber and how the community is so supportive."
Along with putting together next month's StorySlam, Polish hopes to gain nonprofit status for The Monti to explore the possibilities of storytelling workshops to spread the art form. Currently, the group uses donated space and spends most of each show's $600 ticket revenue on sound equipment and technicians to preserve the stories shared.
Brian Crawford, a resident of Greensboro and a 20th-century American literature professor at Elon University, summed up the importance of The Monti shows.
"Telling a story for five to 10 minutes is a lost art. People don't have the patience, and people don't know how to listen," he said. "I teach in front a classroom all day long, and it's nothing like this."
The next StorySlam is set for May 19 at Carrboro's DSI Comedy Theater. For information on Monti events, visit www.themonti.org.