Art Talk with Catherine Burns, Artistic Director, The Moth
Catherine Burns. Photo courtesy of Ms. Burns
In the late 1990s writer George Dawes Green decided to host an event in his living room, to recreate in the midst of high-energy New York City, the languorous summer evenings he and his friends had spent regaling each other with stories on a friend's porch. Nearly 15 years later, The Moth (which has received grant support from the NEA) has grown into one of New York's premiere centers for live storytelling, with regular live events in NYC and across the U.S., as well as a regular podcast series and the two-year-old, Peabody award-winning Moth Radio Hour, among other projects.
We spoke with Moth Artistic Director Catherine Burns via e-mail about The Moth, the role of storytelling in the community, and why we need to become better listeners.
NEA: In five words or less, what's The Moth?
CATHERINE BURNS: True stories told live.
NEA: What's your version of a day in the life of an artistic director?
BURNS: I am fortunate enough to spend much of my day with storytellers, working with them on how to craft their stories. My best days are the days spent with them. I also spend a lot of time working with our artistic team to find storytellers. We are always on the lookout for great raconteurs with amazing tales to tell. The initial conversations with potential storytellers, where we determine what story the might tell, are so much fun. We encourage our storytellers to talk about the biggest moments in their lives, where they experienced profound change, and it's rewarding to hear about people's favorite life moments. When I'm not working with storytellers, I'm listening to recordings of past shows to pick stories for our podcast or The Moth Radio Hour. And of course much of my time is spent doing strategic planning, figuring out where The Moth will ideally be in five/ten/twenty years, and how to get there while staying true to the heart of the organization. We get dozens or requests every day to bring the Moth to other cities, and while it's our dream to have a Moth branch in every town in the country, we want to make sure we do it in a way that retains what is special about The Moth and that we aren't expanding just for expansion's sake.
NEA: What is your earliest memory of engaging with/experiencing the arts?
BURNS: I grew up in a small town in Alabama, and so there wasn't a lot of art to be found. But my mother encouraged me to read, and I became a voracious reader. And she'd drive me to Birmingham to go to the art museum or see the ballet a few times a year. When I was six, my mother bought me records of Disney movies. This was before even VHS so they were audio recordings of the movies. I'd listen and act them out and dance. I cast my three-year-old sister and forced her to play parts with me. I guess I was directing even then, though I didn't know it.
NEA: During your tenure at The Moth, which story has surprised you the most?
BURNS: That would have to be Mike DeStefano. The Moth was asked to direct a show at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. We were working with comedians, and we were so worried that they would be a nightmare to direct. We assumed they would just want to be funny, and not want to talk about anything meaningful, much less show the vulnerability which is the mark of a great storyteller. Mike was a gruff guy. He was born and raised in the Bronx, and his comedy sets were brilliant, but really reflected his rough-and-tumble roots. So when we got on the phone, and he started telling me about how his wife, Franny, died of AIDS when they were in their twenties, I was blown away. His story---about breaking Franny out of hospice to take her on one last ride on his Harley---instantly because one of my favorite Moth stories of all time. Part of the genius of Mike as a storyteller is that he makes you laugh out loud over and over, while also telling a truly heartbreaking story and not shying away from the depth and seriousness of the story for a second. He doesn't hide behind his comedy. He's just a guy who sees humor in everything telling you about the most important day of his life. Mike died of a heart attack this spring, at the age of 44, and we were devastated. One of greatest voices of our time was silenced way too young.
NEA: Why do you think we, the general public, need storytelling? Why do you need storytelling?
BURNS: We live in a world that's becoming increasingly digital. We sit in our little boxes, staring at other boxes, communicating through our fingers on a keyboard. I don't think human beings were meant to live this way, and The Moth is the antithesis of all of that. It's ironic, because all our little devices and programs are meant to connect us, but I don't think they really do. They kind of connect us, but there's always a boundary there---the electronic wall that keeps us from really experiencing each other in a human way. The number one quality of a great storyteller is their willingness to be vulnerable. When people talk about what it's like to be in the audience at a live Moth event, they often say that it feels like the entire audience is holding hands under the tables. When The Moth or any storytelling event works well, each audience member feels as if the storyteller is speaking only to them, and experiencing that level of intimacy in a group setting connects you emotionally to the rest of the audience in a way that's deeply moving.
At The Moth people tell intimate stories from their lives onstage, and you could know someone five years and not have heard the stories they tell. Most of our storytellers are local, and it strengthens the community for people to get to know their neighbors in a deep way.
I was a filmmaker before becoming The Moth's artistic director, and part of what I loved about film was that you can get it perfect in a sense. Every time the audience sees your film, they are seeing it frame for frame the way you intended it to be. Live theater is just the opposite of that, especially storytelling, which isn't a memorized monologue. There's huge risk in that. When a storyteller walks out on stage, you don't know exactly what will happen, no matter how much you've rehearsed with them. But that very high wire act is what makes it so magical for the audience.
NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
BURNS: Many artists are progressive thinkers, and art is a way to educate people without making them feel preached to. You can talk to a group of people about, say, wildlife conservation and why it's important to save tigers. And that's well and good, I think we can all agree that we shouldn't let tigers go extinct, but it's a big, overwhelming problem. But then you come to The Moth and hear a story told by Alan Rabinowitz, who has at great personal cost done so much to save these big cats. And it makes the problem human. Hearing one man's story---Alan's---gives the audience a way to think about a much bigger problem. And hopefully it can move people to act. We aren't actively political at The Moth, but I do hope that we can from time to time help our audience find a way to think about some of the bigger problems of our day by focusing on an individual story that brings the issue to light.
I also think artists can help communities connect. We can bring people out of their cubicles and get them to interact with their neighbors. Through storytelling, you can hear from a neighbor who you might assume you have nothing in common with, and discover that you share a great deal. When you see the person on the street the next day, your perspective on them will have changed because you know something important about them and other people like them.
NEA: Conversely, what's the responsibility of the community to the artist?
BURNS: I think communities have a responsibility to support their artists financially. When communities look for places to cut budgets, art is the first thing to go. But we need art desperately. We need artists to help us translate the world around us and bring us to new places. And working in the arts makes kids and adults smarter. Smarter people will then apply their smarts to math and science and all the things that communities often decide are more important than art. Science suffers when art suffers.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, "I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren't yet part of our work but should be." When it comes to the field of radio---or even the arts as a whole---what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work your artistic community is making that isn't yet there?
BURNS: As a society, we have forgotten how to listen. Part of why our founder George Dawes Green started The Moth is because he felt people no longer listened to each other. People pretend to listen, but they are really just waiting for the person to stop talking so they can jump in and say something. We need forums in every community for people to tell their stories, so that as a society we have regular opportunities to learn the art of listening. Really listening to our neighbors leads to our acceptance of them, and that can only strengthen communities.
NEA: What does "Art Works" mean to you?
BURNS: A lens to teach us about our lives.
To hear Mike DeStefano and other storytellers from The Moth, visit The Moth YouTube channel.