Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

"Don't Lie to Us-We're from Detroit.": An Ethnographic Study of the Moth Detroit StorySLAM

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

"Don't Lie to Us-We're from Detroit.": An Ethnographic Study of the Moth Detroit StorySLAM

Article excerpt

Bars have always been the place to find beer-fortified raconteurs. Recently, however, the storytelling frame has shifted. Tellers are now holding microphones as well as pints, and tickets are being sold. Now in dimly lit bars and nightclubs you may find young Americans participating in formal storytelling events. The people crowding into story slams and climbing behind the microphones are mostly unacquainted with storytelling as it is carried on at festivals, schools, and libraries. These young adult and middle-aged story enthusiasts are flocking to bars and nightclubs, unsurprisingly perhaps, since these are milieus to which these age groups have gravitated for generations. One of those venues is Cliff Bell's-the venerable Motor City jazz club that then was home to The Moth Detroit StorySLAM (at least it was, in 2010 and 2011, when I first dove into the Detroit slam, until March of 2016, when the event relocated to the Marble Bar).

The Moth first appeared in New York City back in 1997 as a storyteller's collective. It has since exploded into a popular culture phenomenon that the Washington Post has called "the literary crowd's answer to stand-up," operating large, so-called Main Stage events as well as smaller, monthly StorySLAMs in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit. The Moth also goes on storytelling concert tours, staging events across the nation. Meanwhile, other groups, including San Francisco's Porchlight, Milwaukee's Ex Fabula, and DC's Speakeasy, to name a few, are producing events along similar lines as The Moth. This ethnography began as a portrait of one slam community in one city during one season, and this article represents one layer of that rich cultural sediment.

I undertook this research as one who was raised in the suburban periphery of Detroit and who, like many of my peers, moved away as a young adult. I returned as a graduate student in East Tennessee State University's Storytelling program with a head full of ideas about what storytelling is, is not, and should be. We will talk more about why that matters, but first we need to talk about bars and what happens in them. This is easy and this is also a challenge.

Imagine the feeling of entering a crowded bar during a public event-whether stand-up comedy, indie-rock concert, poetry or story slam. Imagine how you would begin to describe that event, and the sights, sounds, and smells that encompass it. How to notate the behaviors and roles being played out by the characters around you? That may be a daunting inundation of sensory input to sort and then to relay to a reader, especially when the goal is to explain the event in such a way as to be both comprehensible to an outsider and recognizable to its participants.

In carrying out these tasks I rely heavily on the work of Richard Bauman and what he calls the "six situational factors of a performance event." Bauman's model is concerned with the identities of the people in attendance, their means of performance, the social rules they observe, the performance strategies they use, the criteria for evaluation, and the literal action sequence. All of those elements constitute material aspects of a performance event and can help analyze its progression from multiple viewpoints.

In the most basic sense, a story slam is an event where a limited number of people compete to tell the best true, personal story of a specified length to an audience. These tellers are typically performing from behind a microphone. Participants do not typically refer to themselves as professional storytellers, although many of them do work in fields requiring the craft or use of stories. Slams are often facilitated by a host or master of ceremonies. Many slams are staged on a recurring basis at the same venue and are produced by the same organization each time. In some cases, tellers are preselected by a committee that reviews potential stories (this is not the case with The Moth Detroit StorySLAM). …

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