Last summer, Mayor John Engen stood in front of about 100 people sitting on hay bales and told them a story about leaving. Engen was born and raised in Missoula and, in his 45 years, he had never left his hometown. But the theme of the Eat Our Words storytelling night was "Leaving Home," and so instead of telling stories about heading out into the vast world, Engen talked about the many homes—addresses and dates—he'd occupied in Missoula and what had happened to him in each one. There were Norwegian grandmothers, cat smells and toilet mishaps. He fell in love in one house. He learned to be a handyman in another. And, at the end of his 10-minute story, he revealed that just a month earlier he had moved his parents from his childhood home on South 2nd Street West—their home for 45 years—to an assisted living facility in town. "They left home," he told the audience. "They have a million-dollar view of our city from the ninth floor on the south side, and I think they're settling in. But the other day my dad said to me, 'When are we going home?' I said, 'Mom's here, Pop. You're home.'"
If you've ever listened to The Moth on National Public Radio, you know how this works. Everyday people (and, sometimes, celebrities) get up on stage and tell a short true story, without notes, to a live audience. The first of The Moth series kicked off in New York in 1997 and since then it's been aped in other places. The tales range from tragic to the hilariously absurd, and everywhere in between: An Irish Catholic family spies on the Kennedy compound. Stand-up comedian Colin Quinn gets in over his head when he is asked to perform at Robert DeNiro's birthday party. A stuttering child finds solace in talking with animals.
Eat Our Words is one Missoula version, which takes place one night each summer at the PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake. It was started in 2009 through Garden City Harvest by writer Jeremy Smith and PEAS Farm director Josh Slotnick. While The Moth deals in a selection process that pits winning stories against each other and then pares down the best for radio, Eat Our Words handpicks a diverse group of local people—musicians, politicians, teachers, and farmers—for each event. The Moth allows people five minutes, Eat Our Words gives everyone 10. But the idea is the same.
"When you're a writer you're working with a net, because no one else is there and you can edit as many times as you want," says Smith. "When you're telling a story live, onstage with no notes, it's a lot more of a high-wire act. Not only are you up high, because you're in front of everybody, but the wire is going to disappear from underneath you in 10 minutes. It's a whole new challenge. At the same time it's a whole new pleasure. You get to see your audience and they respond instantly."
The 2009 theme was "You Broke My Heart." Smith's wife, Crissy McMullan, a local food activist, told a funny and heart-wrenching story about how Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" impacted her childhood. Last year's, event "Leaving Home" where Engen spoke, also included a story from Missoula musician Caroline Keys. She talked about how on an epic tour of Western China with her band Broken Valley Road Show, she got over her abhorrence for John Denver's "Country Roads."
This year's theme, "Wrong Place, Wrong Time," showcases a group of storytellers including chief of police Mark Muir, community activist Sue Talbot, teenager Noah Callaghan, youth counselor Laurie Strand Bridgeman and Jeremy Smith.
"It's all about choosing themes that can go anywhere," says Smith. "Every great story could fit under one of the themes, so it's not really a restriction. Look at The Odyssey: It fits 'you broke my heart,' 'leaving home' and 'wrong place, wrong time.' You look at Hamlet, it's the same. It's fun to see the variations on the theme. How do people interpret it? What does 'wrong place, wrong time' mean for a police chief who sees it every day?"
Telling a story in 10 minutes without notes is one thing; giving it the arc it needs to move the audience is another. There are rules for this kind of form, says Smith. "Something has to happen by the first sentence. It doesn't start with getting in the plane. It doesn't start with stepping out of the plane. It doesn't start with pulling the parachute cord. It starts when the parachute doesn't come out."
And by the end of the 10 minutes, some realization has to come from the story—some wisdom or change of heart or lesson learned. It doesn't have to be a story made for the big screen; it doesn't have to be unbelievably action-packed. It just has to carry the audience on a ride in which something surprising happens.
"Often we don't realize until we start telling stories that they're funny or that they're heartbreaking," says Smith. "The best stories are both. I think that's something that's fun in the format. It brings that all out in a pressure cooker, egg timer situation. You can't make Hamburger Helper as fast as you're going to hear a great story from five different people in a row."
Eat Our Words presents "Wrong Place, Wrong Time" at the PEAS Farm, 3010 Duncan Drive, Saturday, July 16, at 7 PM. Free.