On April 26, 10 New Englanders will take the Wilbur stage with nothing more than a microphone and their memories. Each competitor will tell a captivating story from their life — a five-minute, vulnerable, true snapshot — for the chance to win the champion’s title at Boston’s Moth GrandSLAM.
The Moth GrandSLAM is part of the StorySLAM series, founded by Jenifer Hixson, and now in 27 cities . The series differs from typical “Mainstage” Moth events, for which potential participants put their names in a hat and are chosen at random, because it allows seasoned storytellers to flex their chops in a competitive environment.
Each of the 10 GrandSLAM participants is a past winner of a StorySLAM from around the Boston area. Once 10 StorySLAM winners have been selected, a GrandSLAM is held, which Hixson said usually happens about twice a year. The winner (or winners — according to Hixson, ties occasionally happen) of the evening will receive the title of GrandSLAM champion and the honor (and bragging rights) of being the fan-favorite storyteller in the Boston area.
“Ten absolute strangers are going to bring their best five minutes to the stage,” Hixson said, when asked to describe the event. “They’re going to scour their lives and try to find the most compelling nuggets of their existence.” She called the practice of public storytelling a “human-affirming experience.”
Audience members serve as judges and the process is largely subjective. Hixson said participants can improve their chances if their story is five minutes long, adheres to the GrandSLAM topic “Between the Lines” (interpretable however storytellers want), has a complete narrative arc, and offers some sort of stakes. The stakes, Hixson said, don’t have to be life-or-death but must be presented in a way that makes the audience feel invested.
Kristin Huang of Cambridge will tell a story about attending “nerd camp” and being picked on in middle school at the upcoming GrandSLAM. She said the live storytelling experience allows her to “give and receive a heart-to-heart with the audience members.” She chose her story because she believes it will resonate with those who have faced adversity for being different, and because it contains lots of humorous anecdotes.
For some storytellers, such as four-time GrandSLAM participant and Acton resident Rose Saia, the GrandSLAM will mark their first time performing in front of an indoor audience since the pandemic started. She has some nerves about returning for such a big event but admitted that she’s “always terrified when [she takes] the stage.”
Wakefield’s Patrick Cleary, who previously read for a virtual Moth event, plans on telling a story about a risky life change that didn’t end up working out. He’s excited to get back on stage and said that he struggled to keep the same energy over Zoom, since you can’t receive instant, auditory feedback to dramatic story beats, making it difficult to remain high-energy. Saia shared those sentiments. “I tried to do the Zoom thing but couldn’t pull it off,” she said.
With the promise of a live audience comes the opportunity for real-time connections between participants and audience members. Moth veteran and GrandSLAM participant Don Picard of Cambridge said he gets a rush from “making that connection with the audience and having them be with you as you relive a moment in your life.” He believes the touchstones of a good Moth story to be “a beginning that intrigues people,” honesty, and, most importantly, “moments of vulnerability onstage.” He always asks himself when he finishes telling a story: “Was there a journey?” and “Did you make the connection?”
Saia also considers the potential for performer-audience connection to be a selling point. The story she’ll be telling involves a pivotal moment in her relationship with her adult daughter that made her reconsider what it means to be a parent.
Because participants have already won other Moth events, Saia believes attendees can count on more practiced oratory than they’d see at a smaller show. “Everyone taking that stage is going to be worth listening to,” she said. The other participants we interviewed shared that sentiment. Added Picard, “It’s 10 little journeys.”
The Moth GrandSLAM, April 26, 7:30 p.m., The Wilbur, 246 Tremont St., Boston. Tickets are $37, include a copy of The Moth’s new book, “How to Tell a Story,” and are available at themoth.org.
Hannah Smart, who participated in an informal Moth event while an undergrad at Middlebury College, is a writer pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Emerson College.