CAMBRIDGE — As the crowd settled in last week at Club Passim, Norah Dooley, the indefatigable director of the homegrown storytelling group massmouth, took to the stage to regale her audience with a tale of birth, thirst, rodents, and death.
“My roommate came running up the stairs with a meat cleaver,” she said, recounting how she’d discovered an outsize rat — one that had licked her face as she slept — hiding in her bedroom closet. “He said, ‘I’m going to kill it!’ I said, ‘No! No! No! Steven, let’s think about this: Those are all my clothes in there.’ ”
It was vintage Dooley, the funny and frenetic force behind massmouth, her storytelling group that by dint of volunteer labor, small grants, and (only occasionally) remuneration has produced some six seasons of competitive story slams in and around Boston.
Starting next month, however, Dooley’s chapter with the organization will draw to a close. She plans to shutter massmouth’s office and hand over its day-to-day administrative tasks to a group of fellow storytellers. The new group, which includes Cheryl Hamilton, Theresa Okokon, Dan Dahari, and H.R. Britton, will retain the massmouth name. Dooley, meanwhile, will
work independently with StoriesLive, the program she created to bring storytelling into area schools.
“This will allow me to do more of the work that I really love,” said Dooley, 62. “I’ll be able to do more of that, I hope, where I don’t have the duties and responsibilities of being an executive director of a nonprofit that’s trying to get to the point of being sustainable.”
Her days with massmouth may be numbered. Onstage, however, Dooley didn’t let up as she described trapping the rat in a box and ferrying it to the alley.
“I picked up a BIG log,” she bellowed, flinging her arms overhead. “The rat didn’t do anything.”
Cofounded in 2008 with Andrea Lovett, Stu Mendleson, and Doria Hughes, massmouth was formed during the recession, when Dooley found herself out of work teaching.
“I had, for the first time in my life, unemployment insurance, so I thought: Well, this is like a naturally occurring federal grant,” said Dooley, who had spent years as a freelance storyteller before finally incorporating with Lovett in 2010. “It wasn’t economically feasible, but I was hooked, and I thought, well, dammit, why not start a nonprofit and make this thing happen? If I build it, maybe they will come.”
Come they did, and for years massmouth has been holding slams at venues like Club Passim, where tellers vie for a chance to enter the “Big Mouth Off,” the group’s culminating event held each April at Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Storytelling, of course, is as old as civilization. In Boston, however, many storytellers trace their roots to Hugh Hill, the iconic raconteur known as Brother Blue who died in 2009. Today, the city is home to several such storytelling groups, everything from big outfits such as The Moth, to smaller organizations such as the Story Space and Birth Story Slam.
“It was sort of like Blue died and Norah stepped up on the road to Damascus to found the church,” said Michael Anderson, a storyteller and lawyer. “She would hate me saying that.”
Anderson added that one of Dooley’s innovations was to introduce competition to massmouth’s events. “That had an effect as far as shaking out the people who would come to Brother Blue’s storytelling and use it like group therapy,” said Anderson. “That element forces the tellers to pay attention.”
The Passim crowd was certainly on its toes last week as Dooley described chasing the rat out of the box, that big piece of wood held aloft in her hand.
“I went BOOM,” she hollered, as the audience gasped in gleeful disgust. “I killed it.”
Storytelling events like this one, though well-attended, are only part of massmouth’s mission. The other, which Dooley plans to take with her, is StoriesLive, which she says has introduced more than 7,000 students to storytelling and awarded more than $22,000 in scholarships.
Nevertheless, funding has always been a challenge. The organization has attracted only a handful of grants over the years from agencies such as the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Mass Humanities, and Dooley said she’s never been paid a salary.
“I’ve sporadically received an honorarium, which I have mostly put back in,” she said. “My husband is not impressed.”
Now that her husband is retiring, however, Dooley said she hopes to help support them by resuming some of the freelance work (storytelling, teaching, and writing children’s books) that she has neglected while working with massmouth.
“I had a very specific situation that came together that allowed me to do this work without getting paid,” she said. “I don’t expect other people to do it the same way. That would be ridiculous.”
Perhaps. But nowhere near as ridiculous as the story unspooling onstage, where, after slaying the giant rat, Dooley ventured into the basement to do some laundry.
“And there, right next to the dryer, were 12 little rat-lings — a nest of rats,” she hissed as the audience squirmed.
It was stories like this one that prompted her fellow storytellers to step forward when word leaked that Dooley planned to retire from massmouth, possibly closing the organization.
“We were just like, We’ll do it. We didn’t even know what that meant,” said Hamilton, who will serve as coordinator. “So many of us just couldn’t imagine it not going on. We didn’t want to lose our community.”
The new leadership group, all of whom have outside jobs, promises a competitive slam season starting in September, as well as an ongoing collaboration with the Riot Theater in Jamaica Plain.
“Norah does the work of 10 human beings, if not more,” said Britton. “The four of us won’t even add up to a third of what Norah Dooley can do, but we’re going to do as much as we can.”
Hamilton added that they would spend the next few months strategizing about what “to continue and what are the opportunities to grow.”
“One of our goals,” she said, “is to be a network for storytelling.” Another, she added, is to diversify the group’s storytelling pool.
No doubt, Dooley — who ended up calling an exterminator for those baby rats — will be a hard act to follow.
“The bigger rat was the mother rat, and she’d eaten poison,” Dooley crowed. “I drool sometimes when I sleep, and she was looking for water.”
The crowd erupted in a collective blech.
Clearly, her work here was done.Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay..