Telling tales

Sep 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

Every first Thursday of the month, a line of people in downtown Detroit — black, white, brown, young and old, professionals and the unemployed — stretches from the door of Cliff Bell's out to the Park Bar and then east along Elizabeth Street toward Woodward Avenue. Through rain, snow and summer sun, they shuffle and wait to gain entry into the Moth StorySLAM. Since premiering here last October, that's just the way things have been. The Moth is a certified scene

It's been a fun and often emotional affair, but the game's about to get serious. See, on Thursday, Sept. 23, the city will see its first ever Moth Grand SLAM. 

Ten winners from the past year are stepping away from the warm, intimate glow of Cliff Bell's and into the bright lights of the Gem Theater. These "new raconteurs" are not competing for a new car or even a few thousands of dollars. What's on the line is a coveted invitation to the Moth Ball in New York and "intense cool points," says Detroit Moth producer Alex Trajano.

For those unfamiliar, here's how the Moth runs: A theme is announced. Anyone in the bar with a (good) story and the guts to tell it in front of a room packed with perfect strangers writes their name on a scrap of paper and drops it into a hat. Trajano selects three groups of judges from seated diners and the patrons standing around the bar. The judges use a 10-point scale to score stories, which determines the night's winning storyteller. Trajano starts drawing names at random. Storytellers get five minutes to relay their terrific or terrifying tale. 

"Some of these people just put their name in the hat because they get caught up in the fervor of the night," Trajano says "One lady [Courtney Bellanti] put her name in the hat then came up to me and said, 'I want to take my name out. I'm really scared; I can't do this.'" Trajano mirthfully refused to let her pull out. "And then she won." 

The Grand SLAM will be similar to the other, smaller slams. Judges will be selected from the audience, and although the performers have been selected in advance, their names will be drawn from the hat in order to determine the performance order. 

The dramatic nature of the Moth is increased for the slam. The grandeur of the theater, Trajano says, will "up the fear factor." He describes the march toward the microphone as "very formal — like an awards ceremony. When they get called on stage, they're going to walk up four feet off the ground. Four feet off the ground, in front of four hundred people." Competitors have had more than three weeks to prepare stories related to the theme, When Worlds Collide. 

For 50 minutes, the stage at the Gem will be transformed into a yarn-spinners battleground — a battle royale for fireside blowhards. Each competitor, like some mouthy martial artist, brings their own perspective, style, life-experiences, and philosophy on what makes a good story to the event. 

Have these 10 competing orators truly mastered the gift of gab? Or were they people with one great story, told well, on the right night in front of just the right crowd?  

What follows is a glimpse at a few of the storytellers' weapons of choice in this battle of words and wit:

Greg Harris 
25, Detroit
Won: Jan. 7, 2010
Theme: Neighborhoods
Harris is a food service manager at the Henry Ford museum, a culinary mercenary whose sharp wit matches the edge of his knife. As a presenter for years at the Henry Ford, he honed his speaking style and steeled his nerves describing the finer subtleties of old-time glass making. "The judges can detect a phony," Harris says "I'm the John Coltrane of storytelling — audiences can tell when it's too preplanned." 

Kevin Wilson
55, Waterford
Won: Oct.1, 2009
Theme: Firsts
At 55 years old, Wilson has been writing professionally for more than three decades, mostly for Auto Week magazine. Hardened from bouts with Crohn's disease, his iron gaze shows no fear. In the dawn of his career, he and colleagues would try to one-up each other's stories during long test drives together. "Not very often are you the hero of your own story; there was more macho in the storytelling itself than in the content," Wilson says. He has written and rehearsed his story for the Grand Slam. He has timed it. He has massaged it. But Wilson's deft delivery isn't his only weapon: He simply has "more life experience to draw on than some folks," which may prove to be another arrow in his quiver.

Sydney Lentz
60, Troy 
Won: Sept. 2, 2010
Theme: Backfired 
"I don't leave anything to chance," Lentz says of her meticulous preparation. This contestant has written opening and closing statements, with bullet points in between to help guide her. With rehearsed punchlines, Lentz is depending on a great delivery and admits there's looseness with the bullets that will ensure her story retains spontaneity and vulnerability. In her professional life, Lentz teaches leadership skills to Ph.D. nursing candidates. The strength to make split-second decisions will be with her on stage.

Cheryl Pine
46, Oak Park 
Won: Nov. 5, 2009
Theme: Blunders
Pine mined a quarry of pain to build a pyramid of joy in her life — as a mother and as a student of social work. Even when nervous, Pine can't suppress the geyser of giggles that punctuate her conversation. When she first took the stage, in November, swathed in "mom-on-the-town" gear, no one would have guessed that the main character in her story was a vial of frozen semen. There is no doubt Pine's unsuspecting brand of candor can move the audience to her advantage. Says Pine, "I'm an underdog. The other stories in November were pretty polished. I don't have that. I'm really from the heart and that will come through."

Paul Howard
36, Detroit. 
Won: June 3, 2010
Theme: Scars
Howard knows no shame, "I don't have a story yet," he says. "Can you think of anything?" At the moment of his query, the Grand Slam is less than a week away. In spite of his creative block he has a secret advantage. Howard is the co-owner of Cliff Bell's and the Bronx Bar, and the only contestant who has been to every Moth Slam in Detroit. Seven months deep into the slams, he was finally ready to drop his name into the hat. His story about peeing his pants during the fifth-grade production of "Oliver!" was a sure-fire win. Coming from years of entertaining Detroit's thirstiest folks and trying to have his stories heard above the din of six brothers and sisters, Howard will draw on a career and life spent sharing stories in brief encounters. Surmises Howard, "The last time I was on a stage this big, I peed my pants."

Five other contestants — Courtney Bellanti, Haikel Ben Salah, James Foster, Joel Miller and SM Shrake — will also tell stories Thursday, Oct. 23, at the Gem Theatre, 333 Madison Street, Detroit; doors at 7, stories begin at 7:30; $12. 

Phreddy Wischusen is a culture and arts critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]