The American Shorts Reading Series has changed a lot in its seven seasons. In its original incarnation, it featured local writers and performers reading favorite works of short fiction in a different venue each month. (Six shows per season, I think.) One highlight was actor Chris Josephs's delightfully chilling rendition of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" (it was around Halloween) in the parlor of one of those repurposed Mellon mansions on the Chatham University campus.
Gradually, the series assumed new shapes; now formally called American Shorts a@ WYEP, it hosts writers and talkers in a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres. Often, admirably, it focuses on topical, even political themes; this season's four shows have tackled "Sexuality & Faith" and "Iran Unveiled," among other themes, for instance.
The Aug. 13 installment found the series playing presenter as much as curator, hosting a road-show version of the popular New York-based storytelling series The Moth. Created in 1997, The Moth has brought everybody from a pickpocket to movie stars to stand before audiences in intimate settings and tell real-life stories, sans notes.
Though The Moth's lone national tour didn't hit Pittsburgh, it's pretty well known here. On Aug. 13 (competing against the Steelers' preseason opener and Bill Clinton at the Netroots Nation conference), it drew some 350 people to the Pittsburgh Opera's Strip District gathering space. About one-third of them raised hands when host Tom Shillue (a comedian and Daily Show contributor) asked who'd seen a Moth podcast, and likely others know it from frequent Moth-derived segments on public radio's This American Life.
The show's theme was "Building Bridges." The three storytellers included Moth regular Boris Timanovsky, a Russian-born New Yorker who gave an hilarious deadpan account about deciding to pose as his 11-year-old son to be an e-mail pen-pal to a Russian friend's adolescent daughter. ("How hard can it be?") New York actor Stephanie Summerville told of a bizarre, racially charged assignment she got as a temp-agency home-health worker when she was a clinically depressed college student. Poet and Carnegie Mellon professor Terrance Hayes recalled meeting his biological father for the first time, as a new father himself. ("Yeah, Butch, he's one of yours," says Hayes' dad's girlfriend the second he walks through the door.)
The Moth was created with a back-porch storytelling ethos; somewhat like the original American Shorts, I guess, it made a formal, paying event out of something one could do any night for free, given a case of beer and the right bunch of friends.
I later learned the performances weren't as informal as descriptions made them sound. In other words, it wasn't just recruited 'tellers hopping up on stage and spieling. New performers were required to audition stories, and even got coached on shaping their narratives. Timanovsky's story, in particular, with its cascade of ironies and his flawless, rapid-fire delivery, had obviously been told more a few times before.
That's not a complaint: No one went away disappointed (and there was beer on hand, too, after all).
In a post-performance Q&A, someone asked Shillue whether the Moth vets these nominally true stories for truthfulness. It seemed an odd question; truthfulness seemed almost implicit in the intimacy of a person standing up to tell a story about their lives, even if essentially to a roomful of strangers. On the other hand, even if we know it's not true, "The Cask of Amontillado" is a pretty good story anyway. We just like to listen.