Missy Hargraves looks nervous as she focuses on the dusty stage of the dimly lit El Cid in Los Feliz. She's hoping to tell a story on stage for the first time, in front of a packed house of strangers.
Every third Tuesday and last Monday of the month, budding storytellers like Hargraves put their name into a hat hoping to be one of the 10 selected to participate in an event called the Moth.
And from the looks of the packed audience -- many standing in the back or leaning in from any available entryway -- there is an eagerness to hear the stories about people's lives, each set to a predetermined theme.
While the monthly events at L.A.'s El Cid and the Air Conditioned Supper Club in Venice provide a chance for average Joes and Janes to tell the tales they've undoubtedly told at numerous dinner parties, with a $7 cover charge it becomes the cheapest stage show in town. The limelight is available to anyone, but this being L.A., many of the performers are actors, writers and comedians -- some trying out new material, others just doing what they love.
Hargraves, 40, threw her hands back and laughed when asked whether she was an actor -- the answer is yes -- and said she's not a fan of those who go on stage looking as if they've rehearsed their five-minute piece down to the last detail.
"As an audience member, I'm more sympathetic to those who aren't so polished," Hargraves said.
She covered her face in disbelief when her name was called first and approached the stage with caution. Once there, she loosened up, then sent the crowd into nervous fits of laughter with the opening line of her story.
"I'm a slut," Hargraves said defiantly into the microphone. Her story had zero to do with being promiscuous, however; she told a hilarious tale of once having gotten caught relieving herself in a fountain outside of Aaron Spelling's production office -- appropriate since the predetermined theme of this Moth night was "Busted." She was on her way to an audition, which she didn't land.
Scoring the stories
Each story is judged by groups of audience members who volunteer; the judges even give themselves names that are funny, vulgar or fit the spirit of this evening's theme -- such as, in this case, "Red-Handed." It's like a mix between the Olympics and "Dancing With the Stars" as the storytellers, who usually never come alone, await their scores.
Hargraves looked on in relief as her scores came in to thunderous cheers from the crowd of more than 150 people: 8.4, 7.8, 8.0. She pronounced herself impressed at the numbers.
"It was easier than I thought. But I realized I did exactly what I didn't like -- I came off polished," she said.
As for the story she recounted, Hargraves said she hadn't seen the humor in what happened to her until she started telling people about it. That's a recurring theme at the Moth: The audience laughs at stories that, fortunately, didn't happen to them.
The Moth "story slams" originated in New York City in 1997. Kerry Armstrong, who produces the L.A. events, said the culture of each city drives the stories.
"New York is generally a tougher town. It's harder to get by. It's not as sunny, metaphorically, as L.A.," Armstrong said. "We do get more real people doing the stories in New York. [Here] there are a lot of performers, going for the immediate gratification."
The L.A. challenge
Armstrong, a producer of the slams since November 2007, lived in New York for 10 years and saw how people came in droves to the shows. But building a following in L.A. was tough at first, she said, because in a city with a large ratio of entertainers, the nonprofessionals felt disconnected or nervous about participating.
"It's interesting -- when I first started, there were maybe 30 people that would come. When people come, they get hooked in. I think the Moth will always have that quality," Armstrong said. "People get up there and tell a real story, so there is that vulnerability. There is the appeal of seeing real people."
Lea Thau, executive and creative director for the Moth, said there's a hunger for the kind of connection they offer.
"This goes beyond a theatrical performance, where you come to see a show and someone comes from a green room and you sit in the dark and watch, and once it's over they go backstage," Thau said. "You're entertained, but at the Moth there is this kind of dialogue that comes between the storyteller and the audience. When a story is good, it looks like the audience is taking one breath. You kind of feel like everyone is holding hands under the table."
The opportunity to see real people tell stories -- whether it's about getting caught cheating on a partner, being stuck in the Vienna State Opera House or having to hide a sex toy from a snooping uncle -- offers a voyeuristic thrill. It was one that intrigued Phillip Rankmore to fit in a visit on his first trip to America.