George Dawes Green wants to reinvigorate the art of storytelling. At least, that's what friend Wanda Bullard had to say about his ambitions to a packed room at the Newnan Carnegie Library earlier this month. That night, Bullard was the opening act of the Unchained Tour of Georgia, a traveling sideshow of storytellers and musicians making its way around the state this month. Green wasn't there to speak for himself or his sideshow because a mysterious "emergency meeting" came up earlier that day concerning the Moth, a storytelling series and organization Green started in New York City in 1997. Green had to jump on a flight to sort out the issue. Reinvigorating the art of storytelling apparently involves a little jet setting, too.
If anybody knows Green, Bullard does. She's a top-notch Southern yarn spinner who speaks in a drawl so thick it might give you trouble if you were born north of the Mason-Dixon. Recently retired after teaching for 40 years, Bullard's got a few years on her fresh-faced Unchained peers, but she also has the distinction of being, at least in part, the reason why Green put the tour together. Years before Green established himself as a massively successful mystery novelist with The Caveman's Valentine and The Juror, which was adapted into a film starring Demi Moore, he was part of a group that gathered to tell stories on the porch of Bullard's St. Simons home.
"My father had died just a few years earlier and I had been having a real hard time talking about it," Bullard says, visibly switching into storytelling mode just to explain how she met Green. "Every Sunday afternoon around that time, I'd have a cookout, put chicken on the grill and feed anywhere from 15 to 35 people. I'd invite friends, they'd bring friends. George just started comin' and he became a regular."
The daytime cookouts gave Bullard an opportunity to process some of her thoughts and memories of her late father. "I'd always mention some little something about my dad, just some adventure I had with him." These recollections became a regular part of her cookouts, and "people would just say, 'We've finished eatin' and it's time to have a George Bullard story.' So, I'd tell a story and then somebody else would tell a story about somebody they knew. It got to be a real neat thing to sit around my porch and listen to other people's stories. So, when George got up to New York, he said, 'Well, I gotta recreate that feeling.'"
Green named his storytelling series the Moth in reference to the insects that were drawn to lights on her porch at night, flapping their wings in the glow as stories were told. He even invited her up to New York City to tell one of her "George Bullard stories" in the event's early days. His inspiration might have been charmingly low-key, but Green has since grown the Moth into a literary powerhouse, drawing in big names such as Salman Rushdie and Jay McInerney and celebs such as Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles. Satellite programs have popped up around the country in Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as here in Atlanta.
The Moth distinguishes itself from typical reading series with a clever angle: true stories with no notes. It doesn't matter much what a performer at the Moth can write on a page if they can't recount it off the cuff, a format that favors performers whose skills fall somewhere between stand-up comedian and NPR host. Last year, the New York Times described the open-mic events as "a farm league for 'This American Life'" while noting that a number of regulars had been picked up for six-figure book deals.
Green has culled most of the storytellers for the Unchained Tour, which wraps in Atlanta Oct. 28-29, from the New York Moth events. The performers are a cross-section of the best styles you might come across at the Moth. Playwright and Savannah native Edgar Oliver speaks in a dramatic cadence fitting for a stage production of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Raconteur Juliet Hope Wayne delivers like a contemporary memoirist, dropping in casual asides about heroin addiction among sentences punctuated by "like" and "um." Dan Kennedy, an author who's been reading at Moth events for the past 10 years, acts as something of an emcee for the event. Musicians Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent play folksy interludes between stories.
Green had planned to have all of the Unchained Tour performers ride around in a hand-painted 1975 Bluebird school bus, but it broke down on the second day — fitting for a group that, for the most part, sports wrinkled clothes and greasy hair. It's a decidedly less glamorous affair than those celebrity-studded Moth events in New York, but Kennedy says that's exactly the point. "The Moth got a crazy amount of press in a two-year period and a lot of people started looking at it as a place to go 'get yours.' Which is fine, you can 'get yours' and find a little attention, but this has that romantic seed to it. It started on Wanda's porch, you know?"