Two hours before the show, there is already a line. Martyrs’ isn’t a large venue, and people collect on the sidewalk outside as they wait for their IDs to be checked. Inside, the bar is fairly spacious, and most of the few chairs are already filled despite the early hour. The lighting is so dim a few techies have to use flashlights to set up the stage, which is (fortunately for them) bare except for a microphone, an easel and a sign proclaiming “The Moth StorySLAM.” The last seats are taken by a little after six, and the venue is sold out by 7pm or 7:30pm. Food and drink rush past in the arms of the busy wait staff, and the noise remains at a dull roar until an organizer comes to the microphone. The bar quiets, and she asks for previous attendees of the StorySLAM to serve on the judging panel.
The Moth began its storytelling competition in New York in 1997, and came to Chicago in 2009. The rules are simple. The ten competitors, selected from volunteers that night, each have five minutes to tell their stories, which must relate to the monthly theme—fame, in this case. Three teams of judges score each story.
A little past eight, Brian Babylon takes the stage to enthusiastic applause. Host, extra storyteller, standup comic and literal cheerleader, Babylon encourages the audience to “go crazy” for every contestant, and brings the first storyteller onstage to a gospel rendition of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears.”
This is Aaron Horton’s second StorySLAM, and his first time competing, though he has been familiar with the Moth’s radio show and podcast for a while. He is second on the stage, and takes the microphone as if he’s done this a dozen times before. After his experience as an audience member, he knew he wanted to tell a story, and this month’s theme seems to suit him perfectly. His story about a fateful Quiz Bowl victory is very well received by the crowd, and garners high scores from all of the judges.
The stories cover every possible interpretation of “fame,” and the audience continues to laugh and cheer until the winner is declared—an organist, whose deadpan delivery and distinctive mustache made him a crowd favorite. Horton comes in a close second, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. “Telling a story was super fun,” he says. “The crowd is very responsive, and sort of ready-for-anything, mostly I think because it could very easily be them up there. And I’ve just always loved hearing and telling stories, so I had a ton of fun. I would definitely do it again.”
There are plenty of reasons to go to the StorySLAM, Horton says. “I think the reason that I’ve enjoyed going so much is that telling stories is a Thing that Friends Do, so you end up getting very friendly with everyone around you by the end of the night. Well, that and Brian Babylon.” (Erin Kelsey)
The Moth StorySLAM takes place on the last Tuesday of every month at Martyrs’. $8. themoth.org.