Imagine you have 10 minutes to tell your life story – in front of 2,500 people.
That was the challenge José González and Sharon Wood Wortman faced as they walked onto the stage of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland in February. They appeared as part of The Moth Main Stage, a traveling version of the New York-based storytelling series, podcast and radio program. The evening featured five stories on the theme “Building Bridges: Stories From Both Sides.”
González and Wood Wortman were among the eight people suggested by The Moth’s local partner, Literary Arts, based on their life stories and connection to the program’s theme. The two were ultimately selected after a series of phone calls and discussions with The Moth's producers.
Sharon Wood Wortman was a natural fit for the bridges theme. Also known as “The Bridge Lady,” she’s the author of The Portland Bridge Book and has been leading walking tours of Portland’s bridges for 20 years.
José González has been building cultural bridges in Portland for 20 years as the founder and executive drector of the Latino arts organization, the Miracle Theatre Group. “Andrew Proctor [Executive Director of Literary Arts] called me and asked if I was willing to participate in The Moth," says González. “He said, ‘I really think it’s important that you have a chance to tell your story because what you’ve done here is groundbreaking.’ I thought that was a wonderful sentiment and it's probably why I’m here.”
The Moth strives to help their storytellers find a balance between spontaneous stories told from the heart and a well-crafted tale.
In the weeks leading up to a performance, The Moth’s directors work closely with their storytellers to develop and refine their stories. We caught up with González and Wood Wortman backstage at the Schnitzer a few hours before the Main Stage event to find out how they prepared to tell their stories.
A&L: How did you go about developing the story you are going to tell tonight?
José: When I got that first phone call [from The Moth producer Maggie Cino] I really didn’t have any sense of reference whatsoever. She just started asking me questions. I started answering those questions and then embellishing a little bit and adding a little more story to it. But it really wasn’t conscious that I was telling stories as much as responding to questions.
A lot of it had to do with me as an individual, growing up, how I got to this place from where I started, my relationship with my father, for instance, and my relationship to my culture. In one case, there was a separation between myself and my background and then a reunion, as it were. A lot of what I’m going to do tonight is sort of travel that journey from the time when I was 15 and a young boy in south Texas, my move to Oregon and then other journeys that I took, ultimately, to come back to Portland to found this Latino theater.
A&L: How has storytelling been different from acting on the stage?
[In the theater] we’re usually working from a text that has been prepared or developed at some point. And of course we’ve done a lot of original theater at the Miracle. But I’m not really versed in improvisation. This really feels more like improvisation and it makes me very nervous, to be honest with you. Because you are out there, on your own, basically trying to tell a story that you don’t really have a script for. You just have an idea of where you want to go and what’s important to say. And the other thing that worries me is you have to say it in a very short period of time... [laughs] otherwise they can take the hook and take you off stage.
A&L: What are you hoping to get out of your Moth experience?
Survival! [laughs] You know, I act reluctantly. I perform reluctantly. So I’m always nervous. And I haven’t been on stage since the spring of 2009 so it’s been a while since I’ve been in front of an audience. I’m not a professional actor by any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy it, sometimes. I’m trying to not look at this as an acting thing, because in acting you are creating something out of your imagination or somebody else’s imagination. You are taking a fiction and imbuing it with life. This is really more about me and the truths that I have lived through. That’s been the biggest issue I’ve had to encounter in terms of this particular story, is staying true to the truth and not going too far in the direction of dramatization.
Sharon Wood Wortman
A&L: Tell me about the story you are going to tell tonight.
Sharon: Actually, The Moth has done an amazing thing. I tell my life story in about 13 and a half minutes with a flashback from the top of the Fremont Bridge.
The vignette is the climb. I take people climbing to the top of the Fremont Bridge. We stand between the flagpoles. I hope I paint that picture of what that’s like to climb up and stand 350 feet above the Willamette River. When I’m up there, I get flashbacks. So my story is told through flashbacks from on top of the bridge.
The story has wonderful lines and the story has some very sad lines. I think The Moth likes to get people to tell stories that come from inside. I think the stories are pretty, let’s just say, confessional.
A&L: Tell me about the process you went through to develop your story.
I had a producer named Maggie Cino. I had no idea what she looked like, she just sounded like she was from New York. And she’d say, 'Tell me your story.' She just had a wonderful way. And so I trusted her and I told her stories from my life that were very personal stories.
And then, my process is to write everything down. So I think I filled a ream of paper, as we would go through these drafts. But it’s not The Moth’s way to write things down or memorize. So mostly you just keep telling the story and keep telling the story until your stopwatch says you are somewhere between 10 and 14 minutes.
Was it difficult to condense your story down?
I was really worried about being able to do this in 10 minutes. I was really concerned, and I knew that when I was up around 2,800 words that this wasn’t happening. Sometimes when you are close to your own story, you don’t know what you want to leave in, what you want to leave out. But these particular women [The Moth's producers Maggie Cino and Sarah Austin Jenness] are so used to hearing stories, they are spot on.
As you get deeper, you are willing to share more. You establish this relationship, this connection with this person. And as you tell them more, the person says, 'I hear your story now. This is a beautiful story. This is the part of the story that people are going to care about.'
A&L: What are you hoping to get out of your Moth experience?
Who knows? I may never tell another story again! I think maybe I’m good with this. This may be the top of the mountain.
I’ve thought, why am I doing this? Because this is really a very confessional story, this is my life. What I decided is that some of us have experiences that are so… just… so, that it becomes a responsibility, I think, to share those experiences. And my feeling is that even if just one person hears this story and it’s beneficial to them — even if that one person is me — then that’s the reason I’m here.
Watch excerpts from the Moth Main Stage Portland Show
Video courtesy of The Moth. Photos by Daniel Ellis
Get more behind-the-scenes insights about how a story is developed for The Moth by listening online to this episode of The Speakeasy.
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