2004_10_leathau.jpgPoetry Slam or Poetry Reading?

I love the slam format.

Barnes & Noble or Strand?
I wouldn’t want to live without either.

Edith Wharton or Henry James?
Funny you should ask, I wrote my Master’s thesis on Henry James, and as a legal alien in the US, I will always have a particular fondness for his reflections on the European-American relationship.

Lea, tell the fine people of Gothamist about The Moth.
The Moth is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling. In addition to the StorySLAMs, we have a main-stage series with featured storytellers called “Stories at The Moth” and a community outreach program, “Stories in Stages,” which brings storytelling workshops, free of charge, to at-risk teens and adults in rehabilitation. A year and a half ago, we added our “MothShop” program which offers specialized workshops and events to organizations across the country.

What is your role at The Moth?
I am the Executive & Creative Director, I raise the money, teach the MothShops, develop new artistic goals, direct some of the main-stage shows, and shape the overall profile of the organization. Directing the shows means working one-on-one with each storyteller which is a very interesting process.

Name some New York authors that have read at The Moth?
Adam Gopnik, Philip Gourevitch, Spalding Gray, Jonathan Ames, Joyce Maynard, Susan Orlean, George Plimpton, Richard Price, Lauren Slater and Andrew Solomon, among others. We’ve featured many great actors as well, but also go out of our way to find people who are not writers or performers. For every show, we look for people with unique stories. We’ve had an astronaut, a voodoo priestess, an owl expert, and a neurosurgeon to name but a few.

How did The Moth get its name?
The founder George Dawes Green (author of “The Juror” and “The Caveman’s Valentine”) came to New York from a small island off the cost of Georgia where he and his friend would gather on his friend Wanda’s porch and drink Jack Daniels and tell stories into the wee hours. There was a hole in the screen surrounding the porch and the moths fluttered in and out of the light through the hole, so George and his gang called themselves “the moths.” When George moved to New York and started going to cocktail parties where everyone was trying to be witty and clever with 30-second sound bites, he realized that New York needed a storytelling venue and thus began The Moth.

You are originally from Denmark. How and when did you move to New York and how does New York compare to other cities you’ve lived in?
I came here for graduate school nine years ago as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in the Comparative Literature department. I shared an apartment in the East Village with Kim Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) who was also then finishing her thesis project at Columbia. One of the things I immediately loved about New York was how open it was for a foreigner like myself. I’d lived in Paris for a few years before coming here, and although it was closer to home for me I felt much more like a foreigner there. The difference is that in Paris you’ll always be a foreigner if you’re not French, but in New York, you’re pretty much accepted as a native if you can find a way to pay the bills and get a share in the East Village.

Growing up in Denmark was there a lot of storytelling?
No. Denmark, although thoroughly secularized these days, is a very protestant European culture. Not a lot of room for magic or fantasy ala traditional storytelling, and certainly not a lot of room for the personal brand of storytelling we practice at The Moth. Americans compared with all Europeans are much more ready to get up in front of a room of people and bare their souls, and Danes more than most Europeans are quick to judge anyone who puts themselves on display in the smallest way, let alone on stage.

Many non-profits in New York struggle to survive. How does your group stay afloat?
A big breakthrough in gaining financial stability has been the success of our annual benefits. We’re currently gearing up for this year’s benefit, which will feature Ethan Hawke and Andy Borowitz on November 9 at Capitale. We’re fortunate to have a series of faithful sponsors at the benefit, and throughout the season as well.

Another great source of income is our MothShop program. We’ve worked with a number of organizations including Time, Inc., Pfizer and Liz Claiborne and with all sorts of groups -- sales, marketing, design, product development -- to teach them how to use storytelling to improve both internal and external communications.

Where does The Moth take place?
The current home of our main-stages series is Crash Mansion, but we’ve also held shows at The American Museum of Natural History, The New York Public Library, BAM Café, and for a while we had a series on the Yankee Clipper, a boat anchored at Pier off Chambers Street. Our slams alternate between Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village and The Bitter End in the West Village.

What is the appeal of sharing stories?
The appeal and the process are different for different groups. For anyone who’s professionally involved with narrative, whether as a writer, filmmaker or performer, I think part of the appeal of doing a 10-minute Moth story is the process of condensing a story to its essence. Writers have often told me that telling their Moth story helped them get to the core of a longer script or book project they were working on and perhaps struggling with. For everyone else, the appeal is to tell a story that wouldn’t otherwise be shared with anyone outside their personal circles.

Generally speaking, writers need to get away from the page (all stories must be told live without notes), actors need to get away from acting, and people who have no previous experience with narrative or performing arts need help structuring and delivering the story in the most compelling way.

Tell me more about your Community Outreach Program and how more New Yorkers can get involved.
To me, the outreach program is the heart and soul of what we do. I was first hired at The Moth to start this program, and it was a pretty interesting experience for someone from Denmark, the most sheltered and socially secure place on earth, to be thrown into this experience out of grad school.

When I went to introduce the very first workshop at a substance abuse treatment center for homeless men, the very first person I talked to had the words "PUSSY EATER" tattooed across his face. He was a tough guy, but at the end of the five-week workshop he told a story about his life-long dream of owning a flower shop.

Every outreach workshop is a lesson in the resilience of the human soul and the power of storytelling to bring us together and empower us as individuals. The goal of the program is to give underserved New Yorkers the power of self-expression, the opportunity to share their stories with the world, and the communication skills that they need to succeed in society. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life to be a part of this process.

For more information about The Moth and their many programs, visit http://www.themoth.org.

Interview by Kristen Duncan Williams