A handful of brave people took to the stage at Voodoo last month to tell true stories about beginner's luck. It was the first edition of Charleston Tell, a storytelling event hosted by John MacMahon that included tales about everything from schoolboys let loose in New York City to newsroom dead-baby jokes. The next installment's theme is "First we had drinks, and then..."
Participants have eight minutes each to tell their story on stage, with a two-minute grace period to, well, shut up. "Some people, myself included, will go on and on and on," MacMahon says. "I'll have a two-sided sign: on one side it will say 'wrap it up,' and on the other it will say 'stop.' "
The event takes its inspiration from the Moth, a New York City nonprofit organization dedicated to storytelling. The Moth events draw huge crowds of storytellers and fans alike and are broadcast on a weekly podcast and corresponding public radio show. Since its inception, the Moth has expanded to countless cities across America, inspiring small and grand storytelling events.
A recent transplant to our fair city, MacMahon used to participate in one of those Moth-inspired events in Fredericksburg, Va., and he knew it would be great fit for the Charleston scene. "Over a year ago, I was invited to participate in Fredericksburg Tell for the first time," he says. "I didn't know what to expect, but I got up and told my story, and I just loved it."
MacMahon drafted up a prospectus and shopped the Charleston Tell concept around to libraries and venues, stumbling upon its ultimate landing place of Voodoo by chance. "It happened almost by accident. I was at Voodoo and started talking to the bartender there, and she told me that she loves This American Life, so I left the prospectus with her, and she gave it to the owners," he says.
Voodoo, MacMahon explains, offers a great atmosphere. Benches in the back room are moved to make space for the performance, and Charleston Tell takes full advantage of the mood lighting and PA system. "It's the perfect venue for the event," he says. "Of course, they've got good cocktails at that place, too, so hopefully that will enhance it!"
Names are drawn out of a hat to determine storytelling order — all's fair in love and storytelling, after all — and there are a few ground rules each performer must uphold. First, the story cannot be fictional. Second, presenters cannot use notes or props; it must be an honest story told from memory. Lastly, presenters must stick with the event's theme. Other than that, the storytellers can pick what sort of tale they'd like to offer, be it sad, happy, moralistic, or just plain nostalgic.
Guests can expect a great story from the host, as his passion for storytelling is ever-present. "I'm a storyteller. I like to hang out in taverns," he explains. "Part of being successful at hanging out at taverns is being able to tell a good story."