MassMouth: Connecting Boston through Storytelling

24 Oct

This story originally appeared in The Citizen, a newspaper of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

140 character tweets. Ten word emails hastily composed on our smartphones while walking to class. Three sentence life updates sent to friends on Gchat while watching pithy one-liners being traded on TV. Technological advances have improved the efficiency and convenience of communication, but there is a real concern that online engagement is leading to offline isolation.

We are fortunate to attend a school where isolation is difficult by design. As an undergrad at UCLA, I could go a whole day without bumping into anyone I knew during my 15 minute jaunts from class to class. At the bite-size Kennedy School (UCLA had parking structures that could fit three of our campuses), the challenge is not finding a familiar face. Instead, the challenge is resisting the urge to interrupt a friend who is furiously finishing a problem set in the Forum. By being organized into cohorts, familiarity comes naturally.

HR Britton, Audience Winner (Photo courtesy of Paula Junn, MassMouth)

Despite the advantages of this uniquely engineered environment, we often find ourselves struggling to communicate on a personal and more meaningful level. We were repeatedly reminded during orientation to resist the natural tendency to fall back on the typical “Where are you from? What do you do?” elevator conversation. Much of our time around the water cooler (or free coffee machine in the study) is spent commiserating about upcoming exams and piling up homework…err, I mean “problem sets” since we are professionals. When was the last time you heard a fully-fleshed story that was moving yet comical, animated but personal?

For me, it was just last week. I stumbled upon a story slam at folk music venue Club Passim in the heart of Harvard Square. The concept of a story slam is simple: audience members can throw their name into a hat, and if selected, step up to the mic and tell a short personal story related to that evening’s theme. What’s harder to describe, however, is the feeling you get as an audience member listening to these incredible stories by that guy who may also be your waiter at your neighborhood restaurant.

“Everybody uses and appreciates stories,” explains professional storyteller and MassMouth co-founder Norah Dooley. “This comes as a standard feature of the human ‘operating system.’ Stories help us understand and value our own lives. Since the dawn of human language, people have shared wisdom, joy and troubles through story.”

Daniel Joan tells an unbelievable tale of paranormal activity

Co-founders Dooley and Andrea Lovett have been hosting MassMouth events for over four years, but even after my very first slam, I know that Dooley was right that there is something hardwired in us that responds to the simple and pure beauty of storytelling. For the first time since arriving in Cambridge, I felt connected to my new community.

Take the evening’s winner Justin Werfel, for example. I doubt he even saw my face in the crowd as he told his story under the stage lights, yet I feel like I know him. As he recounted his race against the sun to complete a prank during Rush Week at MIT under the security of darkness, I felt like I was right there getting my hands dirty with him. I was grateful for the cover of darkness in Club Passim as runner-up Ayala Livny, program manager at Harvard Square’s homelessness drop-in center Youth on Fire, talked about one magical night under a meteor shower as a camp counselor; without the darkness, everyone would have seen just how much her story moved me. The audience’s favorite was HR Britton, who brilliantly incorporated music into the world’s oldest story, the circle of life.

It appears that I’m not alone in this desire to connect with my community. I found MassMouth serendipitously through a failed attempt to attend The Moth at Cambridge’s Oberon Theatre. The Moth began in founder George Dawes Green’s New York living room in 1997. The Moth’s success on public radio prompted an expansion to four new cities this season, including a Boston premiere last week.

Justin Werfel, Winner of the Storyslam (Photo courtesy of Paula Junn, MassMouth)

Unfortunately, I failed to beat The Moth’s bizarre system where 50 advanced tickets are sold online for $16, and the last 150 or so seats are sold for $8 to story lovers willing to wait in line for over an hour. After Nadir Vissanjy (MPP1) and I were turned away following 30 minutes of waiting, I was ready to admit defeat and return home to finish a problem set. Fortunately, enterprising MassMouth volunteer Dan Dahari explained that another story telling event was taking place down Mass Ave. Since my new goal of saying yes whenever possible, especially if it’s out of my comfort zone, has contributed to some of the most memorable experiences of my short life, Nadir and I were on our way.

In addition to providing an opportunity for Boston residents to enjoy the timeless magic of live storytelling, MassMouth brings this experience to local school children. MassMouth is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that goes into local schools and teaches students how to share their own stories. Slam attendees donated $114 to go towards providing prizes for the best storytellers at these schools.

As public narrative students can testify, each of us has a story to tell. We’re fortunate to have organizations like MassMouth providing opportunities to tell, and most importantly hear, each other’s stories.

The next story slam at Club Passim will be Nov. 19 and the theme is “Foodie.” Tickets are $6 for students. Find a complete schedule of events and download MassMouth podcasts at

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