Foundation Year students bring the gift of live storytelling to Northeastern
March 24, 2016 by Thea Singer
The room is dark, four rows of chairs, all full, facing a half-moon stage with a standup mic. Ottomans line the back wall, overflowing with Northeastern students, faculty, and passersby.
Claude-Olivier Prudent steps up to the mic and into the light. He tells the story of his 11th birthday, when his longing for PlayStation 2’s Street Fighter transformed into insight after his parents’ devastating car accident. “I realized not only is it a parent’s job to make sure the child has what he wants,” he said, “but it’s the child’s job to make sure that the parent knows that it’s worth it.”
Chills run through me. Prudent is one of the students in Foundation Year—a Northeastern program enabling Boston-based students to earn college credit in a supportive environment—who takes the stage this February morning in Curry Student Center’s afterHOURS. They are here to share their stories—to “bare their truth”—as part of The Moth College Program, an initiative of the The Moth, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.
Called “SLAM Your Voice,” the afterHOURS presentation is the culmination of a two-day workshop for the 31 Foundation Year students. I sat down with nine of those students to learn about the stories behind their stories.
Finding our stories
The workshops provided critical guidelines on how to build a story: What’s a choice you made, good or bad? Start by identifying a first and a last line. Eschew notes and rote memorization. Instead, picture yourself telling your story to a friend. Time limit: Five minutes.
“We went in thinking that we’d have to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end,” said Fatma Hussein, who told a hilarious tale of how she, one of 11 children from a strict Middle Eastern family, snuck out to prom against her parents’ wishes. “However, they told us: A story follows the format that every action movie goes through: It was all cool, and then this happened, which then led to this, this is the climax, and then this happened. So we had to figure out those points in our story—they were like the bullet points. You had your first line, and then, with feedback from your group members, you went from there, adding the imagery—What color was your dress? Was it warm the day you shot the basketball?—that would bring the story to life for an audience.”
Several students began the process thinking they had no story to tell. Sure, things happened to them, but they were “just part of your life,” said Laura DeLorenzo, who had never considered herself funny but brought the house down describing her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy in a ballet performance of The Nutcracker in New Mexico, 7,000 feet above sea level, where oxygen tanks backstage conked out and she longed “to have asthma” so she could have an inhaler. “But once I started hearing other people telling their stories, I saw how little moments and little details can be so important. And that’s what made me pull my story up. I began to see the meaning in my story, the struggle and the success.”
Junioris Jimenez didn’t land on his story until an instructor suggested he “think of a first time or a last time” that he did something. Once he did, his understanding of his motivations shifted. “I started brainstorming about the last time I went to a party,” said Jimenez. “I had convinced myself that I had stopped going to parties because I was more mature. But after telling my story a few times to my group members, I went home and reflected and realized: ‘OK, you didn’t grow up out of the party life. You stopped going because you were afraid.’ Having to tell that story changed my perspective on why I make decisions. I got to the root of why I do what I do.”
The value of sharing stories
We are all, The Moth teaches, full of stories. They bring to life moments that have passed but are still with us, in our hearts, in our bones. They bind us to one another; they help us heal. The workshop process, the students said, revealed unexpected truths, and emotional sides, of classmates. Some had never shared their stories with anyone before.
“I knew I had a story when I walked into the workshop, but I didn’t realize how important my story was to tell,” said Alex Bradshaw, a natural raconteur who relayed how his love of basketball, which didn’t exactly match his skill set, earned him the not-so-great role of team manager but also his moment in the sun on the court. “Although my story was unique to me, there are people who are living the same thing—they may be scared to fight, scared to take on challenges and go through what it takes to overcome that fear. As I listened to everybody else’s story, I thought: That story is completely different from mine, but it has the same theme. Although we’re all different. we’re all the same.”
Judy Siffra took the audience through her religious awakening, finding a surprise at the end. “I expected to learn things about people that I didn’t know before, and I did,” she said. “I wasn’t really expecting to learn much about myself. Going through the workshops and the presentation was a really great experience because you relive the moment as you’re talking. I was thinking about how I was before and how I am now—the change that happened within me. Being in that moment again was very enlightening.”
Prudent, well past the 11th birthday he so poignantly described, honed in on how the very definition of “storytelling” changed. “I think a lot of us came out of the experience feeling differently about what it means not only to tell your own story but to hear other people’s stories,” he said. “Before the workshops and performance, you don’t really know how powerful it can be for someone to finally let out a story or to hear someone’s story for the first time. Trusting that you can tell a story and people will listen and appreciate your telling that story—that’s a really big thing. I came out feeling like I got closer not only to myself but to a lot of other people because I saw their perspective on their experiences.”
Storytelling: A two-way street
Feeling embraced: That was the sentiment that came through most strongly in the students’ responses to what they got back from the instructors, each other, and, finally, the audience, who laughed, cheered, and, yes, cried. Some received hugs from strangers, a thank-you for putting their common emotional experience into words.
“I saw that storytelling is really powerful and opens up a lot of emotions,” said Marshae Seymour. “Claude-Olivier was in my workshop group, and when I heard his story for the first time, I instantly wanted to cry. Hearing it a second time, I thought I’d be OK, I knew what was going to happen. But when I heard him tell it onstage, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! You’re going to make me cry again.’”
Rubens Lacouture experienced that power from the inside out. He initially didn’t think he had a story to tell, and once he found one, he said, “I didn’t think that I would have much to say.” But as the instructor helped him craft the piece by asking questions, guiding him through the rough spots, he said, “I was reliving it, and I was able to find words to describe what I was doing in the story. I’m not used to talking a lot— talking to people, telling stories.” Has he changed as a result? “He’s talking more,” said Hussein, smiling, as heads nodded around the table.
Several students, including Rubens’ brother, Felix Lacouture, spoke of relief after releasing their stories to the world, whether in the workshop or onstage. Felix recounted his first fistfight, at a basketball game. A kind of light bulb went off after the telling. “I was like, man, I went through that,” he said. “My brother knew about the story but no one else, not even my parents. I felt brave.”
The accolades came from outside Northeastern as well. Kirsty Bennett, manager of the Moth College Program, ran the Foundation Year workshops. She noted how much she, as well as the other instructors, gained from the trust and dedication of the students.
“It was such an immense privilege to work on these students’ stories with them,” she said. “When you share a personal story, you’re giving the listeners a gift. These students were all blisteringly and beautifully honest, and they were funny and irreverent. We had stories ranging from a romp, where you sneak out from your parents’ house and go to prom, to the crushing feeling of grief. The spectrum of stories these students shared speaks to the vast differences that happen in young people’s lives from one day to the next.”
The Moth workshops and afterHOURS presentation were part of a course taught by Amy J. Lantinga, associate teaching professor, who received a Do It! Grant to fund the program from Northeastern’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.
“We as individuals and the larger community are largely defined by our actions and our stories,” said John LaBrie, dean of the College of Professional Studies. “The Moth SLAM gives our students a platform from which to be heard. That, in turn, allows the larger university community to own the stories and craft its identity through them. We are all the richer for these students’ contributions.”
The Moth will be live in Boston on March 24 at the Citi Shubert Theatre for a sold-out show titled “The Ties That Bind: The Moth in Boston.” If you’d like to tell a story in the future, The Moth holds an open-mic StorySLAM two times a month in the Boston area. For more information visit themoth.org/events.