Everyone has a story to tell, Marc Moss believes.
It’s a fairly simple premise, but one that has returned dividends to Moss in the last seven years, after the first iteration of Tell Us Something hit the Top Hat.
The live storytelling event initially took place at Missoula area bars like the Top Hat, Union Club or Monk’s, as well as the Zootown Arts Community Center.
Moss took volunteers who had a story to tell, ran them through a quick how-to workshop on the best way to shape their tale, and put them on the stage. Storytellers were not always plentiful.
“I was having to beg people and buy them drinks,” Moss remembered.
By 2015, it had grown enough to move to the Wilma, but the event overreached that year, with nearly 10 Tell Us Something events scheduled in town.
“Besides burnout, I noticed attendance was suffering,” he said. “That’s why four events a year is the sweet spot in Missoula.”
The modern version of Tell Us Something features eight storytellers and a time for audience members to tell their stories if they feel inspired. Those four shows a year sell well, with the final — usually held in early- to mid-December — selling out the last two years.
“Now, people are happy to tell their stories,” Moss said.
This year saw the second Tell Us Something in Helena and the first in Butte.
“The Butte show, the stories were awesome and the audience that was there enjoyed it, because I don’t think they knew what they were getting into,” Moss said.
The storytelling show is a format popularized by the Moth Radio Hour, a live storytelling public radio show that started in 1997 and has had huge success in the podcast boom of the 2010s (more than 50 million downloads a year, according to their website).
Tell Us Something is also available in podcast form, through their website or podcast apps. That means those who didn’t have time to make it down to the Wilma can catch up.
Moss credits Tell Us Something’s appeal and popularity to its local focus, one that encourages person-to-person connections.
“People feel really disconnected to each other. They just really are hungry for a human connection,” Moss said. “It’s not surprising that you provide an art event like Tell Us Something that is curated and intentional, that people will respond.”
At its best, Tell Us Something fosters dialogue between attendees who go home to discuss what they’ve heard and between storytellers, whose recognition at the coffee shop or brewery makes for a follow-up conversation impossible from the stage.
Moss would like to bring Tell Us Something to a larger swath of Montana, because, although it’s been going for six years, his role as executive director still just funds a health insurance stipend, no salary, even though the hours are plentiful.
There’s an advisory board made up of five Missoulians and plenty of volunteers who keep Tell Us Something viable, Moss said, but it takes a lot of effort over several years.
“In 2019, we’re looking to try and build on what’s happened and turn it around so it does become my main source of income,” he said.
That won’t happen through rapid expansion to more cities — Moss learned his lesson on overbooking — but with working on deeper roots in Missoula, Helena and Butte.
“As other cities find out about it, they’ll come to me,” he hoped. “But sure, I’d love to go Havre or Billings.”
There’s regional expansion opportunities through the arts-and-education-focused Humanities Montana, who collaborated with Tell Us Something on a Milltown State Park event earlier in 2018. Moss hoped a Travelers' Rest State Park event would be coming up in 2019.
Moss wants to expand his storytelling workshops — which offer the same pre-show tips he offers storytellers — to one-on-ones or a corporate setting.
And he wants to continue a summer camp that started in 2018 at the ZACC, where kids learned the art of storytelling over five days before presenting their stories to parents on the final night in a youth version of the Wilma show.
“There are so many different ways to tell a story and I want the storyteller’s voice to come through,” he said. “I believe everyone has a story and everyone’s story is valuable.”