CREATIVE PROCESS: CATHERINE BURNS (+ THE MOTH)

If you’ve spent any amount of time listening to public radio, you become acquainted with or even attached to the sound of a host’s voice. The introduction to a show or podcast becomes familiar, like memorized lyrics to a song, and the host’s voice becomes as recognizable and comforting as a friend’s. For instance, so many times I’ve heard: “From WBUR Boston and NPR, I’m Tom Ashbrook and this is On Point”, or “This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross”. Some listeners immediately recognize the jumbled mixture of voices patched together to say, “You’re listening to RadioLab, from WNYC and NPR”, or the profane voice of Marc Maron preceding the WTF Podcast; even the sound of a girl’s voice mispronouncing “MailChimp” in the advertisement before the Serial podcast became a pop culture reference. For me—one of the most welcoming is, “PRX. This is The Moth Radio Hour. I’m Catherine Burns…The Moth is about true personal stories, told in front of a live audience.” Catherine’s is a voice I trust and one that promises I am about to be enchanted, engaged, and moved in some way.

Catherine is The Moth’s longtime Artistic Director and frequent (though not only) host. The Moth—for the uninitiated—is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, a subject near and dear to our hearts at Alabama Chanin. It celebrates both the seasoned raconteur and the first-time storyteller, equally. Since its founding in 1997 by author George Dawes Green, The Moth has presented thousands of stories, all told live and without notes. Many of these stories are compiled into podcasts—each one unique and moving in its own way.

Prior to her work at The Moth, Catherine directed and produced independent films and television and directed the highly praised Off-Broadway solo show, Helen & Edgar. She is also editor of the New York Times Best Seller, The Moth: 50 True Stories. Burns, an Alexander City, Alabama native (whose parents still live there), has also won a Peabody Award through her work at The Moth Radio Hour. She is also an accomplished fire dancer who, for the last several years, has coordinated a 70-person fire dancing show at the Burning Man Festival.

I remember an interview Catherine did several years ago for the National Endowment for the Arts that still resonates today:

“We live in a world that’s becoming increasingly digital. We sit in our little boxes, staring at other boxes, communicating through our fingers on a keyboard. I don’t think human beings were meant to live this way, and The Moth is the antithesis of all of that. It’s ironic because all our little devices and programs are meant to connect us, but I don’t think they really do. They kind of connect us, but there’s always a boundary there—the electronic wall that keeps us from really experiencing each other in a human way…We can bring people out of their cubicles and get them to interact with their neighbors. Through storytelling, you can hear from a neighbor who you might assume you have nothing in common with, and discover that you share a great deal. When you see the person on the street the next day, your perspective on them will have changed because you know something important about them and other people like them.”

Her perspective on creativity and connection—and her Alabama roots—make her an intriguing participant in our exploration of the creative process.

You can also listen to the weekly Peabody Award-winning show online: The Moth Radio Hour. Warning, you may want to buckle down the kids, and put out the dogs before you start—you’re going to want good time to get lost down this rabbit hole.

Alabama Chanin: Do you have any creative rituals?

Catherine Burns: This may sound silly, but I need a clean, orderly space in which to create. Both my office and home are pretty tidy. People are sometimes surprised by that—it’s the opposite of the cliché of the blustering artist. (Natalie, didn’t you comment on that the first time you saw my office?) But my job involves juggling a lot of balls at once, and it’s easy to get distracted. Having an organized space allows me to focus on the creating. I also like to surround myself with meaningful things that make me smile (many of which remind me of my beloved Alabama). On the shelves of my office I have piled among hundreds of books, my collection of Jonathan Adler mugs; an Alabama license plate; a quilt made for me by my cousin Sunny; various quartz rocks picked up at my Daddy’s farm near Eclectic; and a portrait of my friend, the poet and raconteur Edgar Oliver, which was painted by his mother Louise in Savannah in the early 1960’s.

AC: What have been some of the most successful campaigns you have launched? Why did you feel successful?

CB: The Moth released its first book two years ago—The Moth: 50 True Stories (Hachette). We were nervous about how the stories would work in print. We transcribed the oral stories, and lightly edited them for the page. The goal was for the reader to feel like they were actually hearing the storyteller speak. After the book was published, we heard about people reading the stories out loud to each other at dinner, which we loved, because it was a brand new way for our audience to interact with the stories. And the book allowed us to feature great stories that would have otherwise been lost. For instance, one of my favorite stories in the book is “Tajik Sonata” by Anoid Latipovna Rakhmatyllaeva. We met Anoid at a show we produced for the U.S. State Department in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Her story—about finding the courage to stand down a group of child soldiers and prevent them from destroying a room full of musical instruments at the height of their civil war—is one of my favorite stories I’ve ever directed. But Anoid told her story in Russian, and the only recording we had was of our English translator during the final show rehearsal. It sounds like it was recorded underwater. But we were able to transcribe it, and now the story has been read by tens of thousands of people all over the world.

AC: If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?

CB: My only regret is that I didn’t move to New York City sooner. When I got out of college, I spent a number of years bouncing between Los Angeles and Boston. I find New York so inspiring. The city keeps me on my toes. It can be overwhelming at times (especially for someone who grew up in a small town in Alabama!), but New York is one of the few places in the world where when I’m here, I don’t feel like there’s anywhere else I’m supposed to be. And I love living surrounded by so many creative people.

AC: Do you critique your own work?

CB: I do critique my own work, but I get a lot of help from The Moth’s artistic team. Storytelling is very subjective. We always know it’s been a great Moth night when, the next day, no one can agree on the best story—everyone has his or her favorite. But for that reason, I rely heavily on our artistic team to weigh in on how we shape the stories, and which ones will be broadcast. A storyteller works one-on-one with a Moth director for weeks (and sometimes months) leading up to a show. But then two days out there’s a big group rehearsal where all the storytellers in a particular show will tell their stories to their fellow storytellers and our artistic team. As a director, it’s so helpful getting feedback from a smart group of people who don’t know the story as well as I do. Our rule is that if someone on our team is confused about something in a story, then someone in the audience probably will be too. After the stories are recorded, a group of about twelve of us listen to the audio to decide what will go on our podcast and The Moth Radio Hour. If we can’t decide amongst ourselves, we send it to our brilliant radio producer, the legendary Jay Allison, who will then weigh in.

AC: What last made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!”?

CB: I’m a big fan of the not-for-profit Narrative 4. They try to foster empathy, often among people who might have reasons to dislike each other. As I understand it, they get a group together (for instance teenagers from a war-torn area), pair people off into twos, and have them listen to each other’s stories. The person listening has to then re-tell the story they just heard in the first person (as if it happened to them). Or as the folks at Narrative 4 put it, “Our core methodology centers around a story exchange, which works on a simple idea: If I can hear your story deeply enough to retell it in my own words, as if it happened to me—and you can do the same for my story—then we will have seen the world through each other’s eyes.” It’s brilliant.

ALABAMA CHANIN – CATHERINE BURNS (+ THE MOTH)

AC: Is there one single act that can open your imaginary mind?

CB: Dance of any kind, whether I’m watching or participating. I love watching dancers. I spend my days with words and language. Everything is about narrative. And while a great dancer always tells a story of some kind, it’s less direct—no words are spoken. Dancing gets me out of my head and into my body, which is always a good thing. I’m not the most graceful person, but about ten years ago I became a fire dancer, performing poi, which is where you dance with balls of fire connected to your hands by chains. Learning this technique was a huge struggle for me, and my teacher later admitted that I initially showed almost no aptitude for it. But I kept with it, and eventually became the New York City lead for the big 1000 person fire spinning show at the Burning Man Festival that happens every year in Black Rock City, Nevada. Dancing with fire scratches some kind of itch in my soul. When I come back to my Moth work afterward, I always feel ready to jump into storytelling in a fresh way again.

AC: Which ones of your products and/or services inspire you the most?

CB: I am constantly inspired by the work being done in The Moth’s community program. This is the leg of The Moth that provides storytelling, free of charge, to underserved communities. The participants could be people living with HIV, holocaust survivors, or teenagers who have a sibling with a disability. I recently returned from a trip to Uganda where I had the pleasure of working with African feminist writers from across the continent. Working with these women was pure magic and a genuine inspiration for me. In the last year, our team led a series of storytelling workshops at a prison in Manhattan. The stories told by these incarcerated men will break your heart. Prisoners can feel very disconnected from the outside world, which can inhibit their rehabilitation and eventual re-entry into the world. Storytelling can help remind them of their humanity. We recently found out that the prisoners have been getting together and coaching each other’s stories in the days between The Moth’s weekly workshops. They call it “Mothing”. We love it.

P.S.: Look for Natalie’s story, told live at The Moth Mainstage in New York City on your public radio station as part of The Moth Radio Hour, “1602: Sewing, Singing, Suits, and Cemeteries.” Natalie’s story about kudzu, snakes, and sewing includes a conversation between Catherine and Natalie—recorded on Natalie’s back porch. You will also be able to download this story (and so many more) for free on The Moth Podcast beginning next week. Check back on Friday for more on Natalie’s journey from story to Mainstage.

Photos courtesy of Catherine Burns.

This project is made possible in part by a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

2 comments on “CREATIVE PROCESS: CATHERINE BURNS (+ THE MOTH)

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  1. Brenna Kelly

    Huge fan of The Moth. I had the pleasure of meeting Catherine in person when I was in NYC for a week gorging on Moth performances (Blue Man Group collaboration, StorySLAM and my first GrandSLAM) Catherine Burns is an amazing, warm, lovely person. What a treat! I loved learning more about her in this article.

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  2. Julie Ford

    Thank you Catherine, for Natalie Chanin’s story and thank you Natalie, for sharing. My free time is fully immersed in sewing the Alabama Chanin way for myself and the process of slow-sewing is exactly what I need. What a success story!

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