If you're a fan of 'The Moth' ... Vermonters share personal tales at monthly storytelling events
BENNINGTON — On a recent weeknight, Michael Nigro tapped his smartphone to check the time. When the clock showed 7:30 p.m., he walked to the microphone and addressed 35 people gathered inside a banquet room at the Mt. Anthony Country Club.
"Welcome to Story Night," Nigro said as a few late arrivals took off their jackets and sat at one of the 10 round tables arranged in two rows. He reminded the guests to keep their $5 admission tickets, because one would later be drawn for a $50 gift certificate to the host venue.
Nigro then outlined the event rules.
"True, first-person stories told without notes," he said. "Every storyteller has up to eight minutes."
Bennington Story Night meets on the third Tuesday of the month at different establishments around the area. Every story night has a theme, and for the first event of 2020, the theme was "confusion."
A whiteboard to the left of the microphone stand displayed the evening's lineup of storytellers, written in their own hand. Nigro's name was next to the first slot. With event housekeeping out of the way, he transitioned from host to storyteller.
"After college, I got this job working in a youth wilderness camp," he said. "I was a youth counselor."
The camp was in North Carolina, and on a Christmas Eve many years ago, Nigro and some fellow counselors went into a drinking establishment on Emerald Isle. The counselors were referred to as "chief" by the camp residents, and some of Nigro's colleagues jokingly called him "Chief Mike" inside the bar. An older man heard the title, and proceeded to buy many rounds of drinks for the counselors.
Much later in the evening, Nigro recalled, "The man looked at me and said, `You're so young to be a chief. How long have you been in the Coast Guard?'"
The audience inside the Mt. Anthony Country Club laughed.
"Almost 20 years ago, for one night, I was a Coast Guard hero," Nigro said, as the dozens of people sitting in front of him began to clap.
Forest Byrd, from Bennington, organized the first story night in April 2016. He had been driving to Troy, New York, to attend a story night there and wanted something that was closer to home. Bennington's South Street Cafe hosted the first event.
"We had a packed house and we had a lot of fun with the stories," Byrd said. "Anytime somebody's telling me a story, I love to be in front of them. ... I really practice the listening."
That night, Byrd was slated to be the eighth person to tell a story about confusion. Six others were ahead of him.
Anna Kroll, from North Bennington, and Lindsey Anderson, from Bennington arrived together and sat at one of the rear tables. They did not add their names to the whiteboard.
"I don't enjoy speaking in front of people," Anderson said. "I really do love listening, and the variety of people they get here that tell stories."
"I'm a pretty rambly storyteller," Kroll said. "I would forget the point of my story."
Both women, along with other audience members and several of the storytellers, said they are fans of the podcasts and radio broadcasts of "The Moth," which showcases storytellers from around the United States.
Nigro, the host, said he travels around Vermont to attend story events. After spending two decades working in health care, Nigro and his wife now run a concession and catering business.
"That's fairly unrelated to storytelling," he said. "Certainly not a performance background or anything like that."
Storytelling is also popular in Windham County, a little more than an hour to the east.
Fables Storytelling, which is held in Putney on the second Wednesday of the month, also sets a theme for each event. The stories told at Next Stage Arts Project, in a refurbished former meeting house across the street from the Putney General Store, are not scripted. But they can run up to 15 minutes, with only four people scheduled to speak.
Host Peter "Fish" Case, who's also a Brattleboro Reformer columnist, meets with participants before they share their stories to a usual audience of 100 people.
"We have an opportunity to sit down with the storytellers to go over their story," Case said. "We help coach them and boil it down to get the finer points of the story in."
The first Fables Storytelling event was held in June 2018. Snow was the theme of the January session, and February's topic will be love. Case is hoping that a husband and wife couple, both 85 and together for 67 years, will be on the bill.
"We're going to see if we can coach them to tell a story, sitting side-by-side, which is something we haven't attempted," he said.
In Bennington, former teacher Bruce Faller was the third speaker. "I've been a scoutmaster on and off for 25, 30 years," he began.
Years ago, Faller said, he took a group of 25 kids into Woodford State Park for a winter campout. It was about 10 degrees below zero when they entered the park on snowshoes.
Early in the morning, a few hours after he had ordered a hike around the lake in an effort to tire the scouts into going to bed, the scout leader counted his charges. There were 24.
A search for the missing scout was unsuccessful. Faller walked out of the park and used a payphone to call the police. Then he called the scout's parents.
"And the mother starts giggling," Faller said. "She said `Joey got cold, so he walked out to the road and hitchhiked home.'"
Faller sat down as the audience applauded.
Byrd, the longtime host of the Bennington Story Night, has ceded those duties to Nigro. But he still attends the events and is involved with the marketing efforts. Audio recordings are made at every Bennington Story Night.
"We're going to start focusing on the recordings and move it into a podcast," Byrd said. "Put it on YouTube and things like that."
The fourth speaker, Lon McClintock of Shaftsbury, was attending his first Bennington Story Night.
"I heard about this event at the writing group I go to once a month," McClintock said. "They talked about how much fun it was."
But McClintock was not smiling when he stood behind the microphone. He would later say that he was anxious about his turn at storytelling because he is anxious by nature.
"So, when you grow up in Minnesota, you don't hunt deer — you hunt ducks," McClintock told the audience. He spoke about the time when, as a 32-year-old graduate student in Vermont, he returned to his home state to accompany his father on a hunting trip. It was the younger McClintock's first time hunting with a gun.
Father and son drove to a private preserve called Lake Emily.
"The house is not grand," McClintock said. "It looks like a little gray box: one story."
McClintock told about his confusion, standing alone in some reeds, wearing waders and carrying two boxes of shells for a 12-gauge shotgun. His father had left him there and then paddled away to find his own place to lie in wait for waterfowl.
"A couple of hours later, my dad comes back," McClintock said. "I get in the boat. He says, `Do you know what you were doing?' I said I haven't a clue. And he says, `Well, I think we should hunt together for the rest of the day.' And that's how we spent the rest of the day."
McClintock smiled as he walked back to his table and the audience clapped.
"People were listening, and so that really felt good," he said afterwards. "I felt like everybody wanted to know where this was going and how it turned out."
McClintock was asked if he would be back for another turn behind the microphone. "Yes," he said, "when I have a story to tell."
Charles Erickson contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Rensselaer County, New York.
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