The Stories That Bind Us 12

‘Tell Us Something’ Connects People Through The Power Of Storytelling

Immigrant parents. Beauty pageants and bar scenes. Camping with black bears. Car crashes and whitewater rapids. Falling in love. Falling out of love. Heart-rending tales of loss and heart-bursting tales of joy.

These are the extraordinary, everyday stories of the people living, working, growing up, and growing old here in Missoula. They are captured by Tell Us Something, a project that brings together storytellers and listeners at intimate live events and with free podcasts.

“Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story is worth hearing,” says Marc Moss, executive director of Tell Us Something. With plenty of storytelling podcasts and live events peppered across the country, Moss says that Missoula isn’t reinventing the wheel. Rather, Tell Us Something offers a fun, safe, place-based venue for Missoulians to tell stories directly to their community.

Back in 2011, a friend of Moss, Patrick Duganz, took the first step by bringing people together a handful of times to tell stories at the Badlander. But when Duganz moved to Bozeman, Moss—one of the first storytellers to brave the stage at the Badlander—took over as the project lead.

Moss’ first order of business was coming up with a name for the new storytelling project. He and his board members settled quickly on “Tell Us Something,” hoping it would invite people to start talking. It worked.

Turns out that Missoulians have a lot to say. And they like listening, too.

During the first official show at the Top Hat, 150 people showed up. Tell Us Something now features short stories told live at the Top Hat four times per year. Over the past couple of years, the venue has maxed out at 275 people during each show. The storyteller roster is full long in advance, too.

Why is Tell Us Something so popular? “Because stories are important,” says Moss. “They bind us together as humans.”

It probably helps that Missoula has an above-average number of writers, artists and actors per capita who embrace creative events and aren’t afraid of being on stage. That’s why Moss is fired up about expanding the project to include more storytellers and reach more audiences.

For instance, this past summer Tell Us Something partnered with the Zootown Arts Community Center to include young people. They put on a storytelling summer camp to coach six students from local junior and senior high schools. These students shared their true stories at the Top Hat in July.

To reach a larger audience, Tell Us Something is trying out the newly remodeled Wilma for this month’s show. The upcoming theme for the December 8 event is “Illumination/Revelation.”

Through trial and error, Moss has learned that the “sweet spot” for live events is keeping stories to 10 minutes, and presenting no more than 10 stories total. Each show also has a theme that links the different stories. All stories are recorded, so they can be downloaded as podcasts after the event. The project’s website serves as the library for these podcasts, which are all free.

Here’s how the nuts and bolts work: People submit their story for consideration by leaving a brief pitch over voice mail. Once accepted, all storytellers are required to attend a three-hour workshop. The workshop provides a “safe place” to work out story kinks, learn simple tips for what works on stage, and get feedback from fellow storytellers.

Moss coaches participants on everything from how close to stand to the microphone to how to deal with audience members who might interrupt their flow. He also cautions storytellers that this event is not a place to whine, rant, sell products, or practice performance art. It is, however, a place to celebrate each other, empower each other, and connect to each other.

Mostly, it’s a place to have fun.

“My job is to convince people to tell their story, help them, and then get out of the way,” Moss says.

After four years directing the project as a side job, Moss recently quit his full-time job to dedicate more time to growing Tell Us Something. “I want to ramp this up. That means raising money,” he says. The project is fiscally sponsored by the Missoula Community Foundation to provide donors the incentive of tax-deductible donations.

Down the road, Moss hopes to pay the storytellers: “I want to give back to the people who are putting themselves out there in a very vulnerable way.”

He also plans to bring live storytelling to other Montana towns in the coming years. For now, though, Tell Us Something is focused on helping Missoulians tell each other stories.

“It’s been super fun to launch this project and see it take off,” says Moss. “At the end of the day, it’s the storytellers who make the magic happen.”