When Marc Moss was growing up in Ohio, he heard Prairie Home Companion on the car radio one day and the storytelling captured his imagination.
“My dad and I didn’t get along much,” he said in a phone interview. “The only time we weren’t fighting was when we were driving in the car listening to Prairie Home Companion together.”
Fast forward decades later and Moss, now of Missoula, has spun a storytelling event, Tell Us Something, that’s entering its seventh year.
The quarterly events pack the Wilma Theatre in Missoula, and this week it’s making its third appearance in Helena.
You can come hear eight local storytellers share their true personal stories on the theme “Didn’t See That Coming,” 7 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at Free Ceramics, 650 Logan St.
Wondering who the eight stars will be?
You won’t hear it here.
“I don’t tell the storytellers ahead of time,” Moss said. He’s not interested in popularity contests. “You’re coming to listen to your community share stories.”
It was at a Missoula Moth storytelling event that Moss first discovered the power of telling one’s own story.
Although his jobs over the years required that he talk to crowds, this was different.
“I got up on stage and told a story. For the first time in my life I was telling who I am and being listened to. ...It was empowering and humbling and exciting. It really opened up my heart in ways I have not thought it could happen.”
After the demise of the Missoula Moth-style event, Moss stepped in, tweaked the idea and created Tell Us Something.
“Everyone loved it,” he said.
It’s been wildly successful -- outgrowing its original home at the Top Hat and moving to the Wilma Theatre.
The audiences and storytellers keep coming back for more, at times selling out the Wilma. A recent show drew about 620.
There are a few ground rules.
Stories are typically 10 minutes long.
“There are two things I don’t allow,” he said, “...selling of any sort” whether it’s a product, or a philosophy, or a political platform. “And no violence or hate -- no misogyny or racism.”
Potential storytellers call in to a “pitch line,” where they have three minutes to pitch their story, and then Moss and his advisory board select the best eight.
Many of the storytellers have never been on stage before, but not to fear.
They all meet together with Moss for a storytelling workshop, where they critique each other’s stories.
“I try to give them the tools for success, so when they’re up there all they have to do is put the listener in the moment with them.”
The crowd wants the storyteller to succeed and is pulling for them, he said.
“It’s just a tremendous evening of transcendence and joy and love.”
Tell Us Something evenings always have a theme, he said. Some previous ones were risk, rites of passage and neighbors.
And there are some exciting new developments. American Sign Language interpreters are now signing all the shows, and the next show in Missoula includes a deaf person as one of the storytellers.
Altogether there are seven Tell Us Something shows in Montana this year: four in Missoula, one in Butte and two in Helena.
Spreading the art of storytelling is now Moss’ life work.
“This is the first time in my life -- and I’m 47 -- when I’ve really felt I had a vocation, that I’ve really felt directed beyond me to do something.”
He’s previously worked as a teacher, a Yellowstone National Park ranger and later at a “cushy” job as an IT person, which he left to direct Tell Us Something.
He also does a weekly podcast, and he teaches storytelling in Missoula schools through SPARK!, an artists-in-the-school program.
“I’m trying to help the everyday person get his or her story heard and get that story heard as widely as possible,” he said of what he sees as his goal for Tell Us Something.
“If you feel your story’s being heard, you can feel like you matter. Everybody has a story. Everybody matters.
“And if you matter, you can make a difference in your community.”
Doors open at 6. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 day of the show.
For details and tickets go to tellussomething.org/shop/tell-us-something-didnt-see-that-coming.