Thursday, July 21, 2016

Larry Rosen - The Diversity and Commonality of Human Experience

Larry Rosen is a senior instructor with The Moth, an organization based in New York City with a mission to “to promote the art and craft of storytelling,” and manager of The Moth Community Program, which offers workshops and performance opportunities to people who are under-represented in mainstream media or feel under-heard. Larry has been teaching, directing, and producing storytelling, theater, improvisation, and sketch comedy performance for more than 20 years, through institutions including Second City and The New York International Fringe Festival. Larry and two other instructors from The Moth Community Program came to Minnesota in May 2016 to lead a workshop for participants in the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Veterans’ Voices Storytelling Project.

In November 2014, I signed on to co-teach a storytelling workshop in collaboration with the Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness. The participants were people who’d been homeless at one time, or had somehow been touched by the experience of homelessness.

I was excited by the prospect – until about a week before the workshop, when I started to feel overwhelmed. I had no idea what this would be like.

I’d been teaching with The Moth Community Program for six years. During that time, I’d helped people develop and share personal stories about nursing, adoption, immigration, mental illness, developmental disabilities, and exoneration after years of wrongful incarceration. I had never worked on stories of homelessness.

I realized I knew very little about homelessness. I’d seen homeless people – but I had never had a conversation with anyone. I did some research, and found staggering statistics regarding the numbers of homeless individuals and families living in New York City.

But stories are about individuals, and individual journeys. And the story-building process works best when we can somehow relate to the stories being built. How would I relate to these stories? I’d never been homeless, nor did I know anyone who was homeless. If anyone I knew had ever been homeless, they hadn’t talked about it.

I thought about the folks we’d work with, and wondered: How did they get through it? What had been their journeys, and how could we best help to express them?

And then we arrived, and met these wonderful people, each of whom had applied to take the workshop. We said hello, sat down, and listened to their stories.

The stories were about parents and children, friends and support systems, rejection and rescue. Robin talked about her son. Jason spoke of his father. They were stories of sorrow, hope, failure, success, rejection, and rescue. Stories that expressed guilt, fear, frustration, respect, joy – and love.

And we got right to work, doing what we do in every workshop: we divided into small groups and, over the course of our 12 hours together, helped each storyteller pull out the pieces of his or her story, sift through them, flesh them out, and put them back together to form a strong and compelling narrative.

Again, I had not experienced the exact circumstances of the people I worked with. But I know what it is to have someone depend on me, and the fear and pain of letting them down. I’ve had things in my life I desperately wanted to change, but felt unable to, until I finally found the strength and motivation and resources to change them.

And this is what connected us – the universal, human themes of the story – just as they had connected me in past workshops to immigrants and Veterans and wrongfully-incarcerated prisoners.

At The Moth we seek to honor the diversity and commonality of human experience through storytelling. In sharing these essential human themes we are blessed to find our common humanity.

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