Shannon Cason grew up in Detroit, where his father, who sells ads for a hair magazine found in beauty salons, used his storytelling skills to earn a living.
"He would always connect with the hairdressers. He could talk the gossip with them. So he'd make those connections and make sales throughout Detroit. Everybody knows my Dad, it seems like. He's 73 and still running around and talking," Mr. Cason said.
Now living in Chicago, Mr. Cason, 38, has developed his own storytelling chops and is one of five people who will spin yarns at the Moth Mainstage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Byham Theater, Downtown. Each story will focus on the theme of balancing acts. Another out-of-town raconteur on the bill is Trisha Coburn, a 60-year-old short-story writer and interior designer who lives on New York City's Upper West Side.
Living in a major city such as Chicago often requires some fast juggling. For the past year, Mr. Cason has been one of several hosts of a monthly event called "Do Not Submit," an open forum for budding storytellers.
"I would see comedians have open mikes where they could practice and get their jokes down," said Mr. Cason, who started the forum with his Pittsburgh friend, Scott White.
"He produces a lot of shows here in Chicago. He also teaches storytelling," Mr. Cason said.
"Do Not Submit" is held on the last Monday of each month at Powell's Bookstore on Chicago's North Side. From 7:30 to 10 p.m., people relate eight-minute stories.
"There's a lot of people performing. You've got to have some place where you can go and submit. It's an open and democratic forum. Anybody can come. But it's storytelling, not poetry or stand-up," Mr. Cason said.
First-timers are often nervous but once someone laughs, "they get comfortable because it's their story," Mr. Cason said. Topics include weird life experiences, relationships and unusual situations. "It serves a purpose for people who want to grow and learn more and just get better at what they enjoy."
Mr. Cason lives north of Lincoln Park in Chicago, with his wife, Cindy, and their 4-year-old daughter, Zoe. This will be his first visit to Pittsburgh.
As a youth, he said, "I always read a lot. I used to write short stories. I would put them on my blog and people would read them. I would read my stories at coffee shops and story slams."
Some of his favorite short story writers are Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Elmore Leonard, who died Tuesday at age 87, and noir writer George V. Higgins.
"I do a podcast that's called Homemade Stories. That's on iTunes. I started it before I even knew about storytelling. I would read the short stories I wrote. I give a little commentary and play the music I like."
The Moth will feature three local storytellers: Justin Strong, 35, of Point Breeze, who founded the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty; Pittsburgh actor David Newell, 74, of O'Hara, who played Mr. McFeely on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"; and Kelly Flanagan Dee, who has produced the Pittsburgh Moth StorySLAM since 2011. That event is held on the second Tuesday of every month at the South Side's Rex Theatre.
Ms. Dee, 30, of Highland Park, said the job has taught her a lot about leadership and organization. She loves "watching the way that people connect to each other in a way that they might not otherwise."
The Moth Mainstage is a New York City-based nonprofit whose staff members are advocates for the art of storytelling. Staff members assist people in finding, shaping and presenting their stories in cities all across the U.S.
The Moth was launched in 1997 by George Dawes Green, a poet and novelist who held the first gathering in his New York City living room. A native of Georgia, Mr. Dawes sought to re-create the magic he enjoyed on hot summer evenings when he and his friend, Wanda, sat on her screened porch with a group of storytellers. Moths flew through a hole in the screen and headed toward the light. The group's members began calling themselves The Moths. "The Moth Radio Hour" debuted in 2009 and airs on more than 200 radio stations (including locally on WESA-FM 90.5 on Sundays, 6-7 p.m.).
Behind the scenes is Kate Tellers, senior producer of the Moth's corporate training program. She grew up in Mt. Lebanon and graduated in 2000 from Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied drama and anthropology.
Ms. Tellers serves as director of all the new stories from her Manhattan office in SoHo.
"Every person that takes the stage works with me to craft their story. ... We'll talk it through. I'll ask a lot of questions," she said, adding that sometimes a scene or some dialogue is eliminated to make the story flow more smoothly.
It's essential that the story feel "very impromptu and in the moment." To achieve that goal, storytellers learn "a map of the story so they are very present."
Previous Moth Mainstage events have been held at the 400-seat New Hazlett Theater on the North Side, a space that adds to the "campfire atmosphere" because audience members sit on three sides of the stage and on two levels. The 1,300-seat Byham is a more traditional venue with a proscenium arch, a large main floor and a steep balcony.
"Venues do help to aid the stories," Ms. Tellers said. "With high quality audio, the stories should simply stand on their own."
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.