When Julianna Zito woke up Tuesday morning, she felt it was a day to take on a challenge.
That evening, she told a story she had never told anyone but family before: about escaping a pedophile when she was 6 years old. And she told it to an audience of nearly 300 people. Ms. Zito was one of 10 storytellers selected to tell a true story at the Pittsburgh Moth StorySLAM at the Rex Theater on the South Side.
"The Moth gives people a voice that they wouldn't otherwise have," said Kelly Dee, producer of the Pittsburgh show.
The program, which came to Pittsburgh last October, was started in New York 15 years ago by poet and novelist George Dawes Green. Mr. Green hailed from Georgia, where he and friends used to sit on porches at night, telling stories. Moths used to slip in through the window screens and buzz around the porch light -- hence the program's name.
The Moth has gained national recognition through its weekly podcast. Slams take place each month in cities across the country, and each one has a theme. Those interested in telling a story can put their name in a bag at the start of the show. Storytellers' names are drawn randomly, and each can tell his or her on-theme story for up to 5 minutes. Each person is given a score out of 10 by three judging panels, composed of selected audience members.
Last Tuesday's theme was "Revenge," which inspired stories about getting back at high school bullies, abusive parents and ex-girlfriends. Storytellers varied from amateur stand-up comics to first-timers conquering stage fright.
"Storytelling is the oldest art form. It brings people together," said Ms. Dee. And the audience Tuesday night was diverse, including high school and college students, young professionals and recent retirees.
Since starting in Pittsburgh, the show has grown in popularity and in size: it began at the Club Cafe on the South Side, but Ms. Dee said after she turned away nearly 100 people, the show switched venues to the larger Rex. The turnout includes a few regulars these days -- storytellers who keep returning, and even more audience members, recent converts to the Moth fan club.
The host of the show, Alan Olifson, moved to Pittsburgh just a year ago from Los Angeles, where he said the tone of the shows is different.
"Fans here are really fans of storytelling," he said. "In L.A. you'd have 100 people and 99 would have put their names in to tell a story. Here you've got 200 people in the audience, and maybe 12 names in the hat. People here are fans -- with no ulterior motive."
Moirin Reynolds, one such fan, has no interest in getting on stage herself, but she's been coming to the slams since they first began in Pittsburgh. She said she loves the variety of stories. A few always make her laugh, and "there's usually one really moving story that kind of brings you to tears," she said.
Last week, one of those moving stories was Ms. Zito's of Wexford, who performed fifth and drew some of the loudest applause from the audience. She talked about how a neighbor's uncle lured her into his home as a child -- but she remembered her mother warning her about stranger danger, and she ran for help immediately. She got her "revenge": The man was jailed soon after.
During intermission, two police officers from Philadelphia approached Ms. Zito to thank her for telling her story.
"You helped someone in the audience tonight," said David Woodard, one of the officers. Mr. Woodard and his partner work sex crimes and said the story spoke to them personally.
Ms. Zito said the dialogue surrounding the Jerry Sandusky trial in Bellefonte made her want to share her story.
"There needs to be more conversation for the victims so that they feel brave enough to be public about it," she said.
The winner Tuesday night was a repeat storyteller, Todd Schaffer of Marshall, who also won the first time he ever went on stage. Mr. Schaffer told a story about a rude driver getting his comeuppance when his Audi was trashed thanks to his own aggressive driving.
The Moth story slams take place on the second Tuesday of each month; the next show is July 10 at the Rex, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side; doors open at 7 p.m., stories begin at 8 p.m. A schedule can be found at www.themoth.org. Tickets are available for $10 pre-sale, or $5 at the door. July's theme is "Chemistry."
Sanjena Sathian: email@example.com or 412-263-1408.