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WMU's Allison Downey hits Moth storytelling circuit

by Mark Schwerin

June 5, 2011 | WMU News

KALAMAZOO--A Western Michigan University education professor will put her longtime research interest in oral traditions and personal narrative storytelling to good use in two upcoming storytelling events later this month.

Photo of WMU professor Allison Downey.
Allison Downey
Allison Downey, associate professor of teaching, learning and educational studies, will spin yarns Wednesday, June 22, in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Thursday, June 23, in Ann Arbor, Mich., through a collaboration between Michigan Radio and The Moth, an acclaimed nonprofit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling that the Wall Street Journal hailed as, "New York's hottest and hippest literary ticket." The performances will be recorded for possible feature on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moth Radio Hour or its podcasts that boast more than a million downloads monthly.

The Grand Rapids show starts at 7:30 p.m. at The Royce Auditorium, St. Cecilia Music Center, 24 Ransom Ave. N.E., while the Ann Arbor event is being held as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival at 8 p.m. at The Power Center, 121 Fletcher St. Both events, including the one at the 1,300-seat Power Center, are nearly sold out. Tickets are available at

The Moth productions are being billed as "Crack Up: Stories of Comedies and Calamities" and will feature an all-star lineup of favorite storytellers and local gems, each with a 10-minute true, personal story told live without notes. They will include tales of humor in horror, comedies of error and the search for wit amidst the rubble of disaster. In the past month, Moth Mainstage storytellers have included Malcolm Gladwell, Ethan Hawke, Rosie O'Donnell, Al Sharpton, Ed Koch and other well-known writers, politicos and artists.

Downey is no stranger to the stage. Also a singer-songwriter who has released several critically acclaimed discs, Downey used to tour as a professional storyteller in Texas and wrote, performed and toured a one-woman show that was based in storytelling. She also led storytelling workshops for artists, senior citizens, teachers and performing songwriters.

Downey recently returned from her sabbatical year on the East Coast, primarily in New York City, where she has been researching what is behind the resurgence of personal storytelling as a popular genre and what makes a good storytelling performance. She has been busy interviewing people, documenting performances and analyzing them and then practicing those techniques at storytelling events as well as incorporating them in her own musical performances. The upcoming Moth shows, however, will be pure storytelling focused entirely on honesty and authenticity.

"You won't see heightened performance here," Downey says. "You'll find authentic human connection and true vulnerability. And that is what people are seeking, I have learned from my research."

The performances will be unscripted and told for the first time. Storytellers, however, will have worked hard to create an interesting and powerful structure and rhythm for the story.

This genre of unscripted storytelling is a departure from Downey's theater background that has trained her to bring text to life. Her story will revolve around a particularly calamitous year for her—1983—and how it forced her to grow up.

During the past year, Downey has performed at numerous Moth StorySLAMs and other notable storytelling events, including Liar Show, Standard Issues and the People's Improv Theatre in New York City. She also taught storytelling at a high school in the South Bronx as a collaboration between The Moth and Early Stages.

"I am so honored to now have my first Moth Mainstage experience here in Michigan as part of the Moth on the Road series," Downey says. "I love the Moth and believe in what they do—the power of story to foster connection and community—and am proud to be a part of these events."