MIDDLEBURY — Cody Gohl had his audience at “Hello.”
“There are three things that you need to know about my family,” the Middlebury College freshman drawled into a microphone in front of a packed house at one of the college’s informal social spaces last week.
“One, we are very large, both in a physically obese way and in an extended family sort of way,” Gohl said, hamming up the twangy accent. “Two, we are very Southern, and we won’t let you forget it. And three, every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, we’ve all gone to the family farm in Northern Louisiana to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus.
“If my story were to have a title, it would be called ‘The Day Aunt Jo Shot Three Trespassers.’”
The audience erupted into laughter, and with that, Gohl launched into a rollicking story that skewered both his own clichéd adolescent behavior and the quirks of a Southern family that seemed, to the then “angsty” 14-year-old Gohl, nothing short of unbearable.
It was late — 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night — and the student-run coffee shop was brimming with Gohl’s peers. The event that brought Gohl to the stage was the third in a new ongoing series called “The Middlebury Moth,” which brings live storytelling to a cozy social space in the basement of the Gifford Hall college dormitory.
The idea, inspired by the nationally broadcast “The Moth” radio hour, is simple: true stories told live on stage without notes. Last week, the theme of the evening’s story was “family,” and previous iterations of “The Middlebury Moth” have focused on travel stories or tales of fiascos.
At the height of his story, Gohl painted the picture for his audience: Aunt Jo, the 75-year-old, 4-foot-5 matriarch of the family sat at the head of the Christmas table, a spread of fried chicken and okra in front of the Gohl clan.
Suddenly, something caught her ear. She perked up, and then slowly rose from her seat. Aunt Jo split, disappearing through the dining room door. The family went on eating, until she reappeared abruptly, loaded pistol in hand.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to die,’” Gohl said. “Part of me is struck with terror, and the other part of me is thinking, ‘This is going to make a great chapter for my memoirs, ‘Tormented, colon, A Life.’”
Gohl’s wasn’t the only humorous tale of the night. Senior Jeff Garofano delighted the audience with a tender, but spirited, collection of anecdotes about his paternal grandfather — a man known for the contraptions he rigs up, like machines that deliver candy to trick-or-treaters every Halloween or a motion-sensor trap for frightening groundhogs out of his garden.
“He’s a humorous man without a sense of humor, which is hard to accomplish,” Garofano said, going on to tell a story about his grandfather’s system for eating pancakes and waffles to achieve the “greatest economy of syrup.”
Participants shared touching moments, too. College dean Scott Barnicle spoke about a turning point in his life, when he felt he had to choose between continuing a life of travel and adventure or settling down and starting a family.
Sophomore Maria del mar Rojas told the difficult story of tracking down her father, who had abandoned her mother while she was pregnant with his daughter. Establishing a relationship with a man who at first wanted nothing to do with her was emotionally wrenching, del mar Rojas said, but in the end turned out for the best for her and her father both.
In another story about fathers, Middlebury resident Bruce Baker took the stage to bring to life his formative years growing up in 1950s Ohio. He clashed with his father as a child, particularly after Baker took up dancing and began earning more money teaching dance lessons than his dad did.
“I ended up approaching my life as a pretty wounded soul, or so I thought,” Baker said. He went on to join a men’s group, scared by the possibility of becoming the man his father had been.
“I learned … that you can learn to change behaviors, change attitudes,” he said. “I had to thank my dad, because the father that I am is because of the father that he was.”
The two students behind The Middlebury Moth said that a mix of storytellers — town residents like Baker alongside students like Goh, Garofano and del mar Rojas — is an important part of the live event.
“We’re fans of The Moth (radio hour and live events),” said sophomore Bianca Giaever, “so that was definitely the inspiration. We thought it would be a great way to build community and get townspeople and professors and students together in a really engaging way.”
Giaever teamed up with Will Bellaimey, a senior at the college who will graduate next winter, to organize The Middlebury Moth. Right now, the event happens every other Thursday evening, with the final two Moth events of the year planned for April 29 and May 13, each at 10 p.m. (To contact Giaever or Bellaimey about participating in a future Moth event, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Neither Giaever nor Bellaimey have stood up to tell stories yet; for the time being interest in The Middlebury Moth is running so high that they haven’t had to fill any gaps in the lineup.
Huddling in the hall outside of the coffee shop last Thursday, they compared notes for the evening’s lineup: They wanted to start with a bang, and make sure the evening’s mix of funny and serious stories were evenly distributed. There’s an element of unpredictability, they agreed.
“Sometimes people go on stage and you don’t know what they’re going to do,” Bellaimey said.
But so far, they’ve been thrilled with the events, though Giaever confessed that although she’s not the one on stage that she finds herself nervous at every Moth reading. Both organizers were worried that subsequent storytelling nights wouldn’t live up to the success of the first Moth event — but they seem to be getting stronger and stronger.
The audience seems pleased, too.
“I think it’s great what Bianca and Will are doing,” freshman Chris Delacruz said. “Middlebury is a place of stories, and for them to be exposing that is a beautiful thing.”
Download podcasts from The Middlebury Moth by searching iTunes or by visiting http://themothmiddlebury.mypodcast.com. Head to www.addisonindependent.com for a collection of photos from the event and an excerpt from Cody Gohl’s story.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.