Nate Chappell likes to play dead.
It’s been a running prank he’s pulled on his wife Vivian time and time again. How funny it actually is, at least for her, is probably up for some debate. Still, he persists. Sometimes tugging on the heartstrings of a loved one is the best way to know where you stand!
Except one time it was almost true.
“I almost choked to death on a piece of birthday cake,” says Chappell, a Madison-based video producer and editor. “It was my own birthday cake from a couple weeks earlier and it had kind of gotten stale. A piece kind of broke off and I started choking. And I did the Heimlich on myself.”
This was a dire situation. And why was he eating cake from weeks earlier? Whatever the case with that aspect of it was, Chappell was able to successfully administer the Heimlich on himself using the back of a chair.
“I just sat back down and continued watching Veronica Mars,” he said. “Didn’t tell anyone. I think I might have told my wife like later that day. She was terrified because of this game that I play where I pretend that I’m dead and she discovers me.”
When they lived out in Portland, Chappell used to love participating in open storytelling. When he moved to Madison he wanted to explore ways to show off his wit and charisma on the open mic. He didn’t know it at the time but fate had put him on a collision course with the Moth StorySlam, the local version of the popular New York storytelling institution.
“Well, I listened to The Moth podcast for a while and I like storytelling,” Chappell says. “We moved back here (to Madison) and I heard they were doing the Moth StorySlam and I decided to put my name in the hat. It is random. We had 14 or 15 people put their names in the hat and they picked 10.”
Chappell told the story of choking on the old, stale cake and the cake accident that almost killed him made him the winner of that night’s competition. Now he will be one of 10 champions to participate in the Moth GrandSlam on October 27 at the Barrymore in Madison.
The Moth Storyslams happen about once a month at the High Noon Saloon in Madison. Each Storyslam features a theme. Things like beauty, not fitting in or school have been themes of Storyslams. Anyone interested in being a storyteller for has to put their name in a hat and then ten story tellers are chosen at random. Stories are scored by judges, also randomly selected from the audience.
“We’ve been doing regular slams for about a year and a half since February 2015,” says organizer Alexandria Delcourt. “We suggest five minutes for the stories per contestant. If they go above six minutes they can be marked down. Every slam has a different theme. Sometimes people get up and rant or tell a bunch of jokes but we like people to tell actual stories with a beginning, middle and an end!”
An open mic forum in the political climate of 2017? Sounds like a thing that can go off the rails quickly, doesn’t it? But Alexandria Delcourt says that’s not generally the case.
“One of the recent additions to the rules is to make sure stories are not disrespectful or racist or hateful,” Delcourt says. “We haven’t had that happen here in Madison but it has happened at other Slams around the country. We have had a couple of times here in Madison where we’ve had moments of people being inappropriate.”
But, Delcourt said, most of the storytellers around Madison have been tame, though tales do exist of storytellers in other places being ushered off the stage.
Still, each show has its own energy and vibe. Esteban Touma, who has participated in several roles — a winning storyteller, a host and a judge — says that each Storyslam is its own ride.
“Every Moth show is a rollercoaster of emotions,” Touma says. “Some stories are hilarious, others are sweet, others heartbreaking. As a host, you need to balance the audience’s energy to make sure the show goes smoothly. Overall the entirety of the show is based on a sense of community and empathy. If the host and the crowd are able to connect on a human level with the storyteller, the shows are amazing.”
On October 27, 10 Storyslam winners will compete in a Grandslam storytelling challenge. The theme will be “Fish out of Water.” The contestants, despite being former champions of their craft, won’t really be able to rely on their past Storyslam experiences to help carry them through the Grandslam.
That’s because the Grandslam will be held on a big stage in front of a lot more people than usual. They’ll be competing against other charismatic, funny, charming individuals. They’ll be telling their tales in front of experienced judges who this time aren’t picked at random.
“While the Story slam is open to everyone, only winners of it are invited to tell a story in the Grand slam,” Touma says. “This means the event will feature story tellers who are a little bit more familiarized with the format and are able to weave a stronger story. They’ve also had a longer time to prepare.”
The Barrymore Theater has tickets available for $26 on their website or on websites that sell Barrymore Theater tickets. Delcourt says she expects close to 800 people to attend as opposed to the 150-200 average at the High Noon Saloon.
The next Story Slam in Madison takes place tonight, Monday, September 11, at the High Noon Saloon. Tickets are $10 and the doors open at 6:30pm.