On the patio outside a South Avenue coffee shop, Marc Moss considered the first time he ever felt listened to. Not like a teacher listens, or even your mother, but truly heard by a silent and captivated audience.
“The first time I told a story on stage, I felt listened too for the first time in my life,” said Moss. “When I was on the stage and I told my first story, it was incredible. You can’t see the audience because the lights are so bright, but you can feel the audience, and you can feel the energy in the room.”
Moss, founder of Tell Us Something, has experienced both sides of the spotlight, both as a story teller and as a listener. Since taking over back in 2011, he also has turned the story-telling event into something of a business, one he admits is still evolving.
Tell Us Something emerged from an earlier version known as Missoula Moth. Moss was part of that as well, though he served more as teller than organizer. Held monthly, Missoula Moth followed no theme, set no timeline and didn’t vet the story tellers.
The result left something to be desired.
“The stories sometimes were fantastic and at other times, they were a drudgery to get through as a listener,” Moss said. “I took that experience after (the founder) left town. The Missoula Art Museum wanted the Missoula Moth. When they asked me, I knew I wanted to make it a sustainable, long-term project. I tightened it up to what you see today.”
The first modern iteration of Tell Us Something attracted an impressive crowd of 75 people to the art museum. But when Steve Garr, former owner of the Top Hat passed away, opportunity came knocking in the form of Garr’s children.
As Moss tells it, he promised to fill the lounge on its slowest night if only they’d open the doors. It was enough to convince the family to bring Tell Us Something into the Top Hat, a venue where it found its recipe for growth.
“We filled the bar and it was dead quiet the whole time – people were listening,” said Moss. “The event was free and I always wanted it to be affordable to people.”
Tell Us Something has since moved on to the renovated Wilma, and free admission has given way to ticket sales. While Moss worried the theater’s size would destroy the intimacy required for captivating story telling, it never did.
He credits that to a foundation of trust.
“Even though we don’t announce who the story tellers are ahead of time, people still show up,” he said. “They’re coming to listen to their community, not some famous person. They’re exposed to people who they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.”
Since its founding, Tell Us Something has netted hundreds of story tellers, and they’ve delivered their fables to thousands of listeners. Those who’ve taken the stage have ranged in age from 13 to 90. They are carpenters and accountants, lawyers, actors and writers.
Moss can’t pick a favorite story, and his answers are likely to change based upon his mood. He does, however, recall Melissa Bangs, who told a personal story of her postpartum depression. She later turned that story into a 90 minute dark comedy, “Playing Monopoly With God.”
It has toured the country.
“The business model is always evolving and I’m still not getting paid,” Moss said. “I get a stipend that pays my medical insurance. Hopefully that will change this year. I feel like we’ve grown to a point where that can start to change, even if I’m just getting minimum wage.”
This past year, Tell Us Something spread its wings, hosting two events in Helena. Moss plans to introduce the event to Butte this year, bringing the number of story-telling cities to three, the largest being Missoula.
But it remains a one-man show by and large, and ticket revenues and sponsorships are just enough to cover the cost of the program and Moss’s medical insurance. Finding good volunteers hasn’t been easy, he said, though the business remains in the black.
There’s even a little cash in the bank.
“I have to hang fliers, I have to do the workshop with the story tellers, and I have to produce the podcast as soon as I can,” Moss said. “In order for it to be successful, I have to do it.”
Tell Us Something is registered as an LLC with a fiscal sponsorship, meaning it has a nonprofit parent. That enables Tell Us Something to accept tax-deductible donations through the Missoula Community Foundation.
“For now, I can only think through next year,” Moss said. “I plan on doing it more often in Butte and Helena, but I don’t want to be on the road all the time. We’ve revamped the podcast so it’s an hour long. It used to be one story at a time, but now it’s four stories at a time. I’d like syndicate that through different public radio stations.”
Moss credits his wife for keeping him focused. When he quit his IT job with a holding company, she encouraged him to follow his dreams. That led him to where he is today.
“I want to be careful we don’t grow so fast that we don’t implode, or I don’t burn out,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without my wife. She has supported me the whole time. I want to give the gift of story telling to as many people as possible, and create this conversation between the teller and listener.”