He takes his smile off first. Usually, it’s Jeff Polish’s most noticeable feature. He wears it every time he appears on stage at The Monti, the live storytelling show he created three years ago. He is the host, the promoter, and with that comes a responsibility to make people feel good about the show and feel good about him, no matter what.
But on a night last fall, in the upstairs lounge at Greensboro’s Triad Stage, Polish tests them and tests himself and tests human behavior with one basic question — how real can he be?
He has 12 minutes. He has no notes. A wall of lights prevents him from seeing much of the crowd. And so he shimmies out of the smile he usually wears on his face and starts to talk.
As a boy, he tells the wall of lights, he was in an airport coming home from a family vacation in California when he dropped a ceramic Mickey Mouse piggy bank on the floor and shattered it. He ran to tell his mom, who was walking ahead of him. She grabbed his wrist and started screaming at him. She started hitting him. She said she hated him. A woman came up to her and told her to stop. Polish heard his mom tell the woman to mind her own business. Polish’s eyes went wide, and he stared at his mother, frightened. He didn’t understand. He’d lost control, and he didn’t know how to make it stop. And then, just before it finally came to an end, she made one memorable remark.
“She said, ‘You’re worthless,’” Polish says, swallowing, choking down the spirit he usually wears on his voice.
He clears his throat and continues to talk to the lights. Twenty-five years later, he says, he went to the park with his 20-month-old son, Jackson. As always, Jackson took his favorite two toys — a lion and an elephant — with them. The lion and the elephant watched him on the swings. But that day, when they got home, Jackson started crying for his mommy. Polish told Jackson that mommy was at work and that she’d be home later. Jackson didn’t like the answer. He dropped to the floor and started wailing. Polish had lost control, and he didn’t know how to make it stop. So he yelled, fiercely, “Enough. Enough!” Jackson quit, immediately. Polish felt empowered, having regained control of the communication between father and son. And then he looked closer, at the unspoken words. Jackson’s eyes were wide, and he stared at his father, frightened. Jackson didn’t understand. Polish saw himself in his son. He vowed never to yell at any of his children like that again.
Polish starts to cry into the lights. The glimmer he usually wears on his eyes has come off. The storyteller is naked. And the audience loves him for it.
The speaker and the audience
Telling a story in front of a live audience produces an interesting struggle for power. At word one, every time, the audience is in control, eyes boring into the speaker, examining his wardrobe, hairstyle, eyes, and overall approach. The only way for a storyteller to wrestle into control is through the strength of words.
It is a natural instinct, in all humans, to try to gain acceptance in a particular setting. In an environment like The Monti — where people have only 12 minutes to win a crowd — strange things can sometimes happen. The most humble people may embellish their tales to impress. The most engaging people may become subdued. Typically, though, honesty shines through, and sincerity wins power.
“The storyteller gets a cathartic experience,” Polish says. “And the audience, they’re learning something about someone else that helps them actually see themselves a little better.”
Polish’s first audience was himself. He lived in three different cities growing up, and his parents divorced when he was 4. When he felt most confused, he started cataloging his week in his head. Then, in his room, he’d create a narrative of the week — noting the conflicts and the climaxes, the beginnings and the ends.
He went to college in St. Louis, Missouri, at Washington University, where he set out to become a doctor. At night, in his room, his friends came over, and he told stories, about his days and about his past. He learned to become funny, without being a comedian. The more he opened up, the more his friends listened.
“I was trying to figure out my world, and people loved my stories,” Polish says. “I was looking to have my experiences validated. I was able to gain acceptance. When someone becomes vulnerable to other people, it automatically resonates.”
After he finished his undergraduate studies, Polish wasn’t accepted to Washington University’s medical school. But after three years of lab work, the university did take him in its doctoral program in genetics. He spent the next eight and a half years in school.
“My mom said, ‘Well, you do go to the Washington University School of Medicine,’” Polish says. “And I just said, ‘Yes, you just tell all your friends whatever you need to tell them.’”
Polish used his doctorate to start teaching science at a private school in Missouri. Then, in 2007, he and his wife, Allison, decided to move to her home state of North Carolina, where they would raise a family. So they moved to Chapel Hill. Allison went to work immediately, and it took Jeff about a year before he found a teaching position at Cary Academy. In the interim, he was a stay-at-home dad. He and his son, Jackson, spent all day together, every day.
Starting a show
Early in 2008, Polish visited New York City with a friend and put his name on the list to tell a story at The Moth, a growing storytelling organization in the city. Polish’s name wasn’t selected that night, but he was so impressed with the show, he decided to try to start something similar in North Carolina.
He called it The Monti, naming it after an old college friend who often stayed up late to swap stories when they were in school together.
Since the first show in April 2008, Polish has brought nearly 300 storytellers to small stages in Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Greensboro. Each show starts the same, with Polish explaining the rules: The stories must be personal and true. They must be finished in less than 12 minutes. The storytellers can’t use notes. And they have to stick to a predetermined theme for the evening. Each Monti show contains five speakers. They’ve been authors and television personalities, philanthropists and teachers, politicians and prisoners. In May 2010, Polish even convinced Elizabeth Edwards to share a story, seven months before her death.
Polish meets with all of the storytellers beforehand. But he doesn’t pay anyone, and he doesn’t help them on the night of the show.
“That’s the unknown of The Monti,” Polish says. “You don’t have to be great when you’re practicing with me; you just have to be great when you’re on that stage.”
A prisoner’s tale
Greg Taylor might be Polish’s prized storytelling pupil.
For 17 years, Taylor was in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. For 17 years, he hardly talked to anyone but himself, avoiding prisoners and guards because he figured he didn’t want to know either. His daughter grew up. The world changed. And he sat still.
Then, in February 2010, an innocence panel of judges overturned his conviction, setting Taylor free. As he tried to adjust back into society, Taylor did dozens of interviews with reporters. But when Polish contacted Taylor six months after he was exonerated, the host of The Monti wanted Taylor to tell his story on his own, away from the question-and-answer format.
For weeks, Polish worked with Taylor, trying to sort out a narrow, focused story. During the course of their conversations, Taylor told Polish that he remembered one day driving through his old neighborhood and sitting at a stoplight as he looked around at how much had changed. The stoplight, Polish knew immediately, would provide the frame for Taylor’s story.
On a night this past September, The Monti’s theme was “Turning Points.” Taylor stepped on stage at the ArtsCenter in Durham, put his hands in front of himself, and started. “It was June of this year, and I was sitting at a stoplight in the neighborhood where I grew up,” Taylor told the wall of lights. “As I sat at that stoplight, I looked around at how much had changed. … And I was scared.”
Taylor then went on to tell the story about how, nearly 20 years earlier, he’d pulled his truck down the wrong road and got stuck in a ditch near where a woman had been killed. He was found guilty, and stayed stuck, until he was freed. He talked about how much had changed as he fought for 6,149 days to prove his innocence.
“It’s like I was sitting at this stoplight for 17 years while the world went on around me,” Taylor said near the end of his story. “And I was waiting for the light to turn green. It’s scary. But I’ve been scared before. … I’m scared now. But I can handle it, especially if it means not having to miss another day of my life with my daughter and my loved ones.”
The audience responded with a standing ovation. But the experience of telling the story gave Taylor much more. It marked his return to society, to a place with people he could talk to.
“I wasn’t sure how entertaining listening to some guy who’d been in prison for 17 years would be,” Taylor says now. “To hear people have a bond with a story and react emotionally and applaud and cheer like they did, it was my reward. I owe all of that to Jeff.”
Always on stage
By day, Polish’s audience is a group of teenagers. He teaches science at Cary Academy, a private school in Cary. He uses his same stage presence — one that’s both confident and self-deprecatingly funny — in the front of a classroom.
He loves teaching, he says, in the same way he loves The Monti. One night, he’ll stay up working on lesson plans. The next, he’ll stay up working on ideas for promoting the show. He’s developed CDs and T-shirts. The Monti gains popularity with each storyteller. A February show in Durham sold out in four minutes.
“I’m always amazed at how lucky I am, even though everything I do is calculated,” Polish says.
Some nights in his home, he turns his living room into a stage and holds something he calls Monti Jr., in which he sets up a microphone so he and his wife can listen to their three children tell stories. He records them, wanting to have them to look back on later.
“I’m going to splice all of these performances together. Just think: What are they going to be talking about at 14 years old?” Polish says. “The child’s expression is a gauge to how you’re doing as a father. I want to know my progress.”
Polish still maintains a relationship with his mother, who lives in Hawaii.
In fact, she flew across the country to visit in late March and attended The Monti for the first time. It was at the “StorySlam” version of the show, where anyone can speak and the event is judged. Before Polish took the stage, his mom told him, “Now, in all my years as a parent, I’ve never heard any of my kids swear.”
Polish spent most of the speech telling stories about his mother, both funny and serious. But, he says, it was all true. And during the show, he used a few curse words, but they were all direct quotes from her.
“It was my way of saying, I’m not going to change what I do just because my mom’s in the audience,” Polish says. “I will not be silenced. … It’s therapy.”
Whether the stories are light or heavy, whether he’s working with schoolchildren or adults, Polish spends a good portion of his life trying to help people find their voices. But he also tells one of his own stories at every show, and with each one, he gives his audience a wider window into his life and who he is. He created The Monti to give others a place to talk. It’s become a place where he’s unwrapping his own life, one 12-minute segment at a time.
A few months after he vowed never to yell at Jackson again, Polish and his wife took their son to his first day of day care. It was, as it is for most parents, a more painful day for Jeff than for Jackson. When they pulled up in front of the day care center, Jeff told Jackson that he loved him. Jackson looked back and smiled.
“He had no idea that he would soon forget the time that we had together over the last year,” Polish says, staring into the lights. “And so I unbuckled him from the car seat and lifted him out and placed him on the sidewalk. And together we stared at the entrance to his new day care, standing side by side, just like the lion and the elephant.”
Just then, the storyteller steps forward. Beyond the wall of lights, he sees the people in the audience. They’re applauding, covering him with approval.
The Rules of The Monti
Each showing of The Monti has five storytellers, all invited in advance by Polish. Since 2008, such people as author Jill McCorkle, restaurateur Dennis Quaintance, NPR radio host Frank Stasio, television anchor Sandra Hughes, screenwriter Angus MacLachlan, and activist Elizabeth Edwards have told stories at The Monti. They’ve all had to follow the format of the show, which includes four basic rules:
- The stories must be true.
- The stories are told without using notes.
- The stories must adhere to a 12-minute time limit.
- The stories must revolve around a predetermined theme for the evening.
For more information on The Monti, including upcoming shows and selected audio, visit themonti.org.
Michael Graff is the associate editor of Our State magazine.