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After a schism, storytelling group chooses its own adventure

Alicia Merchant and Laura-Louise Tobin, organizers of Raconteurs

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

'As an A-type person, I approached losing my virginity like any other goal I set for myself."

The young woman speaking begins to visibly relax, explaining how diverging from a strict Christian upbringing triggered a sudden resolve, at age 25, to have sex.

The crowd of twentysomethings pressed into College Street bar No One Writes to the Colonel has fallen rapt, captive to the woman on stage.

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They laugh sympathetically at her sincere recollection of smuggling an inebriated tax lawyer into her parents' suburban home, her raw sense of accomplishment at finally completing the act, of being "born again," in a different sort of way.

This theme of rebirth, interpreted variously by 10 storytellers sharing deeply personal, unscripted anecdotes, was particularly fitting for Wednesday night's event: the evening marked the official re-launch of storytelling group MothUP Toronto.

A former offshoot of the high-profile storytelling organization and associated podcast The Moth, the Toronto group has officially severed ties, newly branding themselves as the Raconteurs.

Started in New York by poet and novelist George Dawes Green in 1997, The Moth has held thousands of storytelling gatherings and featured stories from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Ethan Hawke and Salman Rushdie. They hold contracts with over 50 MothUP satellite groups in other cities.

Since 2010, MothUP Toronto has run monthly storytelling gatherings featuring experienced and novice tellers recalling true, and often highly intimate, events off-the-cuff.

Operating under what organizers Alicia Merchant and Laura-Louise Tobin describe as a restrictive contract with The Moth, they were prohibited from doing promotion, communicating with press or charging a cover fee.

Despite these restraints, the group acquired an instant following through Facebook and word of mouth. Every show has been at capacity, with crowds turned away at the door.

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"The biggest request we had is to sell tickets, so people don't have to wait in line for an hour," explains Ms. Tobin.

Ms. Merchant says The Moth never provided a clear explanation for the provisions.

"I think it was brand protection. They're a non-profit, so they wanted to make sure people weren't making money off it."

Though ultimately coming to resent the contract, the girls credit their former association with The Moth to early approval from peers, explaining the press ban lent MothUP an air of exclusivity.

"It became this special, secret thing you could only find out about it if you were in the know," Ms. Merchant says.

"But then we were growing exponentially at a pace we didn't want to stop," says Ms. Tobin. "It was getting harder and harder to stop people writing about us."

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Things began to sour when the Toronto Star printed an article quoting statements the girls had made on stage. Ms. Merchant says she received "a chastising message" from The Moth.

The women began to view their contract as a barrier to expanding audiences and forming partnerships with community groups.

Furthermore, the prohibition against charging cover meant the two often paid for recording equipment and printing out of pocket.

When Ms. Tobin wrote to notify The Moth of their leaving, she received from them, "a three-second-long e-mail. It was basically indifference."

They officially splintered in the fall, and have since launched a Raconteurs website and made plans to collaborate on a promotional event with the Canadian Opera Company this spring. Their long-term goal is to hold storytelling workshops in high schools.

"We've worked really hard for a year and a half – we kind of want… not glory… but recognition," Ms. Tobin says.

In spite of logistical changes such as the implementation of a cover charge, she pledges Raconteurs events will "function the same way in spirit" – that is, people will continue to gather to tell stories on a theme.

Regular attendee Mia Macdonald approves of the change.

"Getting the word out is great. The more people come out, the more storytellers will bring their A-game. This isn't just a rarefied group of like-minded people any more."

When asked if he thinks the entrance fee will deter people, third-time storyteller Etan Muskat concedes that it remains to be seen.

"Tonight was the first one that charged, and it was packed, so I think people are willing, if they're excited about the event, to put down a few bucks."

As stories of being reborn – as a poor person, an artist, a Canadian – wrapped up, audience members could be heard musing whether they had the nerve to tell their own story some day.

"Every person, in their reaction, is just as important to the story being told," says Ms. Tobin, searching for what it is that draws people month after month.

Ms. Merchant affirms simply, "There's something happening here."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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