This article written as a guest blogger for Triangle Artworks, is the first in a series called “ A Conversations With” highlighting members of the creative community in the Triangle who are thinking big, working hard and making a difference in our region.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Polish on a warm sunny day in June. The first thing he told me, in response to me asking “How ya’ doing” was that he had just quit his day job as a biology teacher to pursue his dream job of telling stories. His show, the uber successful The Monti, is officially his full time job and he couldn’t be more delighted, prepared and ready to take it on.
I learned about The Monti about a year ago and quickly realized I had to get to a show. I did and now I’m hooked. Being a fan of personal stories myself, the opportunity to share a burger and a few stories with Jeff was one I would not dare miss. We talked, we walked and we stopped for pie. The entire experience was delightful. It was meaty, sweet, fun, thoughtful and left me hungry for more, and that’s exactly why The Monti is so successful. Below is part of our very candid conversation.
When you started The Monti in 2008, was it a way to share your personal story?
Jeff: Well, when I started The Monti I felt it was very important to give others a voice and provide a space where interesting people can tell interesting stories. All that was needed is a microphone, a story and an audience to tell it to. Of course there were a few guidelines too; speakers can’t use notes, they have to stick to a time limit and theme, and their stories have to be true. But truth be told, I was looking for a form of myself. Yes, I do like hearing stories, but I needed to be heard. As a child I didn’t feel like I had that and the feeling inside of me was an intense need to be received and loved. The Monti gives me that. In the 3 years I have been doing this, I feel it is less about me now. Although The Monti comes from me, I really feel what I’m doing is more about the show, the storytellers themselves and filling a need in the community.
Some people say The Monti is the Jeff Polish show. How do you respond to that?
Jeff: It’s true, I do spend more time on stage now. When I first started The Monti, I would give a very short intro then turn it over to the storytellers. Now I’m on stage for 15 minutes. And it’s not because I’m hogging the microphone. I see my time on stage as a service to my storytellers. I’m warming up the audience and letting the storytellers, who are petrified, know that if you do this, this will happen. I always, always use profanity intentionally in my opening monologue because I want them to know that profanity is ok. I want to be a little blue, a little funny and get some audience action and then turn it over to the storytellers. It takes time. If you were to remove me from The Monti equation it would be a totally different event. And it’s not because I’m the star of the show, it’s because I’m helping to move things for the audience and for the storytellers. Now, I’m just the host.
What makes The Monti so special?
Jeff: I always felt that stories were so entertaining. Not only the stories told at the cinema but stories that are told from the person who lived it, in their voice, with their perspective. To me, storytelling in this form is most powerful when it’s true and the person who is telling the story is the main character. I can’t tell you how moving it is to hear a really personal story from the person who lived it. If told the right way an audience member could be crying in 120 seconds; it’s that powerful.
Is the response from the community what you expected? What is working and what is not working?
Jeff: When I first started The Monti a friend asked me what I envisioned as the ideal venue for The Monti. My answer to him was “The ideal venue for The Monti could be as small as a bar and as big as Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill.” I remember the look on his face and thinking, “Wow, he really doesn’t think I’ll get out of the coffee shop with this project!” Since inception, The Monti has been held in restaurants, clubs and ballrooms (never a coffee shop!) with tickets always selling out within minutes. With more than 200 paid attendees per show I can confidently say The Monti is working for the community. As for not working, I’d say finding storytellers is the most challenging aspect of producing the show.
How do you choose content and themes for The Monti?
Jeff: There is the actual and then there is the ideal. The ideal is I’m having a discussion with my advisory board and we’re running through possible themes and we imagine the types of stories we want and we go look for the people who have those stories. The actual is, I’m at home in my boxers, the Bachelorette is on TV and I’m tweeting about it and then my wife turns to me and says, “ huh…what about this idea?” And I’m like “that sounds great, thanks!” Then I start emailing people to see if they want to tell a story. Often material will come from my personal day-to-day life experiences. Funny situations with my children, family or by events I see around me. I was told once that I’m programmed to think that everything I experience makes me wonder if this is something I will talk about on stage. Stories are always happening.
What is the most unexpected outcome of delivering The Monti to the community?
Jeff: I couldn’t have imagined that I would have access to so many extraordinary people. I can justify knocking on anybody’s door and saying “I want your story!” For example, when I contacted Elizabeth Edwards, I said to her, “Hey, I run this event where I draw out great stories and highlight them for the community to consume and to be a part of. I’d like you to tell a story.” It took her not a second to say yes. Later when I asked her why she said yes so quickly she told me it was because storytelling is the most powerful way of communicating and it is the only way her children know some of their family members.
What experiences, in addition to drinking tequila, prepared you for being the host of The Monti?
Jeff: When I was a young child my parents divorced. I had little interaction with my father and my mother had trouble showing love toward her children. Because of this I was introverted, shy and extremely quiet. The way I coped with the silence was to tell myself stories as a way to process the events that happened in my life. However, I always changed one thing in every story. I always made myself the hero. It was in this way that I first learned how to express my feelings through storytelling. Later while in college I got to know my best friend through 10 hours of honest, funny conversation while we drank a bottle of tequila. This experience taught me how easily a story can affect others and how it can bring people together.
You can learn more about The Monti and Jeff Polish here.