Peter Aguero: Storyteller and Educator who Believes that Everyone has a Story to Tell

“I think a lot of times performers, and storytellers in particular, make the mistake of trying to manipulate their audience’s emotions or reactions. But I think when you tell the story, you tell the truth as much as you can, and it’s up to them what they take away from it.” Peter Aguerro

Peter Aguero was born and raised in the wilds of South Jersey.

He is a Moth Grandslam Champion, host of Moth Storylams and an instructor for the Mothshop Community Program.

He is also the lead singer of The BTK Band, NYC's Hardest-Drinking Improvised Storytelling Rock Band. Peter also loves his Mom.

Emy diGrappa (00:00):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences and use stories to explore culture, history, and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkwhy.org.

Peter Aguerro (00:15):

Now as human beings, like sociologically, we think that if we have the floor and it's our turn to talk, we better thrill everybody or else we don't deserve to speak. Some of the best stories are really simple moments.

Emy diGrappa (00:30):

Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa. This is What's Your Why? Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question, why? We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for it's incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities. Serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why?

Today we are talking to Peter Aguerro. Peter believes everyone can tell a story and he is an educator and storyteller himself. Welcome, Peter.

Peter Aguerro (01:20):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (01:20):

Tell me how you got started in storytelling?

Peter Aguerro (01:23):

I suppose I've been tellin' stories my whole life. Like, just about everybody. I have a background in performance. I uh, have done a lot of different things. Uh, started out about 20 years ago doing sketch comedy and plays in college and then in the early 2000's, I was doing uh, improv and I did a little bit of stand up for about six months. I didn't like it, so I stopped doing that.

                 Then, I was doing a lot of stage acting. I studied at a studio in New York that was really great. Film acting, all that other stuff and then about 10 years ago, I went to my first Moth show. Throughout all that time, I'd always been telling stories in one way or the other in the different ways I was performing and it- it just seemed like a perfect match. You know, it's a group that's dedicated their art and craft to storytelling.

                 So, I started going to the slams and they were open mic shows where you could go an uh, put your name in a hat and tell a story on a theme. And I got hooked. And I went to every show in New York for about a year and a half, twice a month. Trying to tell stories, but also listening to stories. Every night you'd listen to 10 stories if you didn't get picked and it just kinda grabbed something within me that was missing in the other art forms I was working in. The- the thing I think that grabbed me the most was the was no artifice between what was being presented a-and the audience. There was no character. You're not speakin' someone else's words. It's directly from you to a listener and that's so rare.

                 So, um, that was the thing that grabbed me at first. And um, I've been doing a lot of that for about the last 10 years in the US and in Europe. Through Canada. It's been a really great experience.

Emy diGrappa (03:00):

The Moth is really well known.

Peter Aguerro (03:00):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Emy diGrappa (03:02):

But, if you were gonna give it a definition to explain what the Moth is, tell me what that is.

Peter Aguerro (03:08):

Yeah, it's a non-profit that was started in uh, 1997 by a guy named George Dawes Green who's uh, an author. Did a lot of his growing up in Georgia and on St. Simons Island, there were a bunch of folks that would tell stories on a porch like you do in the south a lot. The screen had a hole in it and uh, moths would come in and gather around the lights, so they would call each other The Moths. So, when George came to New York after writing some of his books, he noticed the people in New York weren't uh, listening to anybody. They were just waiting for their- their turn to talk.

                 So, he was trying to recreate that feeling that he had on his friend, Wanda's porch in- in Georgia. And um, the show started in his living room. Uh, it got more popular. Had to move to, you know, the back of a bar. Got more popular and ended up in theaters and then on the road and- and so on and so on. It's really just... It's a great organization that really believes that everyone has a story to tell and there's uh, education elements and uh, curated elements and open mic elements. And uh, it's- it's really accessible. Uh, that's one of the things I really like about it. It's very accessible to almost anyone who is- is looking for it. They- they can find it and find a way to be- be included and have their voice added to uh, the collection of the- of stories of The Moth has been able to have.

                 Now, at this point, I mean, The Moth does shows all over the world and it's been an amazing thing to see. Uh, an organization just- just blow up like that. It's really great.

Emy diGrappa (04:32):

So, you're a consistent host on The Moth?

Peter Aguerro (04:35):

Yeah, I- I host uh, one of the slams once a month in Brooklyn and I host on the road. That's how I got here to Jackson two years ago, I guess it was. Uh, I hosted a main stage show here at the Arts Center, so I- I do shows like that around the country and I'm one of the regular hosts in New York, yes.

Emy diGrappa (04:52):

How do you help people tell their story?

Peter Aguerro (04:55):

I really believe that it... The best stories are simple. They don't have to be impressive. Uh, you know, as human beings, like, sociologically, we think that if we have the floor and it's our turn to talk, we better thrill everybody or else we don't deserve to speak. Um, some of the best stories are about really simple moments. About a choice you made or- or a choice you didn't make. About a mistake you made or a small triumph. Like, it's not really about the crazy things that happen to us.

                 You know, the people that have had crazy things happen to them, they're the ones that mostly believe they have stories to tell. They just have an anecdote about a thing that happened. But, everybody has a story about love, about fear, about loss, about joy, about triumph, about disaster. And that's what stories are really about. They're not about the thing that happened. They're about emotions that we feel. And as human beings, we all feel emotions. We all know what it's like to be afraid and we all know what it's like to win and we all know what's it like to be angry.

                 So, of course some people have more of a knack then their natural born storytellers, you know? They're- they're not as nervous being in- in front a group of people. But I think everybody has that ability within them if they can turn off the little editor in their head that tells that what they have to say doesn't matter. And once you realize that it does, even if it only matters to you, then the story has value.

Emy diGrappa (06:14):

I was thinking about that because when I was reading your biography, just coming from a tough family life and maybe storytelling was your outlet of expression.

Peter Aguerro (06:25):

I didn't really come across storytelling until later, but growing up wasn't, you know, the most loving family and, you know, there was no Ozzie and Harriet with it, you know? And I know what I did to survive when I was a kid was to kinda isolate and get away and try to do that. Which, this is kinda different. It's the opposite. Like, going and telling stories is instead of isolating yourself, you're trying to share your vulnerability. You're trying to show uh, the parts of you that you don't show anyone else.

                 So, when I kinda realized as- as time went on, was I could kinda tell these stories and in a way, give voice to the younger version of myself that nobody was listening to. So, I realized, you know, if I'm- if I'm talking about something that happened when I was 15 years old and I was really unhappy with the way that that turned out, nobody was listening to that 15 year old kid about how unhappy he was. There was too much going on. So, you know, I have given myself the opportunity to let that 15 year old kid be heard. And I've found that there's really no statute of limitations on- on uh, giving yourself that- that permission. You can kinda, you know, take a-a thing that happened to you a long time ago that you don't think really affected you, and once you start talking about it, you realize it did and then you can get it out and then it's not inside kinda curdling away anymore. It- it's- it's out then. And um, that's been uh, one of the biggest benefits I've found from telling stories is- is- is it- it definitely gives voice to- to past versions of myself that didn't have that opportunity. So, that kid gets his- gets his thing to say now.

Emy diGrappa (08:05):

Do you think that, as a storyteller, you need to be more of an extrovert instead of an introvert?

Peter Aguerro (08:13):

I don't think you need to. You're- you're just gonna tell stories in a different way, you know? Um, I know many extroverts that- that- that are storytellers. Um, I know many introverts that are too, and- and it's just a matter of realizing that you... It's not really even about you. The story exists. The- the story... The thing that happened and the choice you made exists almost separately from you, so your job is to be a vessel for that story and just relay the story as best you can.

                 So, whether or not you're comfortable doing it, it- it... Whether or not you're comfortable in front of people... Speaking in front of people is legitimately a- a terrifying thing. To most people, it's unnatural. It's not- it's not uh, the sort of thing that we're brought up to do and it's easy, you know? Um, so if you just remember that your- your only job is to relay the story, then- then you can get past all that other stuff. I don't think it's easy to... You can't say that an introvert or extrovert or a male or a female or anyone in one way or the other is better suited to tell stories. I think it's a really democratic thing in that anybody and everybody has these experiences. And anybody and everybody has, should have, can have, an opportunity to- to let your voice be heard.

Emy diGrappa (09:34):

When you're working with people, like in a workshop...

Peter Aguerro (09:37):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Emy diGrappa (09:38):

Or that kind of setting, how do you get people to open up and break out of their shell or get up and say something that might be really uncomfortable? Do you have a technique?

Peter Aguerro (09:51):

Some um.... You know, ultimately it's- it's up to the individual to how... To be... How comfortable that they deem themselves to be in... With what they want to talk about. A lot of times, people might enter in a workshop thinking that they want to work on something that was really, really difficult for them to go through. A sickness or a family issue or, you know, some kind of trauma and they're not ready to talk about it yet. So, it usually becomes pretty evident when people don't wanna really talk about it because they stay right on the surface. And if you ask a couple questions to try to figure out what's underneath the surface and they're reticent to do that, I stop pushing. It- it's not up to... You shouldn't talk about- about pain until you've processed it, you know? You shouldn't- you shouldn't talk about trauma til you're on the other side of it.

                 So, you know, I'm- I'm 41. Well, I will be in two days. (laughs) And I'm like, I... the stories that I do now usually, if I'm developing something new, if it's not from when I was a kid, it would be stuff from five or six years ago. L-like, I'm not ready to tell stories about stuff that happened to me last week or two years ago even because it's- it's not... I don't have the perspective yet. And that's why a lot of times, you know, working with younger kids um, teenagers even, they don't have that perspective of what that event meant to them. So, like it's hard for a teenager to be able to tell a story.

                 So, even with an adult, sometimes the thing happens to you when you were a teenager and end up with some piece of arrested development inside of you uh, and that piece isn't ready to be on the other side of it to talk about it. Um, with that being said, there are ways to- to, you know, get outta your own way. Um, and I have... There's exercises that do that and um, you know... I mean, one thing I do uh, I would say, especially if someone's nervous about talking in front of a group of people, you just pick out one person and you tell them the story. And just connect with that one person and then that one person becomes kind of an avatar for the rest of the audience.

                 As human beings, what we really, really want more than anything else is connection. So, that's a way to make a connection when you're... With an individual standing in for a room full of people when you're afraid of trying to make your connection with a room full of people. I don't know if that answers your question, but...

Emy diGrappa (12:05):

No, that- that's really helpful. I think I want to be a good storyteller, but at the same time, as you were talking, I'm thinking, I love listening to your story. And I almost would rather listen to people's stories, which is why I do this. But... (laughs) Because that is such an interest of mine. More than me standing up and telling my story.

Peter Aguerro (12:28):

And that's okay.

Emy diGrappa (12:29):

Which would be terrifying, actually.

Peter Aguerro (12:30):

I know, it is. And you know what? I'm gonna let you in on something. Okay, first of all, it's okay to be afraid of it. It's uh, it's... I'm afraid all the time and I do it anyway, you know? Um, it's- it's not easy, so, you know, that's the fear, you know, it never really goes away. That's all part of it. So, it's how much fear are you willing to deal with, you know? I figure you're gonna be afraid whether you do it or not, so you might as well do it, right?

                 Uh, but then on top of that, you said, um, you know, I wanna be a good storyteller. Um, don't worry about being good or bad, 'cause again, it's not about you. It's- it's- it's about the story already exists, so all your job is, is to relay the story as honestly as you can. Your job isn't even necessarily to entertain people. Your job isn't even necessarily to make them hear somethin' they've never heard before. Your job is to simply relay that story as honestly as possible. The- the greatest thing with storytelling, I think, is that we're really dealing with emotions and honesty and truth. And so- so that's your job is to be an honest storyteller. Not a good storyteller. So, you know, anybody can be a good storyteller. I-it's about being as honest as you can be.

Emy diGrappa (13:43):

Do you need to be a good listener?

Peter Aguerro (13:44):

Yeah. Oh, yeah. Uh, fully half of storytelling is listening. Just like anything else. And when I was doing improv, that... They taught us all about how listening was the most important thing and that was something that my acting teacher, you know, hammered into us too about listening. When you're not telling, you have to listen to other stories. That... The... That's all part of it, you know?

                 And also, kinda in a way, listening to yourself. Where you goin' with this? What- what am I saying? Don't get disconnected from the words. Stay direct with yourself. Stay direct in- in your words. So, the listening is uh, absolutely vital part of being a storyteller.

Emy diGrappa (14:20):

It's so great to talk to you.

Peter Aguerro (14:20):

(laughs)

Emy diGrappa (14:22):

I love it. Thank you so much for being here, Peter.

Peter Aguerro (14:25):

It's my pleasure.

Emy diGrappa (14:29):

Thank you for listening. I'm Emy diGrappa. This Think Why podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at thinkwhy.org.