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Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: May 02, 2019

The MOTHerview with Storyteller Frank Almond

by Jessica Cepeda

Frank Sq

How did you know this was The Moth story you had to tell?

I first considered telling it as a Moth story when Meg [Bowles, the Moth’s Senior Director] sent me an email probably in 2015. And then, it took a long time for it all to come together.  In 2014, there was this Vanity Fair article and that got a lot of attention. It was big, and it was the most comprehensive. “This would work really well,” you know. I remember it took us a long time wanting to schedule or even get a concept of how to put it together. But, after three years, we got something together.

Initially, were you at all reluctant to tell the story on stage?

It was something I was interested in, but I had no idea how it was going to work. Because what we [musicians] do is something really, really different. It’s really different than getting up and talking. I’d had some experience doing things like that, but nothing like telling a story where there’s an arc and trying to make sense. It was also a challenge because the story itself was so multifaceted. They wanted kind of the backstory. How did this thing wind up in a place like Milwaukee? And then to distill that down to a really cogent story… I think the first version I told Meg, she stopped me after like 25 minutes. We just had to edit, edit, edit.

Thinking back to the original 25-minute version of your story, can you remember any of the more difficult cuts you had to make?

There are so many bizarre things that happened. There are parts of that story that, to this day, people don’t even know. There was one episode where they wanted to do a lineup, and it was a little bit of a time crunch because they were holding some people and they had to get the lineup done. But, I didn’t know anything about that, I just got a call from a detective, and I was on my way to teach in Chicago. He was like, “can you meet us, I can’t exactly tell you why, but it’s very time sensitive. We’re gonna drive south now and if you want to drive north, I’ll call you in about half an hour.” So, I ended up meeting these detectives in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel in the middle of nowhere. It was this total Coen Brothers scene. So, I’m in the back seat, and he’s going through this official thing, showing me pictures. There was stuff like that, a ton of those. Like the guy leaving his driver’s license in the suitcase. Really? There were a lot of things like that, unfortunately none of those episodes actually made it into the film either.

The story of the stolen Stradivarius that you told for The Moth is the subject of a new documentary, Plucked. When you consider the process of crafting the story for the Mainstage, as opposed to the story you then told in the documentary, how would you compare those processes?

First of all, it’s not my film. It’s really the director’s film. So, they’re telling their version of the story, and they’re telling only the story as it relates to the robbery and the people involved, through a very specific viewpoint. There are really two sides: there’s the guys that did it, and then the law enforcement and my side of it. So, that’s already just one chapter. Plus, it’s 80 to 85 minutes, and it’s visual, so it’s really just kind of apples and oranges. There were hours and hours of interviews with the filmmakers, and they got to everybody they could. I don’t know how they did it, but they pretty much got to everybody who had anything to do with that whole saga.

Turning back, now, to telling the story with The Moth. You had a chance to tell your story at two Mainstage performances, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. How were those experiences for you?

One thing that I really liked actually was the vibe of the organization itself and working with Meg. They just sort of hold your hand through something that’s very foreign to most people. And, I think the most interesting thing for me was that that sort of performance is completely different than what I do for a living. So, over the years and decades you develop your routine as a musician and all that goes out the window with [The Moth’s] schedule and the way that they do it. For us [the storytellers] to sort of sit in the front row, for example, and be called up. That’s really different from being backstage and being called up and sort of getting your head together and walking out and playing. So, you’re sitting there and listening, and I found that really odd. I understand why they do it, but it doesn’t make it easier.

I enjoyed the New Hampshire show a lot because it was a smaller venue; it had a kind of homey feeling to it. It was a beautiful little town, everybody was nice, everything was organized. That makes a difference. The less chaos, the better. I really felt like everybody had it together. In the end, I felt like [the story] was solid enough, and I was happy that it came off. And, that’s about as far as I went with it and I went back to playing violin.

And then, Meg got in touch with me again and the idea of doing one at Tully was really different and special for me because I lived there for 15, 16 years. That’s where I went to school. So, it was really odd to get back out there on the stage that I graduated on. I felt like in that show, the story just sort of ripened a little bit. It was a different time than the one in New Hampshire; we had worked it a little bit differently and figured out, I think, a better structure. But again, you know, it’s live and you never know. One thing I realized at both of those places is it’s a great audience. You feel like everybody’s out there just on the edge of their seats. The other storytellers are great and everybody’s nice, and it was organized. It was different because New York was sort of my second home town. It had a little bit of a different feel.

Is there something that you’re most looking forward to about sharing this story with a broader audience?

First of all, I just want it to be a good movie and truthful, factually accurate, which was very hard with this. Over the years since 2014, a lot of things got twisted and a lot of press got it wrong. I think the filmmakers did a really good job of trying to be factual. But, the way that they tell this story also doesn’t necessarily balance both sides, depending on one’s perspective. For some people, that’s going to make them very uncomfortable. For other people, it starts a really different kind of conversation. Milwaukee is historically an incredibly divided, segregated city. It’s a little bit like Baltimore. It was a fairly violent period at that time, in 2014. It’s calmed down a little bit, but still way too many shootings and violence, especially in some neighborhoods the film specifically focuses on. A lot of tension that way. I was happy that this case never turned into that kind of thing. It never took on, to me anywhere, any sort of racial overtones. But, I think if you’re going to tell the whole story against a broader canvas, you have to kind of look at that. How does this happen? These two guys are gonna steal that violin, really? I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. Until you sort of flip it over and you see how people’s lives develop. I think the film tells that really well.

But, the main thing for me was that it be a good film that was factually accurate. And that it wasn’t just a crime movie, and it’s not. It’s a lot about people and how it affected the three of our lives, in my case my family as well, but also how it is a fascinating law enforcement case as well. They’d never seen anything like it. It still is the only armed robbery of a targeted “high-end” instrument on record.

Can we hope for another Moth story from you one day?

Sure, if you can think of one. It’s a tough one to beat. We’ve thought about doing the same story again, but it was always scheduling. I would love to do one again, totally!


A note from Meg Bowles: Actually Sarah Haberman’s [The Moth’s Executive Director] friends who lives in Milwaukee recommended I get in touch with him - When I called him for a Milwaukee Mainstage he wasn’t available but the story was just too good to let go!


You can find Frank Almond on his website www.frankalmond.com and you can listen to his Moth story, A Violin’s Life, on our website. Plucked is currently screening in New York City as a part of the Tribeca Film Festival. For more information on the film and to buy tickets to a screening, visit www.pluckedfilm.com.

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Frank Almond's Story

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A Violin’s Life

by Frank Almond

Musician Frank Almond makes a historic discovery. 

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