By Nivea Serrao
June 06, 2017 at 02:48 PM EDT
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Oh! You Pretty Things! The 2016 Moth Ball, Celebrating All Things Glam And Rock - Honoring Carrie Brownstein
Credit: Brad Barket/Getty Images for The Moth

It’s not every day a story can change a person’s life.

But The Moth, a storytelling project that began as a local get-together and has grown into a worldwide organization, has done just that. In its 20-year existence, The Moth has produced hundreds of live shows worldwide, transposing the intimacy across its Peabody Award-winning radio show and ever-popular podcast (44 million downloads last year alone) directly into listeners’ ears.

“When people hear a story it makes you reflect on something in your own life and maybe gives you the courage to make the change you need to make. It’s thrilling,” shares The Moth’s Artistic Director Catherine Burns, who says one of her favorite stories is that of zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, who overcame a debilitating childhood stutter and has since gone on to rescue animals from extinction. “Someone heard his story, quit her advertising job and moved to Africa to try and save baby gorillas. She’s been doing that for the last 10 years.”

The Moth is the brainchild of founder George Dawes Green, who grew up in Georgia, where he and his friends would gather on a porch, drink bourbon, and tell stories as moths flew in through broken screens and whirled around the porch lights (hence how the project got its name). It was an experience he’d begun to miss as a novelist residing in Manhattan.

“I thought it would be great to have nights where you could just listen to stories,” says Green of the spark that began what would be a movement within the storytelling art form. “People respond to personal stories. It’s such a primal communication. … There’s nothing more human than being able to tell and hear stories.”

Ordinary people telling extraordinary stories is part of what makes The Moth was special. The participants behind the mic who are willing to share a part of their lives with strangers is what inspires a visceral reaction in the listeners themselves.

The Moth has also attracted some celebrity guests over the years. John Turturro opened up about his brother’s mental illness during a live show, Neil Gaiman shared how he’d learned the importance of having a passport, and Tig Notaro delved into rebuilding her relationship with her stepfather after her mother’s death, a tale featured in a recently published collection of Moth stories. While Shonda Rhimes, Patti Smith, and Lin-Manuel Miranda remain on their wish list (Burns notes they’ve been pursuing Miranda preHamilton fame), Aziz Ansari will make his Moth debut Tuesday night when he’s honored for his mastery of storytelling as an art form at the annual Moth Ball in New York City.

“Most of the headliners that we have, they’re people that maybe their friend told them about [The Moth] or in some cases, we just cold call them and write to them,” says Burns of how the organization booked notable guests during the early years, something she credits to Green and his team. “They had people like [journalists] George Plimpton and Lewis Lapham who saw the beauty in what they were trying to do and said ‘yes.’ That really helped the whole organization get off the ground. A lot of that came out of the literary tradition in New York. [But] even back then, there was also a huge emphasis on regular people. There was one show I went to, before I even worked here, where it was an astronaut, a guy who, until very recently, had been homeless, and [Angela’s Ashes author] Frank McCourt. That’s the Moth!”

Moth stories can also go on to inspire other creative endeavors. Daily Show correspondent (and recent host of the White House Correspondents Dinner) Hasan Minhaj actually performed the story that would inspire his off-Broadway show, ensuing standup tour, and now, new Netflix comedy special, at a Moth StorySLAM.

“I actually got invited to do a Moth StorySLAM where they wanted a bunch of comedians to tell true stories about their lives. They didn’t have to be funny, but the theme was love and heartbreak,” Minhaj told EW in May. “I told this story of my first love and my first heartbreak and Catherine Burns, the creative director of The Moth, saw it and was like, ‘Oh my god, that is incredible. What ended up happening to you and this girl back in high school?’ She started helping me flush it out and then I met with my director, who helped me sort of build it out into this bigger show.”

With over 600 live shows a year worldwide (some as far as Australia and Antarctica) and the radio show playing on more than 450 stations across the globe, The Moth has more than a few opportunities to inspire an even larger audience — something the podcast lets the organization do on an even larger scale.

“With podcasting you feel like the person is speaking to you,” says Burns. “Storytelling has become so visual with film and television. But this is just a different way to experience a story. You’re listening and you have to picture everything in your head.”