Cocoon continues the tradition of storytelling amid the pandemic

By Acadia Klepeis

All four storytellers at the Robinson Hall, from right to left: Regina Fontanelli ’22, Tim Parsons, Megan Brakely ’06 and Emily Ballou ’21. VAN BARTH/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS.

Masks were on, but eyes and ears were open, and the audience reacted enthusiastically to the highs and lows of each story at the eighth annual Cocoon storytelling evening, which took place on Oct. 10 at Manahey Arts Center’s Robison Hall. 

The Middlebury Moth-Up, a small student organization inspired by The Moth phenomenon, charges itself with the mission of promoting the craft of storytelling.

This year’s Cocoon was loosely centered around the theme “Downpour.” Co-President of the Middlebury Moth-Up Alexandra Burns ’21.5 said that the team sought a theme that reflected the chaos of recent months. Each of the four storytellers, including two students and two staff members, took their own approach. 

Middlebury horticulturalist Tim Parsons told a heartwarming story about gaining a fourth child when his three daughters convinced him to get a puppy. Regina Fontanelli ’22 spoke about the evolution of her complex relationship with her mother throughout her adolescence and her college years. Emily Ballou ’21 had the audience in stitches as she reminisced about spending the day with a cranky old woman at a Vermont fair. And finally, Knoll Food & Garden Educator Megan Brakeley ’06 told an emotional story about the interplay between her family, her identity and the life of her dog, Burt. 

In the minutes before the lights dimmed, the normal rumble of a chattering crowd awaiting a performance was replaced by a comparatively dull hum due to the small number of attendees, spaced out to ensure social distancing. Nonetheless, many performance art lovers were clearly thrilled to be attending their first in-person event since the outbreak of Covid-19. Liza Sacheli, Director at the Mahaney Arts Center and adviser to the Moth-Up group, described the eerie time capsule she found upon return to the arts center, including a calendar that hadn’t been flipped since the college closed.

“It’s so nice to be in a space where art is happening with real live people,” events manager Shannon Bohler said in her welcome. 

The preparation for this year’s event looked significantly different from previous iterations. “We normally have our first meeting for the fall Cocoon in the May in advance,” Burns said as she explained how a typically five-month preparation process was compressed into just one. The organizers described a prolonged period of uncertainty in the spring and summer, as they waited to hear about the college’s plans for the fall semester. Burns had even wondered if they would plan the event only to get sent home. The group began preparing in earnest upon their return to campus, as all but two group members are currently residing at the college. Leading up to the events, the producers worked closely with speakers to establish a story arc and polish the stories in a workshopping process. This year, those workshops were conducted both in-person and remotely using Zoom.

Sacheli described Cocoon as the “more formal cousin” of the monthly Moth-Up events. Traditionally, Cocoon has taken place during fall family weekend and is held in front of a sold-out crowd of 300 people or more. Faced with Covid-19 and the college’s health guidelines, the group opted for what Burns describes as a “blended event.” It was live-streamed and the majority of attendees were virtual, although the stories were still told live in front of a limited audience.

“We thought it would be important for our speakers to have friends and family come watch them,” Moth-Up Co-President Zeinab Thiam ’21 said. Audience response is a key component of these events, responding to stories with both laughter and applause. 

“If [the speakers] feel better telling the story, it will read better to everybody,” Sacheli said. 

Editor’s Note: Hannah Bensen, an event producer, is a News Editor at The Campus, and Emily Ballou is an Arts & Culture Editor at The Campus. They were not involved in the editing of this article.