BY JESSICA GROSS
I first met Peter Aguero in 2010 through The Moth, where I was an intern and he is something of a god. He hosts SLAMs—weekly events where you can put your name in a hat to tell a story onstage—in New York; has won Moth GrandSLAMs; and leads storytelling workshops for MothSHOP, the organization’s outreach program. I recently experienced a couple Aguero MothSHOP sessions, and watching him explain, to a few high school kids, storytelling as a means of discovering and expressing yourself, was truly beautiful.
Peter tells stories and puts on shows outside of The Moth as well, in venues across the country; has performed Off-Off-Broadway and on various television shows; and is the lead singer of the BTK Band, the self-described “hardest-drinking improvised storytelling rock band” in NYC. I recently sat down with Peter for two-and-a-half hours in a coffee shop near his apartment in Queens. What follows is an edited and condensed (you’re welcome) version of our conversation.
The Rumpus: What’s the first story that you consciously told?
Peter Aguero: There’s one that sticks out in my head—I don’t know if it’s the first. When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I was driving an Italian ice truck in New Brunswick, and I got into a fight with another guy, also driving an Italian ice truck, and he hit me with a hammer. The next three weeks, I told that story probably a hundred times—you know, because everybody was like, “What happened to your face?” I remember it now because the story stayed the same every time. There was no embellishment, there were no lies; it was just the same story, over and over.
Rumpus: What was it about that story that compelled you?
Aguero: Well, it was this intense, unbelievable moment of the juxtaposition between selling stuff to kids and then having this incredibly intense, violent altercation that ended up with me leaving the job. But there’s also a moment in the story where we have this confrontation and then I get in my car and I drive away to go home, and then I make the choice about a half-mile down the road to turn around and go back. There was something in that idea of making a choice that made me realize that the story was bigger than just a story about a fight. I’m not necessarily a violent person, and I don’t enjoy confrontation, particularly physical confrontation. Growing up I had a very bad temper, and there were a million reasons for that, but it took me years to be able to calm that down and not have control over it but at least be aware of it, and then in that moment—
Rumpus: A temper in the sense that you’d throw a temper tantrum and cry, or throw plates, or what?
Aguero: My parents had a lot of problems growing up and there was a lot of chaos. My dad was moving out, he was moving in, he was living away, they were together, they were separated, we were going to move away, we stayed. I didn’t ever really engage them about that, but what would happen, I would spend a lot of time on my own, but I would do stuff like go into the garage for an hour and just smash things, like old furniture, into pieces, or go out into the backyard and just chop down trees.
Rumpus: Which, when you think about it, is actually a really healthy way to release aggression, don’t you think?
Aguero: Kind of, in a certain way, except it freaked my mother out. She didn’t know what kind of person she was living with, you know what I mean? So with that story, it’s as though I’ve lived through it and learned from it tenfold.
Rumpus: Did you understand more about why you’d made the decision to go back to the lot and fight by the hundredth time you told the story?
Aguero: By the hundredth time, yeah. It took a while. And you know, it was a completely out-of-control moment for me, but as the years went on and I kept retelling the story, I got to own that moment instead of it owning me.
Rumpus: What was it about telling the story that helped you understand it? Was it people’s reactions or just what was happening in your mind?
Aguero: When I tell a story—when I do anything onstage—it sounds crazy, but I don’t concern myself with the reaction. Because every listener is different, so they’re going to pull something different out of the story. 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.
Rumpus: But what’s the point of telling a story to an audience, then?
Aguero: Well, your stories are, at a base level, about an emotional truth, and the more I tell stories and hear people’s stories, the more I realize we’re all the same. We think we’re these complicated animals, these special, unique flowers, and we are to a certain extent, but we also all know what it’s like to feel joy, to feel hate, to feel anger, to be sad, to be scared—we all know that. So you tell your story as much as you can at the base emotional truth, and then the two hundred people in the audience are reminded of two hundred stories of when they felt anger, or fear, or utter joy, you know? And that’s why, I think, I tell stories. It’s an amazing exchange of energy, a nonverbal communication that happens…and I love when I go to a show and I hear a good story. It transports you to the place you were when that happened, and it also transports you to a place where something happened to you in a similar way.
Rumpus: So can you take that one step further? What’s the—and I’m not trying to be facetious, I’m trying to really understand—what is the use of that? Is it to not feel alone in having had that emotion?
Aguero: Yes. It lets you see that you’re not alone in the world, and that’s the biggest fear from that anybody has, since being a kid: that no one’s going to understand. That was my biggest fear: no one is ever going to understand me, no one’s ever going to understand what I’m feeling, I’m never going to be able to convey my emotions in a succinct way, I’ll go through life being misunderstood. And telling a story or hearing a story can help you realize that you’re not alone in the world.
Rumpus: Well, can you distinguish between what you get from telling a story and hearing a story? Why are you driven to tell stories when it’s also satisfying to just hear them?
Aguero: Well, first, to address why I tell stories, I’m a very uncomfortable, anxious person. I’m always worried about, “Did I offend this person?” or, “Am I coming off like a jerk-off?” or, “Maybe I’m not as smart as this person”—I’m always worried about that. But when I’m onstage, I don’t have to think. It just happens. When I’m speaking to a large group of people, I can kind of shut off my brain and let associations happen and my brain does all the work without me getting in the way.
Rumpus: Why do you think that is?
Aguero: There’s something about the idea of being the one in the spotlight and the one with the microphone, which means you have the right to speak. Also, the way my brain works, being onstage helps it open up its angle of perception.
Rumpus: What does that mean exactly?
Aguero: It’s like Spidey sense. When I was doing improv, we would do a lot of musical improv, and it’s the first time I was able to catch my brain doing this thing where, at the same time, my brain is processing what’s happening in the moment—I’m singing this line; preparing the next line, because it’s got to rhyme; and then standing above the scene, looking down, making sure that the structure’s okay; and making sure I’m breathing and moving and relating to the person onstage. So it’s this way of being able to open up your consciousness and take in everything.
Rumpus: And there’s something about having the audience there that fuels that.
Aguero: It’s beautiful. I bomb sometimes, and that’s okay. I do that a lot. If I don’t screw up I’m doing it wrong. And some of being unafraid to bomb comes from knowing that I’ve dedicated myself to a life of performance and, I’ll say it, being an artist. I know that every show I do isn’t going to be the last show.
Rumpus: I really like that mentality.
Aguero: It’s freedom. It’s absolute freedom. I think some of the benefit of being a storyteller, of being a performer, is that I’m able to get up and lose my self-consciousness. I get to be the baddest motherfucker in the world for X amount of time.
Rumpus: You talk about some extremely personal things onstage.
Aguero: Yeah. That’s my choice.
Rumpus: Do you ever get worried that, say, your dad—whom you’ve talked about in a less-than-flattering way—will hear what you’re saying?
Aguero: Well, I’ve drawn a line in the sand that anything involving my immediate family—my mother, father, my sister, myself—is fair game. Anything. Is that right? I don’t know. But for me it is.
Rumpus: How’d you come to that decision?
Aguero: Well, you have to draw the line somewhere. I’m part of them, so I do think I can talk about what happened to them before I was born. Do I worry about them hearing it? At this point, I don’t. My mother has what she calls “attention-seeking behavior,” so anytime I tell a story about her, good or bad, she loves it. And my dad is not really involved with my life at all. In September, I spoke with him for the first time in five years. He has cancer. My sister told me. I thought, “Oh, he’s going to be fine.” But a month later, when I was back in South Jersey, where I grew up, she said, “You gotta go see dad. He has stage four lymphoma and it’s bad.” So I was like, Okay, I’ll go see him, but I was scared. We have father-son issues that are ugly. I tell a lot of stories about him, and they’re my perception of the truth. So we get to the house, my sister is about to ring the doorbell, and she’s like, “Just to let you know, when dad was having his chemotherapy, he Googled you and he listened to every one of your stories that’s online.” And then she rings the doorbell—
Rumpus: Which story popped into your head when she said that?
Aguero: Well, any story I mention him in, I always call him a dick.
Aguero: That’s what I call him. There’s a couple stories where he comes off okay—I’ve been exploring showing both sides of things in the last two years or so, and that’s part of my own personal growth—but when my sister said that, I heard myself saying, “Oh, my dad is a dick,” and then a huge audience laughing. And I can imagine what that feels like because he has no concept of what I’m doing. He really doesn’t. But I wasn’t ashamed of any of it, because it’s all, to my knowledge, true.
Rumpus: Do you think any part of you had hoped he would hear that?
Aguero: No. If I tell a story about my mom, I know she’s going to hear it and I hope she hears it, even if it’s bad, because…
Rumpus: Well, then she has to really hear how you feel.
Aguero: She has to really hear it, exactly. And then she’s able to hear, now that I’m thirty-six, this thing I wasn’t able to verbalize when I was thirteen. But with my father, we’d gotten to this point where we’d just stopped talking. There was never a big break, though there were a million breaks over the years. And then five years went by. So honestly, I didn’t think he would ever hear my stories, but I also didn’t care if he did, because he’s this other in my life now.
Rumpus: You didn’t feel the same kind of drive to have him understand you that you did with your mom.
Aguero: I used to, and that’s part of the reason we didn’t get along, because I wanted him to understand me and he always, always misunderstood me—
Rumpus: He just could not.
Aguero: He just couldn’t. He never did. To him, everybody was a prick. He used to call everybody “fuckface.” And I, I guess, wanted to see the good in people.
Anyway, so he opens the door, and he sees my sister, and he’s like, “Hey, what’re you doing here?” And he sees me and his jaw drops. He’d just had chemotherapy, lost all his hair—no eyebrows, no moustache, nothing. He looked like an old man. He said, “Come in,” and he came and gave me a big hug and started crying, and that was just odd, you know. And he was like, “This is weird,” and I was like, “Yeah, this is weird,” and then we went and we sat down and we talked, me and my sister and him and his wife. And then my sister and his wife left, and he and I had the conversation that we’d never had—the conversation I’ve always wanted to have with my dad, because we’re both men now and I think he sees me as one. He never brought up any of the stories, but he did say, “It seems like you’re good at what you’re doing.” And then, it was crazy, but I told him, “Dad, I don’t really like you.” And he was like, “Well, I don’t really like you, either.” And we both nodded and came to the conclusion that it would be best if we continued not speaking to each other. And we were both happy about that.
But: he’s reached out a couple of times since. Is it worth jumping back into that pool? I’m not sure. So I haven’t called him back, and not as a fuck-you. I’m a sensitive, delicate flower, and I need to take care of myself, and maybe I don’t need to put that stress on my heart and my soul right now.
Rumpus: You don’t want to be masochistic.
Aguero: Exactly. Exactly. I also don’t want to be sadistic. I don’t need to rip myself up, but I also really don’t need to hurt him.
Rumpus: So, getting a little lighter: can you tell me how a good story works?
Aguero: Well, a story is about a moment. Everybody’s first instinct is to try to tell their whole life story in five minutes. That’s impossible. A really good story is always built around a moment. It could be the moment of choice, of tragedy, of realization. So you start with a platform—who you were, what you did every day—which lets us know who you are. Then you tell us, in that pivotal moment, what happened, and then you explain how you dealt with it. If it’s a house fire, you didn’t choose to have a house fire, but the interesting part of the story is how you chose to deal with it. If a story doesn’t have a bit of change or realization or something like that in it, it’s not a story, it’s an anecdote. So it has to be something that has affected you in some way.
Rumpus: Okay, this is maybe a stupid question, but can you explain why change is integral to a story?
Aguero: Well, I think it just shows the reason why you remembered it and want to relay these things to other people.
Rumpus: Because it struck something in you.
Aguero: We’re surrounded by stimuli, and the things that stick with us stick with us for a reason. And our different points of view can cause two people to tell different stories, even about the same event. Which is real? They both are. That’s another part of storytelling: you have to commit to that truth, and that means not joking your way around it an emotional moment. It means saying, “I’m scared.” “I’m angry.” If somebody is telling a story and they’re not being loyal to the emotional truth of their story, then they’re doing the story a disservice. As a storyteller, you’re a vessel for the story. It passes through you, and these people are going to hear it. It’s not your job to make it entertaining, it’s not your job to make it funny, it’s not your job to put in a joke, none of that is—your job is to simply say what happened.
Rumpus: That relieves a lot of pressure.
Aguero: A lot of pressure. People can tell stories right away, but sometimes, when they start performing, they try to get fancy. They put in a lot of $10 words and metaphors and allegories and analogies and it stops working. Your job is, here’s what happened, let me tell you about it. Also, a lot of times, people start with the craziest stories. When you run out of those—the time that you had sex in the woods, or the time you got into a hammer fight with an Italian ice truck guy, or the time there was a house fire, or the time somebody almost died—you’re like, “Jesus Christ, what are my stories now?” Then you really have to start looking. I’ve seen it happen a million times, where somebody feels like they ran out of stories, and that’s when they start to be able to tell their best stories, because they’re smaller. They’re more focused stories.
Rumpus: And maybe more internal?
Aguero: Absolutely. Because they have to really look inside: “How did I feel about that moment?” I’m very happy with the stories I’m telling right now, but I couldn’t have told them five years ago because I just didn’t understand. I had to tell the crazy ones and the sloppy ones first, and now I’m telling the ones that are more interesting to me, because a lot of times they take me by surprise.
Rumpus: While you’re telling them?
Aguero: While I’m telling them. It happens all the time. A story is a living, breathing thing. Everybody does it differently. A lot of times, people with a stronger writing background will write their stories and then memorize them and recite them. Some of those people, you’ll see, will get thrown and lose their place, or won’t don’t engage with the audience enough because they’re just thinking about their words. They’re remembering black words on a white page. But I think when you tell a story, it’s like watching a short movie playing on the inside of your skull and describing what you’re seeing. I would say, have your first line set in stone and have your last line set in stone. Everything else is flexible. But I don’t have one way of doing a story. A lot of times, I’ll write it out, but I’ll never refer to that again.
Rumpus: Just so you have the general arc of it?
Aguero: Yes, and the muscle memory of doing it. And I always do it by hand.
Rumpus: What color pen?
Aguero: Blue or black. And I always write on printer paper. One side of a piece of paper is five to six minutes.
Rumpus: You have small handwriting.
Aguero: I do. And I also don’t write it out completely. I’ll write out the first paragraph, and then bullet points.
Rumpus: That’s almost easier to remember.
Aguero: It is. Every time I tell a story it’s different, but there are turns of phrase that I keep in as mile markers—I aim for that one, then I aim for that one—and those are things that I say every time in a story. I remember being in Nevada a long time ago, and some friends and I went through a national park, and they had these big orange stakes in the ground. Wherever you were, you could see two stakes, and that would keep you from getting lost, because it was just this vast white wasteland. So I think of those turns of phrase as stakes that keep me from getting lost. If you see people telling a story and they get thrown, it’s just because they’re too wrapped up in the idea of that precious little phrase they wrote.
Rumpus: Like every single word is a mile marker.
Aguero: Mm-hmm. And that’s too much, man, it’s too much pressure to put on yourself. And I think then the story can’t grow. Like there’s some stories I tell that, I mean, every time there’s something new I discover.
Rumpus: Which makes you a human on the stage, not a…
Aguero: Not an automaton. And also, I try to tell people to stay away from having a moral at the end of their story, because if you told the story right, meaning you were very truthful, the audience will take away their own personal moral. If you tell me a story about a breakup, the lesson you learned might not be the lesson that I learn from your story. I don’t need you to tell me what to learn. That’s my business. And that’s beautiful, and that’s why art is transcendent. And it’s also why I believe, firmly, that your job is to tell the story and then let it go. It’s the worst when you hear, “In that moment, I learned.”
Rumpus: What do you feel in your body when you hear that?
Aguero: It’s like, uughhhhhhh. “Here we go again.” You told a great story up until that. Sometimes, life is messy. Stories can be messy, too.
Rumpus: Do you think some people are more naturally inclined to tell stories than others?
Aguero: Yes. I mean there’s some people that are absolute naturals—
Rumpus: What distinguishes those people from other people? What about them enables that to happen?
Aguero: I think it’s their ability to access the truth. I’ve seen people get up at The Moth and outright lie, and you can tell they’re lies because they don’t resonate, they don’t sound real. The audience is very polite—they don’t heckle—but they just lower their eyes, and you watch that person just die onstage. It’s—whew, it’s hard to watch, man. They just don’t get it.
Rumpus: Yeah, sitting through a bad story—
Aguero: It’s the worst.
Rumpus: It’s almost nauseating.
Aguero: Yeah. Sometimes, the person recognizes that what they’re doing doesn’t work, and they acknowledge that, and if they’re smart they just get the hell off the stage. But then there’s the person who has no concept yet of what a story is. They think what they’re telling is a story, but they’re not getting anything back—and it’s almost as if there’s a wall between them and their audience—but they just keep going.
Rumpus: As if they could bludgeon the audience into relating to them.
Aguero: Yeah. And that’s awful. It’s tough, it’s really tough. But that’s a growth that you have to make as a performer, as a writer, as any kind of artist: getting better and better. Oh, and then you hit a plateau. I remember the first time I hit one, years ago. I was doing improv and e-mailed my teacher, explaining how nothing was working. And she sent me one back: “Welcome to the plateau, my friend.” And what she said to me was, “You’re looking up to the top of the mountain and it’s still so far away, and you forgot to look behind you and see how far you’ve come.”
Rumpus: Wow. That’s really nice.
Aguero: Yeah. It is. And I’ve held onto that for years.
Rumpus: I mean, that’s about—that’s life. That’s not just art.
Aguero: Oh, Jesus Christ, it’s not just performance, I know. Every couple of months I hit a plateau, and I recognize it. And that was ten years ago.
Rumpus: But now do you have the perspective to say, “Alright—“
Aguero: Yes. Absolutely. And some of that is that I started actively pursuing whatever this is eleven years ago, when I was twenty-six years old. I had these pie-in-the-sky, nebulous goals of being rich and famous.
Rumpus: Success was other people saying that you had success.
Aguero: Exactly. But by the third year, I realized that this wasn’t a dilettante’s decision. This was a life choice. And by that point, my goals were to be able to perform regularly, to have outlets for myself to experiment, to do good work, and to keep pushing myself. To perform regularly in New York City with a group of people that I enjoyed working with. And I’ve accomplished all of that. But: I’m not at all satisfied.
Rumpus: What are your goals now?
Aguero: Well, I’ve learned about myself that I can’t have giant, big goals because they’re just too big to climb. So if I do have those goals, they’re made up of little goals. This is something I’m going to do for the rest of my life, so it’s gonna have its ups and downs, but I have a base of experience now where things are going to be moving forward. Every show’s not a panic because there’s going to be another one—knock on wood.