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Story Glory: More Reasons to 'Like' Expanded First Person Festival

When the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art kicks off in Old City on Thursday, Nov. 10, it will mark the 10th successful year at a Philadelphia organization dedicated to celebrating and documenting personal stories.  

Increasingly, those stories are about real-life human connections (even if they are facilitated by technology). First Person Arts veteran performer R. Eric Thomas decided to write Will You Accept This Friend Request? after randomly connecting with people based on stories he had told.  Following the Summer Grand Slam in 2009, a stranger approached Thomas on the street to share how his story had affected her.

Then later, Thomas remembers,"I told a story at the "Friends with Benefits" slam about the first gay person I'd met freshman year at Columbia, who was also a person of color, and the indelible mark he left on my life despite the fact that we'd been out of contact for seven or eight years.  I posted a link to the video on my Facebook and minutes later he "Liked" it.  The chasm of time and distance collapsed through the magic of social media.  You can say a lot with a "Like."

Undoubtedly this year's festival, expanded from five or six days in previous years to 11 days, will provide a number of likable moments. As Karina Kacala, Marketing Coordinator for First Person Arts, puts it, "It would be great to be able to do an 11-day festival every year.  We're always looking for more. We're always looking for new ways to give people the kind of personal storytelling experience that they want."

While many events will take place at the Festival Hub in the Christ Church Neighborhood House, events will also be held at a variety of other venues, from Reading Terminal Market to the Khyber Upstairs.  The Festival will feature expanded programming to include genres that have not been the primary focus in the past, including a greater number of spoken word poetry and theater events.  There will also be an increased focus on live storytelling.

For the keystone event, the Fall Grand Slam, 10 storytellers will gather backstage at the Christ Church Neighborhood House this Thursday, where they will nervously await the chance to tell their stories to a packed house and to walk away with the impressive title, "Best Storyteller in Philadelphia."  This particular fall grand slam is special for many reasons. The contest will feature many all-stars from the Philly storytelling scene (R. Eric Thomas, Bernardo Morillo, Ben Drinen), including several who have competed in previous grand slams and all of whom have have won at least one of the bi-monthly slams at L'Étage or World Cafe Live. Even competitors who refer to themselves as "psychotically competitive," are just excited to hear what their talented counterparts will have to share.   

More Storytelling, Less Classification
In major cities around the US, the skyrocketing popularity of first person storytelling is spawning new storytelling events seemingly daily, and raising the profile of organizations that have been around since before the trend was a trend.   First Person Arts is not following this national trend; it helped create and shape it. From The Moth, to Risk! to Philadelphia's own Rant-o-Wheel, comedians, actors and laypeople alike are increasingly experiencing the power of telling their own stories.  In Philadelphia, this movement began 10 years ago when First Person Arts Founder and President Vicki Solot proposed an organization devoted to stories told in the first person to a living room full of her friends.  In those ten years, First Person Arts (formerly "Blue Sky") grew from one person in a living room to an organization that now puts on up to five events every month, organizes a diverse series of classes and workshops and the Festival, which has been around as long as First Person Arts itself. 

This year, the Festival will take well-known storytellers out of the slam setting and give them a new forum in which to connect with and entertain audiences with events like Stripped Stories, The Adam Wade from NH Show and Will You Accept This Friend Request?.  

"This form of live storytelling is definitely a trend, and we wanted to make sure that it played a more significant role in the Festival this year," says Kacala.

Thomas will perform Will You Accept This Friend Request?  In addition to being a regular and always popular host and guest storyteller at the bi-monthly First Person Arts story slams, Thomas will compete, a fourth time, in the Grand Slam this year.  He began competing in slams several years ago when he "needed an artistic outlet and the playwright store wasn't hiring." So when First Person Arts began soliciting applications for the RAW portion of the festival -- new works of memoir and documentary art still in development -- Kacala and Liz Green (FPA Programming Coordinator) were well aware of Thomas's talent and encouraged him to apply, though this was his first time writing a long form piece for himself. 

"I'm very used to hiding behind the veneer of drama -- fictional characters talking around what they really mean," Thomas says. "It was very different for me to be the character I was writing.  It was also freeing, however.  A solo show wasn't on my radar, really, but it's amazing what possibilities open up when you start accessing the power of true stories."  

While storytelling is always at the forefront of what First Person Arts does, some festival events defy classification. Post-it Note Diaries for instance, is a show based on the book of the same name, which will feature Starlee Kine of This American Life fame and illustrator Arthur Jones. "It really straddles many different genres," Kacala says.  "It's sort of a storytelling, stand-up/presentation crossed with a literary/graphic memoir event."

The success of The Real Americans at last year's Festival inspired First Person Arts to offer more theatrical performances based on personal stories this time around.  One not-to-miss theater piece this year is Liberty City, which was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award and won the coveted Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding Solo Performance.

"It's a really important play," says Kacala. "It's one woman's story about growing up as a child of the black power movement and what the realities of that were like. It's incredibly powerful.  We're doing it for 6 performances.  It's an important event, thematically, because the subject matter is very powerful, but also for us as an organization to be presenting a theater work for such an extended run."

AMANDA FEIFER is a freelance writer in Bella Vista and a former Best Storyteller in Philadelphia.


Adam Wade (courtesy of First Person Arts by Mindy Tucker)

First Person Arts

Exit Cuckoo by Lisa Ramirez (courtesy of First Person Arts by Samantha Marble)

Dancer Minh Nguyen will perform in this year's festival

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