Festival celebrates the individual voice

First Person Arts hosted artists to tell their stories across multiple mediums.

A compilation of Philip Bailey’s songs were sung as a tribune to him at the First Persons Arts Festival on Nov. 15. Jenny Kerrigan | TTN
A compilation of Philip Bailey’s songs were sung as a tribune to him at the First Persons Arts Festival on Nov. 15. Jenny Kerrigan | TTN

First Person Arts was founded on the belief that every person has a story worth hearing.

“Our mission is that every person has a story to tell,” said Becca Jennings, marketing and communications coordinator for First Person Arts.

Formed in 2000 by Vicki Solot, First Person Arts gives storytellers a platform to share their experiences. Multiple mediums are used to tell these stories like the culinary arts, theater, stand-up comedy and any other way that one can tell a story.

“She had this vision for a storytelling organization in Philly,” Jennings said.

It is the first and only nonprofit organization in Philadelphia that focuses exclusively on memoir and documentary.

The First Person Arts Festival celebrated its 13th annual event this year. The festival consisted of multiple events from  Nov. 4-15. Going beyond the storytelling side of FPA, the festival included workshops in writing, storytelling, history and female media voices.

At events like StorySlams, a competition to tell a five-minute story of a life event or experience, anyone is invited to participate. FPA hosts StorySlams twice monthly and they include a cash prize for the victor of each competition, as well as an opportunity to share the stage with other victors.

Different nights had different themes, allowing people of all walks of life a chance to share their stories and lives with an audience.

“Our stories can touch an emotional core,” Jennings said. “There is a definite emotional response.”

In the past, the organization has dealt with topics such as sexuality, family, addiction, autism, mental health and civil rights.

“Storytelling is a direct vehicle for social change,” Jennings said.

In August 2013, FPA led “The Heart Beneath the Hood,” the first of what the organization called Philly reACTS. Inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin, the event encouraged people in the city to look beyond appearances.

FPA’s website says that the hope of events like Philly reACTS is that “through artistic action, we all can further the cause for equality.”

Beyond just uniting the community, Jennings said that storytelling “can be used as a catalyst” for important issues and ideas that require discussion.

She describes the effects of the FPA as “redefining the human interest story” by “documenting news but contributed by the people it affects.”

“By sharing personal stories, the sense of community just grows,” Jennings said.

FPA has given former participants some of the skills needed to launch their own endeavors in other cities as well.

Scott Shrake won an FPA StorySlam and participated in the 2013 FPA Festival. He has since gone on to form his own storytelling organization in Washington, D.C., called Story League.

Shrake said that the “audience favorite” used at FPA StorySlams is one element of FPA that he incorporated into Story League.

He was inspired by more than just the features of FPA.

“I always say FPA has the best vibe of all the storytelling shows,” Shrake said.

“We value and uplift the sharing … of our experiences,” Jennings added.

Many D.C. storytellers work with Philadelphia storytellers and vice-versa through the connections Shrake made working with FPA.

Shrake also underlined the importance of perseverance and dedication in storytelling.

“I competed about five times before winning their [FPA] intercity slam at the Free Library a couple years ago,” Shrake said. “So to newcomers I would say: Keep trying and trying until you win.”

Connections are another valuable resource that FPA offers to new storytellers, as it works with many established figures in various industries.

“Whenever possible, we like to put them [established figures and local storytellers] on the same stage,” Jennings said.

The festival featured Kathryn Erbe of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” Zach Grenier of “The Good Wife” and Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire, among others.

“The programs aren’t over,” Jennings said. “We invite people to be part of this community, to be part of this family.”

Vince Bellino can be reached at vince.bellino@temple.edu

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