The First Person Arts Festival, which runs through Nov. 20, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. At their kickoff slam on Nov. 10, authors vied for the title of “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia.’
Founded in 2000, First Person Arts strives to expose memoir and documentary art to a larger audience.
‘Story Slams’ are semimonthly storytelling competitions where local storytellers compete with their best work, usually revolving around a specific prompt given to them in advance.
Every fall and spring a “Grand Slam” is held to pit the winners of the slams, from the previous six or seven months, against each other to determine an ultimate winner.
Friday, Nov. 10, marked the beginning of the 10th annual First Person Arts Festival, with the Fall Grand Slam.
Storytellers from the most recent slams returned to compete for the prize of “Philadelphia’s Best Storyteller,” publication in Painted Bride Quarterly and lifetime free admission into future slams.
The Fall Grand Slam and the soiree that preceded it were held in the Christ Church Neighborhood Home in Old City, where approximately 250 guests packed the slam.
“When we first started the festivals we used to do them in all different venues all around town,” Vicki Solot, the founder and executive director of First Person Arts, said. “Then we decided that people didn’t have a sense of continuity, they just thought they were going to this event or that event and didn’t realize this was a festival.”
After trying out a few more stationary venues the last couple of years, the organizers decided that Christ Church was appropriate for this year, given the increased interest in the festival.
“We decided this year to make [Christ Church] our central hub because we wanted a longer duration and this seemed like it was much better suited to our needs,” Solot said.
The slam was hosted by Margot Leitman and Giulia Rozzi, two writers who will also host their own storytelling show entitled “Stripped Stories” toward the end of the festival’s run.
“The two things that make the event are obviously the stories themselves, but also the hosts,” Karina Kacala, the marketing coordinator for First Person Arts, said. “That link they create, and their banter, from one story to the other really helps the audience travel with them.”
The 12 competing storytellers were given the prompt of ‘in stitches’ referring directly to stories relating to clothing in some way.
Some storytellers chose to tell anecdotes that dealt specifically with clothing, like Martha Cooney’s experience ripping her pants on the job while working as a nanny in New York, or R. Eric Thomas’ experience on a gay men’s softball team where his shorts were a little too short.
In other stories the performers chose to use clothing symbolically such as Kate Spelman’s story about how she fights the public’s preconceived notions of herself as a female priest, and people’s reactions when she tells them what she does for a living.
The winner was decided on scores by three judges: “Painted Bride Quarterly,” the creperie L’Etage and story slam veteran Brady Russell.
The scores, on a scale of one to 10, were based on the criteria of performance and content. The judges scores ranged from a low of four to a high of 9.9. The audience did not shy away from booing the judges when they weren’t pleased with a score and were encouraged to do so by the hosts, who jokingly heckled the judges throughout.
“[The judges] are coming at the stories with different goals, in terms of their scores,” Kacala said.
While the judge from Painted Bride Quarterly would judge a story based on how it would look in print, the judge from L’Etage would look at it from an audience perspective.
After each reading, the judges would award each of them a ‘dollar store prize’ that they felt the storyteller would enjoy. The small prizes ranged from a plastic drum to doorstoppers, which became a run-on joke throughout the show after host Giulia Rozzi referred to them as a “luxury” at the beginning of the show.
Along with the title of “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia,” were the runner-ups for ‘best performance’ and ‘best content.’ The award for best content went to Bernardo Morillo, whose story recalled a time he went on a date-gone-wrong in his home country of Colombia.
Andrew Panebianco, an English professor at Saint Joseph’s University, won the award for best content. Panebianco’s story also dealt with a disastrous date when he decided to wear corduroy pants on a date and almost passed out from heat stroke.
“It’s nice to be around people who like telling stories and like listening to stories, because that’s my favorite thing to do,” Paneianco said. “Everyone was there to compete on some level, but at no point did it ever feel like anyone was gunning after eachother… It was really nice and kind of in the spirit of what First Person Arts tries to foster.”
Ben Drinen, a short story and flash fiction writer originally from Arizona, won the title of “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia.” Drinen’s stream-of-consciousness performance was unique to the others that night.
“When you’re writing, it’s usually a long time between when you write something down and it gets out there,” Drinen said. “It’s cool to immediately have an audience and see whether your story affects them or not. When you go up there you’re never really sure if they’re going to think your jokes are funny or if they’re going to respond to any of it. It’s a cool dynamic you get from the audience in storytelling that you don’t really get from writing.”
The First Person Arts Festival is running through Nov. 20.
Luis Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.