Do you have a friend who tells the same story each time he or she meets someone new? Does that friend get more animated and comical each time the story is told?
Bring that friend down to L’Etage on Sixth and Bainbridge streets to sit in on a First Person StorySlam, a brainchild of the non-profit organization First Person Arts. For only $5, you can tell a story, hear a story or judge one.
This chic bar opens its doors the fourth Tuesday of every month to an audience that ranges from businessmen to bikers in their twenties, thirties and forties. Storytellers, most with no previous experience, sign up to share their best real life, five-minute stories that revolve around a set theme.
At the start of the show, names are drawn from a hat. Three people from the audience are selected to be judges and 10 people compete for the title of best storyteller.
Some participants get creative by bringing props or calling a friend on speaker phone to help tell their story. Judges are supposed to rate competitors on structure and presentation, but most succumb to the urges of their friends and the crowd.
As I climbed the steps and entered the lounge area of L’Etage Sept. 25, I noticed that the place filled up pretty quickly. Feeling a little down, I thought I’d find a nice spot where I could keep to myself.
A half hour before the show began, the place was packed and no one seemed to mind having to stand for the entire show. Everyone was mingling and enjoying each other’s company. I soon discovered that the crowded atmosphere left no room for a depressed mood.
While waiting for the show to start, I met Jill, a regular who schooled me in the important vocal ranges of cheering and jeering. Two minutes into the show, I was flexing my newly acquired talent.
The show’s broad topic of “Cohabitation” yielded stories about fighting brothers, near-lesbian encounters and grade-school memories of playing with dead, frozen fish. I laughed so hard that my throat was sore by the end of the night.
The audience members, myself included, were much harder on the judges than those on stage. When asked how scary it was to go up and tell a story in front of so many people, one contestant said, “I think it’s scarier being a judge.”
The forgiving audience and random participatory prizes contributed to the jovial atmosphere. As a form of appreciation for their participation, storytellers receive such gifts like turkey basters, water guns or leis.
But don’t think First Person Arts doesn’t appreciate the audience’s presence as well. Before the show is over, the organization holds a raffle. Lucky audience members can receive a great book for those lazy reading days, popcorn for those Blockbuster nights or a pregnancy test for those late period months.
Who is responsible for providing such a fun, come-as-you-are event, where people from diverse backgrounds get together and bond? Vicki Solot, founder and president of First Person Arts, started the organization because she had an interest in people.
She wanted to create a vehicle that would allow her to assess the world through primary sources. This personal goal grew into the mission of First Person Arts: “To transform the drama of real life into documentary art [in order] to foster appreciation for our unique and shared experience.”
First Person Arts provides outlets for burgeoning memoir writers and documentary artists to perfect their art. Throughout the year, the organization hosts workshops and courses that teach aspiring artists how to transform their lives into “mini works of art.” The StorySlam is the newest project of the organization.
First Person Arts also puts on an annual five-day event called the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art, which will be held this year from Nov. 7 to Nov. 11 at The Theater at 2111 Sansom St. The event features workshops, screenings and competitions, including the Grand Slam, in which monthly winners of StorySlam will compete for the “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia” title.
The next and final StorySlam of the year will be held Oct. 23 at L’Etage on Sixth and Bainbridge streets. The theme is “Horror Stories.” Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the slam begins at 8:30 p.m.
Get there early if you want to grab a seat – before the night is over, you’ll cross the “cultural bridge through the lens of personal story.”
Tanequa Neale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.