R. Eric Thomas had been living in Philadelphia for about three years, not having found what he had moved here for. Then, one day, something caught his eye.
“I just saw an ad in the newspaper,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even know storytelling existed before I became a part of the organization.”
The organization Thomas is referring to is First Person Arts, a nonprofit with a keen focus on writing and performing stories.
Thomas’ first exposure through First Person Arts, which rents a suite at 100 S. Broad St., was at a Story Slam, an event in which storytellers get on stage to share five minutes of their lives in front of a room full of spectators. The competitors are judged and ultimately a winner is anointed.
“I started off competing in Story Slams,” Thomas said. “I won a couple of them and then I started hosting the Story Slams. And then it just turned into a groove from there. I had a conversation with Dan [Gasiewski], the managing director, and then later on with [executive director] Jamie [Brunson] about other ways I could be involved with the organization.”
Considering his knack for storytelling and his vibrant personality, it was no surprise Thomas was given the reigns to run his own course on teaching others how to write and how to overcome their fear onstage.
He’s been teaching the workshop for roughly four years now.
“I think [the courses and the Story Slams] have equal weight in the organization. The organization from what I understand is really committed to all of the different communities in Philadelphia,” Thomas said. “So the Story Slam is an entertainment component, but equally I think as important are the opportunities to train other people, to empower other people through storytelling.”
Thomas, who was born and raised in Baltimore before moving to Philadelphia nine years ago for its vibrant art scene, said the majority of his students are people who do not work within the field of arts.
While he admitted people who work in the arts typically don’t have the money to afford the courses, a lot of it has to do with people feeling as though they don’t have a creative outlet in their everyday work.
“I find the people who take classes here at First Person, and I think it’s because of price point, tend to be professionals in other areas,” Thomas said. “I find that people are generally coming from the outside and looking for a way in.”
Jill Stahl, who has taken three different sets of courses at First Person Arts, fits that bill.
As an event planner who wanted an opportunity to reveal her creative side, Stahl said the instructors, and Thomas in particular, are what keep bringing her back.
“The teachers here are wonderful at First Person Arts,” Stahl said. “The classes are small and intimate so you kind of get one-on-one attention. All the teachers are really, really knowledgeable. I felt like I learned a lot and I definitely grew and saw myself getting better at writing.”
“From [Thomas] I have really learned the Story Slam structure. [I learned] how to write a five minute story as opposed to being able to write a story and have it go on for as long as you want, and how to tell a story because it’s different when you’re telling it out loud than if you’re reading something,” Stahl said. “You have to kind of express things differently and write it differently.”
Stahl said the courses at First Person Arts have unexpectedly helped her at work, as she has become accustomed to using her newfound ability to tell stories in order to attract people toward her cause.
Although she has yet to step on stage, she said Thomas is ultimately gearing her up for competition.
“I feel like I’m very introverted,” Stahl said. “I feel like if I practiced enough and said it out loud enough it would be easier to do. The Story Slam was not an original goal but I think maybe after this class I will try to do it. [Thomas] is really encouraging.”
While Stahl is not yet comfortable speaking in front of a group of people, Thomas said it has never been an issue for him.
“I guess it does come pretty easy,” Thomas said. “I’ve always been pretty good with public speaking. I was in theater when I was younger so I didn’t really mind getting in front of people. The biggest issue was telling a true story versus, when you’re in theater, you’re just writing out a script.”
Thomas has gone from aspiring storyteller, to Story Slam winner, to teacher ever since the day he decided to pick up that newspaper. And he’s already began tackling his next venture.
“I’ve gotten into more long-form storytelling,” Thomas said. “I have three even-length pieces that I perform. I have done them here in Philly and I take them around the country. I’m working on another piece right now and that will premiere in June.”
– Text, images and video by Tyler Sablich and Maxwell Reil