Lansie Sylvia was merely a fan of storytelling. She never thought she could actually do it.
“I knew a lot about storytelling,” Sylvia said. “[I listened] to a lot of narrative-based podcasts and radio shows. My point of view was always that I didn’t think that I could be a storyteller because the stories you hear on the radio are so good, so funny and so poignant. So when I got up on stage [the first time] everybody laughed and thought it was good and I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I could be involved in this the way other people are.’”
First Person Arts is the nonprofit organization in South Philadelphia which gives people, like Sylvia, a voice. It promotes the art of personal storytelling mainly through popular events called StorySlams.
The organization was originally founded with the idea of the First Person Arts Festival in mind, a competition held every November in which local storytellers compete against nationwide performers. However, as the festival grew increasingly popular each year and more people began showing a desire to tell stories, managing director Dan Gasiewski was given the reigns to come up with a way to satisfy those interested.
“When I came on, the board had actually asked us to create more year-round programming, so we created the StorySlams in 2007 as a way to put something out so people can get on stage and tell their stories all throughout the year.”
StorySlams, which are held every second Monday of the month at World Cafe Live in University City and every fourth Tuesday at L’Etage in Queen Village, took off from the get-go. The winner of each event is awarded a $100 check, while other competitors are given gag prizes, which can be anything from a pack of Pop Rocks candy to a plastic slice of pizza to a stuffed stingray.
“The first time we opened the doors here [at L’Etage] we had a line around the block and we’ve really been playing to capacity crowds ever since,” Gasiewski said. “Even now that we’ve been adding multiple venues, it’s been just about sold out every time. We were very lucky to have chosen this as our year-round program.”
The idea of getting on stage in front of a packed house and telling a seemingly mundane story may sound crazy to some people. Sylvia’s first time performing, in fact, began as nothing more than an innocent night out with a friend.
“We kind of just decided to come over because it was a couple blocks over from where we were tutoring,” Sylvia said. “And, because [my friend] knew a bunch of people on the staff, they were like, ‘Tell a story, tell a story, tell a story.’ But he was very shy. So I guess to kind of snap him out of it I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll tell one.’ And then I told a story that night and ended up winning.”
Sylvia, who was born and raised in Vermont, relocated to Philadelphia six years ago to become involved with nonprofits dedicated to teaching children. She has been a part of First Person Arts ever since, having graduated from eight-time storyteller to becoming StorySlam host.
“I think that if you show passion for the organization and you just show up a lot and be really invested when they need help [you can become further involved],” Sylvia said. “I’ve volunteered for focus groups just because I really love the organization.”
Each StorySlam is given a theme, such as “Lost in Translation” or “Wild Things.” Although First Person Arts gets plenty of help from part-timers like Sylvia, Gasiewski, Executive Director Jamie J. Brunson and Marketing and Communications Coordinator Becca Jennings are the brains of the operation. While he admits there’s no exact science in selecting the themes, Gasiewski, who grew up in Overbrook, said they try to pick ones which allow the competitors to take their respective stories in different directions.
“Over the past seven years we’ve had enough experience with the things that work and the things that don’t,” Gasiewski said. “We like themes that are very open. The one way we pick a theme is if it can go a lot of different ways. For example, ‘Wild Things’ can be somebody having a raucous spring break or that can be somebody in the middle of nowhere encountering a bear. We like a theme that is open to a great diversity of stories.”
While other Philadelphia theater companies share stories in various capacities, arguably no one does it quite like First Person Arts.
“I think what makes First Person Arts unique is that it provides open space for people to tell their own stories,” Gasiewski said. “It’s the idea that an audience member who’s just sitting next to you in the darkness can suddenly have their name called, get up on stage and be the next part of the entertainment.”
– Text, images and video by Tyler Sablich and Maxwell Reil