Voices from the First Person Arts Festival in Philadelphia

Martha Cooney has a day job as a preschool teacher.
Martha Cooney has a day job as a preschool teacher.
Posted: November 13, 2012

PHILADELPHIA IS full of storytellers: your neighbor, your favorite waitress, cabbies, random strangers who catch you at a polite moment. We'll yammer on about anything. But the people who participate in the First Person Arts Festival create art out of spinning a yarn.

This week, storytellers, homegrown and transplanted, will tell tales their tales for the festival, an annual event celebrating memoir and personal stories that continues through Nov. 17. The Daily News reached out to some of our First Person Arts Festival favorites to get the stories behind the storytellers:

R. Eric Thomas

Age: 31.

Day job: Marketing assistant for comedic theater group 1812 Productions.

In first person: I use the term stand-up dramedian. It has the immediacy and the wit of stand-up but it has the heft and the arc of drama. . . . I try to create a Woody Allen movie every time I get onstage. Sometimes it's a one-man Tyler Perry movie.

Why tell stories? Like most artists, I'm kind of obsessed with myself . . . Storytelling is one of these do-it-yourself art forms that puts art in reach of everyone.

See him: At RISK!, live recording the popular storytelling podcast featuring other Philly slammers, comedian Janeane Garofalo and host Kevin Allison ("The State"). Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St., 8-9:30 p.m. Friday, $20-$25, 267-402-2055.

Martha Cooney

Age: 29.

Day job: Preschool teacher. "When you're working with little kids, you have to be dramatic or improvising, playing and presenting. They kind of inform each other."

Anything for a story: I have a bounty of weird stuff to tell. Maybe because I made a lot of mistakes and stupid choices . . . It's like craic [a Gaelic word] in Ireland, that's used to describe a good time. Anything is worth happening for the craic. Anything is worth it for the story.

Philly is full of stories: I lived in New York for four years [she grew up in the Northeast] and I never got into any of this, but now I've immersed myself in it. [Philadelphia]'s a smaller city and smaller community. There's more opportunity to get involved. It's likely, if you go to go a First Person slam, that you have a chance to get up there. There's more of a community feel than a competitive feel.

See her: Teaching kids of all ages how to write and tell their stories with her group StoryUP! at PNC Arts Alive Story Day, Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday, $8-$10.

Bernardo Morillo

Age: 45.

Day job: Film and video editor.

His first time: I went to one of the shows. I thought I was signing up to get on an email list, and I did it and I won. I'm sitting there eating my sandwich, they called my name and I was like, "What the hell?"

A natural: I always told stories but I never was aware that I did it. . . . I don't practice, I don't rehearse. A lot has to do with my experiences as an immigrant in my original country in Colombia. . . . I think [storytelling] runs in the family. Both my mom and my dad are really good storytellers.

Growing into himself: When I was a younger guy, I was interested in getting onstage to be someone else. As an older person, I like to get on the stage to be myself. . . . When you're older, you have to be a grown-up and work, so you don't get to be yourself as much. It becomes an asset when you're onstage.

See him: At RISK! with R. Eric Thomas.

Hillary Rea

Age: 30.

Day job: Teaching artist for the Arden Theatre Company.

Storytelling vs. stand-up: The audience has to be a bit more patient when listening to storytelling because the punch lines don't come as frequently. There's a lot of build. Stand-up is based in little truths, but storytelling is one true thing from beginning to end.

Storytelling's moment: The other day, reality television came up and someone said [reality TV and storytelling] were similar because you're getting this peek into a reality, even though it's sculpted. Because social media is such a big part of the culture now, everyone is a voyeur.

See her: At "Comedy Confessions" where she'll tell a story, then be interviewed by Corey Cohen. Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St., 10-11:30 p.m., Friday, $12-$15.

Andrew Panebianco

Age: 31.

Day job: Advertising copywriter.

Why he does it: For 31 years, I've been able to accrue ridiculous experiences and events brought upon by the fact that I'm the world's most ridiculous human.

Philly style: I don't think anyone has ever accused Philadelphia of being an inviting city, but there's something really wonderfully warm and communal to the storytelling community . . . It's a Goldilocks city. It's not too big, it's not too small, it's just right.

His first time: About a year-and-a-half ago, I had just the right amount of drinks to be both brave and stupid. [The theme was deception.] There's really great line from David Mamet: "It's not a lie, it's a gift for fiction." It's embroidering the world to make it a little more interesting.

The story: It was about a time I was in sixth grade when I created a Save the Lemurs foundation. Due to a number of reasons, I embezzled all of the money I had gotten. It was like $40, but I still feel guilty about it now.

Career highlight: I met my current girlfriend, Lansie Sylvia. . . . meeting her is going to be hard to top.

See him: At PNC Arts Alive Story Day in the Story Market, where he'll barter with patrons who want to hear his stories.


For more on the First Person Festival, go to firstpersonarts.org.


Contact Molly Eichel at eichelm@phillynews.com or 215-854-5909. Follow her on Twitter @mollyeichel.

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