Storytelling—the World's Oldest Pastime—Gains Popularity in Philly

By Nicole Finkbiner
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 21, 2011

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Local comedian Hillary Rea shares a funny tale.

Photo by Jason Hsu

The crowd that gathered in the upstairs bar at The Dive last Tuesday night was there for more than cheap beer, cold pizza and pleasant conversation—they were there to hear a story.

With no stage and very limited floor space, the evening’s host, local comedian, writer and storyteller Jaime Fountaine stood in the doorway and gave the two-minute, better-get-another-beer-while-you-still-can warning before introducing the performers.

Six storytellers then proceeded to brave the room of semi-intoxicated strangers, sharing personal experiences befitting the show’s theme of “Lessons Learned.” Usually revealed at the end, theses lessons were more like punch lines to really long, yet consistently funny jokes.

Fountaine, 26, has been hosting her monthly storytelling series at the beloved South Philly watering hole since 2009. A year before that, she started the bar’s quarterly performance series “Toiling in Obscurity,” which showcases the work of local writers, musicians and comedians. It was only about four years ago that the full-time coffee barista and aspiring fiction writer first got in front of an audience to share a personal tale out loud at another local storytelling show. Now, she has three of her own. “Storytelling and talking in public have definitely changed the way I write fiction,” Fountaine says. “I’ve just sort of developed a sense of what will be entertaining and how to structure it.”

Considering that storytelling has been around as long as humans, it seems silly to call it a “trend.” But that’s really the only way to describe the slew of storytelling/live-reading events that have popped up around the city within past five years or so.

Perhaps the most familiar is First Person Arts’ monthly StorySlams, which open the stage up to anyone who thinks they’ve got a good story and can impress a panel of audience members. “People want a chance to be known," says founder Vicki Solot. "And we as an organization want to give people the chance to get to know one another.”

In November, First Person Arts will be celebrating its 10th anniversary with 11 days of programming and performances featuring both local and national artists from a variety of different mediums.

While StorySlams might be the most successful storytelling venture in the city the other five or so regular storytelling events are the work of local comedians.

Kicking off the “lady portion of the evening” last week at Fountaine’s “Second Stories” was fellow comedian Hillary Rea, 29, who talked about a camp she spent a summer at as a child that she’s now convinced was a cult.

Though undeniably funny, she delivered the story with such ease and assertiveness that you were almost too captivated to laugh. “Every storyteller should have a strong and individualized style,” Rea says. And that she did.

Over the years, the freelance teaching artist has dabbled across the comedy spectrum. In addition to hosting her own two-hour, bimonthly show “Tell Me A Story,” featuring nine curated stories and one “wild card” act, Rea is a member of the local indie improv team Where’s Hillary? and just finished performing in the Fringe show, Dark Comedy.

Like Fountaine, Rea just sort of stumbled into comedy via storytelling. “The things that people are interested in talking about and the things that make for interesting stories usually have to be at least a little bit funny,” says Fountaine.

At the country’s major comedy theaters like Upright Citizens Brigade, similar shows have been a staple for years and now, Philly Improv Theater is following suit. Comedian Kevin Allison, creator and host of the podcast and bi-coastal show, “RISK!” is slated to begin teaching a storytelling class at the theater this fall and next month, it’s launching a Monday night storytelling block featuring Fountaine’s storytelling competition “Rant-O-Wheel” and Rea’s new show, “Fibber.”

“Rant-O-Wheel” gives contestants five minutes to tell a story that includes three nouns suggested by the audience then determined by a big wheel. “Fibbers” is also storytelling competition, but with a twist—one of the four stories is a lie. It’s up to the audience to interrogate the performers then vote for on who is lying.

“I think the trend towards storytelling in Philly, and the quality of the storytellers the city has produced, are further proof that Philly has a maturing comedy scene that is going to be on par with places like Chicago, New York and L.A.,” says PHIT’s founder, Greg Maughan. What makes storytelling different from the other comedic forms is the total freedom it allows performers to experiment with the art of laugher without necessarily having to be hah-hah funny.

Part of what makes their storytelling performances so uniquely entertaining is their DIY approach. Even if you didn’t know anyone upstairs at The Dive last Tuesday, by the end, you felt like you did. “I think the scrappiness is helpful,” Fountaine says. “There’s a sense of familiarity that you don’t get in a professional theater setting … it feels a little more Philadelphia.”


Rant-O-Wheel & Fibber: Oct. 3, 24. Dec. 5. 8:30pm. $10. Shubin Theater, 407 Bainbridge St.  

Second Stories: Oct. 11 and Nov. 8. Free. The Dive, 947 E. Passyunk Ave. 215.465.5505.

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