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Dianna Marder on Repositories of History

Dianna Marder, writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, shares with us her experience collaborating with First Person Arts and the First Person Museum. She is an award-winning investigative reporter, covering courts, crime and City Hall for 18 years, before turning her talents to writing features about food and romance (which are not mutually exclusive topics). Look for her stories in the Image, Food and Daily Magazine sections.

I interviewed Dianna because of the major role she is playing at the new museum. She has been recording the stories of the objects our contributors have donated, which will then be included in the show.

On your involvement with FPA…
I came to know about First Person seven or eight years ago when, as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I was assigned to write about the annual Festival of Memoir and Documentary Arts. And the next year I wrote about the Story Slams.

I admired First Person’s belief in the intrinsic value of the human story, presented by the individual in whatever form feels right.

On the value of memoir…
I love personal histories and I’m intrigued by the power of memory and the opportunity memoir gives us to own our past and reflect on the lessons of our experience.

The way I look at it, memoir in whatever form, allows us to have some say in how we are remembered. And that’s crucial historically as well as personally because what is recorded is what we remember and that then becomes our truth .

So, in thinking about the various genocides the world has seen, for example, first person accounts give us the other side of what might be an otherwise biased account presented by the government in power at the time.

That’s part of memoir’s big picture.

On the power of the flea market…
The other part that matters so much to me is how we store our memories in objects: photographs, recipes, wooden spoons, whatever. For me, that is the lure of the flea market – it’s
a repository of folk history, a place where I’m likely to see the objects I grew up with (matchbox cars, metal skate keys, mixing bowls).

I see these things and images rush to my mind. And I have a hunch the same thing is happening simultaneously for at least half the people there, making for a kind of collective experience. A flea market is a great place for memoirists or any writers who feels stuck. Go. Think of the flea market as a Julia Cameron style Artists’ Date.

I found my Pirate’s Treasure Chest Bank at a  flea market a few years ago. I had one just like it as a child.

On her role in the museum…

In 2008, I think it was, I got permission from the paper (where I still work, after 25 glorious years. Really.) to lead memoir writing workshops for older women as part of First Person’s Community Writing project. Next, I expanded the idea, leading memoir writing workshops for lifers at Graterford prison.

I’m really grateful to First Person and to the Inquirer for giving me those chances. And that’s how I came to know Vicki Solot and she came to understand how I think and work. I was delighted when she offered me the opportunity to work on the Museum of the People.

There are so many aspects of the project: still photography, audio, video, design. And of course, the whole wonderful concept came from Vicki, who is inherently brilliant. I love the way she draws people into her magnetic field.

I guess my role in the Museum is that of story gatherer. I led a series of about six workshops – one with each of the community organizations that signed on to partner with First Person, in part to expand our reach in the city’s minority communities.

I worked with Dee Johnson, Angel Hogan and Katonya Mosley, whose names might be familiar to First Person fans because each is a poet, storyteller and teacher in her own right.

On the creative process…

Ten or so individuals attended each of our six or seven workshops where we guided them in writing short pieces – right on the spot – about an object that mattered to them. And that’s how we gathered a pool of stories.

Dee Johnson inspired us to compile the stories in chapbook form and give them to our partner organizations. It was such a good idea; they look terrific.

The workshop participants came out by choice for the most part and so many of them came with a memory in mind. Some of the workshops drew laughs and some were cathartic sob fests. But all the people we met were honest and eager and had rich histories to draw on.

I think they all caught on right away to the concept. It’s as if the practice of investing our things with meaning – making them sacred objects – is subconsciously universal.

The reporter in me knew we had to “vet” the individuals and their stories – to make sure the people knew what they were getting into by having themselves and their stories on public display. But I also needed to “flesh out” some of the stories, adding context without disturbing the storyteller’s voice.

Often, when I’m writing newspaper stories, particularly profiles, I find myself mimicking the individual’s cadence in order to convey the truest image of the person. And I don’t mean this in a demeaning way at all – it’s not like writing in slang or anything – it’s just a matter of stepping back as the writer and letting the individual tell the story.


This Ring…This Thing

This week’s featured story rings true for Carla from Philadelphia. Carla participated in a First Person Arts StoryCircle presented in partnership with Art Sanctuary and the 26 Annual Celebration of Black Writing Festival. Out of that Storytelling Event sprung Carla’s powerful cautionary tale and poem about a wedding band, which she keeps off her finger and in a box she calls a casket. Carla’s ring never made it to Ebay as suggested. Instead, it made both its online and museum debuts at firstpersonmuseum.org!

Carla’s wedding band is also on display at the live First Person Museum exhibit at the Painted Bride Art Center (230 Vine St.) Come see Carla’s story and wedding band in person at the First Person Museum pilot exhibition going on now through December 18. Join us for the December First Friday Reception December 3 from 5-7PM in the gallery.

Theme: Cautionary Tale
Object Type: Always By My Side

This is the wedding band that I purchased in the summer of 2005.
I had planned to marry a man (against my better judgment) and in order to prove that I was serious about the marriage, I bought the bands. One for him and one for me. They were inexpensive and generic. I purchased them at a popular jewelry store in Cherry Hill Mall. I remember taking them back to the store as I grew more hesitant about the marriage and they told me that I had held on to them for too long and I should try putting them on EBay! The wedding day came and the rings were blessed, exchanged, and placed on the appropriate fingers. As the marriage progressed, I knew it would not last despite our efforts in counseling. I moved out after three years and when I finally moved into my new home, I removed the ring at last. It was the final symbol of the failing marriage. Now, the box in which it rests is its coffin.

The following poem emerged from me in the midst of unconscious grief released in a workshop at the Art Sanctuary 26th Annual Celebration of Black Writing Festival. I do not know if it would have emerged in this state if I had not signed up for the Object and Memoir workshop.

This Thing… This Ring
By Carla A. Jones

This thing. This ring. With this ring, I thee wed.
Now this ring rests next to the bed…
In a box…in its final resting place.
The ring, the thing in the box by the bed…is dead.

The circle symbolized a love unbroken.
The minister asked God to bless this small token.
I never dreamed it would turn into a story by Tolkien.
The vows, the promises all shattered and broken.

This ring that I bought…I want my money back.
The marriage a sham. The dress should have been black.
You know, black and blue like the ones to me from you?
This thing. This ring.

Yes with this ring, I thee did wed.
Because you believed in the ring, I almost ended up dead.
D**n this ring and those vows because Lord knows I tried.
D**n this ring and those vows for the nights that I cried.

A band of white gold…fingers in a stranglehold.
My world will now unfold…
My story will be told…
In weddings, vows and God, I do still believe…

But from this ring from this thing…
I’ve found my reprieve…

See Carla’s official entry.

Feeling inspired by Carla’s story? Upload your own to the First Person Museum Online Gallery along with media including a photo of you, a photo of your object and even video! Choose from story themes like “Cautionary Tale” and object types like “Always By My Side.” Share your story with friends through social media like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter. Who knows? Next week’s Featured story could be YOURS!

-Becca Jennings


Your neighbors are not just meatbags…

Capturing our exhibit contributors with his camera, Jacques-Jean Tiziou is a major artistic presence at the new First Person Museum. He has provided portraits for five of the story-tellers and their objects as well as participating in the object selection process and early planning of the museum.

Jacques-Jean, or JJ, has been involved with FPA since 2005 when he won the photo contest associated with our festival. The theme was “lifting the veil” for which he avoided the more literal interpretation and instead submitted this image ( http://tinyurl.com/25azg8e) which depicts the incision in the skin made while removing an ovarian cyst.  In 2007, a friend who was working for FPA encouraged him to sign up as a subject for the “Objects of my affection” video project, where filmmaker and photo archivist John Pettit made a short documentary about his photo archive. http://www.viddler.com/explore/FirstPersonArts/videos/25/ )

When I asked JJ what he hoped would come from the show, he said “I think that there’s tremendous value in listening to our neighbor’s stories. The people on the street aren’t just bags of meat in your way… they’re potential storytellers, dance partners, friends and collaborators. We live in a world where it’s easy to be caught up in celebrity gossip and cultures of competition; in order to fix some of the things that are wrong with our world, we need to foster a culture of collaboration, and work in community. That starts with listening to each other.”

Museums are about telling a meta-story, and so I’ve been asking people what connections they see between the objects. JJ made an interesting observation- that many people have submitted objects that they associate with an important in their life.  He said “I think that to really get to the most interesting stories, these objects need another layer of questions to draw out the particular stories about these individuals that exemplify their impacts… these are the things that other people will most be interested in and able to relate to.”

Placing our everyday objects under a bright light forces our attention. JJ hopes that with that focus we might begin to reevaluate how we assign value to the things in our life. He mentioned the role of story teller that the media plays, often establishing our conventions for us, dictating what is and is not worth noticing or holding value.

JJ wants us to question what the media dictates is important: “Are there things that we are valuing maybe more than we should?” and “Are there other stories that are going untold that maybe we should make an extra effort to seek out? As my friends at the Media Mobilizing Project (http://mediamobilizing.org) like to say, “Movements begin with the telling of untold stories.”

“In all of my work, I’ve never encountered anyone that wasn’t photogenic, and everyone has an interesting story if you take the time to listen.  But it’s great when this kind of work can help you discover another facet of someone that you already thought that you knew.  I think that that’s where there’s real value in the work that First Person Arts does… we are surrounded by people that we may have simplified preconceptions about, or of whom we only see one angle… but when you take the time to listen to their stories, you discover a wealth of extra fascinating complexity. That’s the beauty of humanity…”

Take a moment to vote for JJ’s amazing project, How Philly Moves. It’s eligible for $50,000!

– Morgan Berman


Justin, Meet Dan. Dan, Meet Justin.

In our final installment of First Person RAW artists interviewing other Festival artists, Justin Jain of shiFt/transFer interviews Dan Hoyle of The Real Americans. It turns out these two strangers know the same folks and share some interest. America is a small world, indeed. Read Robin Gelfenbien’s interview with Elna Baker here and Heather Metcalfe’s interview of Heather Ross here.

Dan Hoyle is an incredibly talented artist whose work fascinates me. The following interview encapsulates two things I love – talking with actors about their process and scrutinizing the question: What does it mean to be American? As a Philadelphia-based theatre maker myself, I continually found myself inspired both by what The Real Americans is about and the process Hoyle used to create it. When First Person Arts approached me to conduct this interview, I was immediately excited (having only seen videos of his work and hearing about him from colleagues). Reading Dan’s thoughts on traveling the country and creating this piece are sure to make the experience of going to show that much richer. Below are excerpts from our interview. Enjoy!

J: I’m so excited to be talking with you after having looked at all your stuff online.
D: Well, I’m excited to make my Philly debut. The one group I know from Philadelphia is Pig Iron Theatre Company. And they did a show in San Francisco about 5-6 years ago that blew me away. And I kind of know Geoff [Sobelle, Rainpan 43 and Pig Iron].

J: He talked very highly of you and I guess that’s how you’ve come to be in the First Person Festival.
D: Yeah, I owe everything to Geoff. If it weren’t for Geoff, then I would never be in Philly.

J: How long have you been in San Francisco?
D: I moved back here in 2003. I grew up here. I went to school in Chicago – Northwestern. I lived in Spain for a year in school and then I went to Nigeria for a year in 2005-2006.

J: I did a show in San Francisco not too long ago and then I also have been working with a playwright there. Do you happen to know Matthew Graham Smith?
D: Oh! Yeah, he directed an initial version – the very first version of The Real Americans. It wasn’t called Real Americans then.

J: Wow.
D: Yeah, I know. It was at The Aurora Theatre Company. […] I can’t even remember what it was called back then. I don’t even know if it had a name.

J: Wow. Crazy small world. Yeah, he wrote a play that I did in Philly and then toured to San Francisco. And he wrote me a solo piece – my one and only solo piece I’ve ever done. That was a terrifying experience. So I can only imagine what your life is like as a performer.
D: That’s wild. That you know Matthew Graham Smith.

J: So, tell me more about documentary theatre – the kind of theatre you do. Cause this is totally out of my scope of the world.
D: Well, people when they think of documentary theatre, they think of Anna Deavere Smith. I guess anyone who is doing solo documentary theatre work owes a debt to what Anna Deavere Smith did. My characters are more composites. It’s not verbatim theatre. I go out, have an experience, ask some questions that I want to ask, generally – and then come back and make a show about that experience.

J: For The Real Americans, is there a framing device? Are you a narrator of sorts, and then cut in and out of these characters?
D: The whole trip was basically launched and the show is launched in having brunch with my yuppie friends in San Francisco and drowning in: “Hey you guys want some of this fruit compote? The pears…” It’s like, AGHHH! Get me out of what happened to my city! It’s become this caricature of itself. And so I wanted to get tough country wisdom. So I buy this Ford van, with a bed and a fridge and head out to small town America for three and a half months.

J: By yourself.
D: Yeah, by myself. And along the way, I go to all these places to sock it to urban liberals who don’t really know what’s going on in the country. And I do that. There’s a lot of jabs at “us” or the people that live in the urban liberal bubbles.

But what I found on my trip more than anything else was people were really angry at the way the country’s going and there’s this populist anger of “we want our country back.” The kind of Sarah Palin reaction. We have these two worlds that don’t really interact and are increasingly different. So, what does that mean? What do we do? As people who still wanna be a part of the country, but feel like “oh, where’s my place in all this?”

J: So have you performed this piece for these people? Have they seen it?
D: No, I haven’t gotten a chance to yet. I would. Since I knew it was going to be performed for theatre audiences, it is created to sort of sock it to theatre audiences. And I find generally that theatre audience are pretty liberal leaning folks, especially in cities. I would be interested in performing it somewhere else, going back to those places. I mean, my last show about oil politics in Nigeria, I took to Nigera and performed there.

J: So how is this different than that show… Tings Dey Happen, right?
D: Yeah, Tings Dey Happen.

J: And any of your past shows? And how is it the same?
D: Well, I think with what I try to do in my shows is have the writing be as rich as the performance. I think a lot of times in solo shows, there’s a really great performer and they can play their whole family, but at the end of the show you’re like: “hmmm. God, that guy’s really talented…”

I go out into the world and try to encounter the world with objective discerning eyes and bring back a piece of theatre that really makes people think, and question what they previously thought. I think if there’s something that I try to put in all of my work, it’s not to tell people how to think, but just to encourage critical thinking.

Now, before everyone goes: “Ohmigod. That sounds like a horrible dissertation book. Why would I want to go see that?” It’s theatre, and it’s a show, and I take a lot of pride in trying to make it a show and make people laugh. I think those are the two things that I’m always trying: It’s as much dense interesting content and as entertaining a package as I can put together.

J: Do you do freelance acting outside of your personal work as well?
D: I haven’t really. I mean I did, throughout college. In college, I started getting into this solo stuff because I was a little bit bored with the kind of mainstream theatre scene at Northwestern. I love Northwestern, it was a great school. I started walking around Chicago late at night. I’d take the red line down and get off at a random stop and walk around and talk to strangers – you know, gigolos, ballroom dancer, street hustlers… all these people. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew I wanted to get something that felt more interesting than just a whole bunch of nineteen year olds trying to interpret a piece of literature that maybe was beyond them. I’m not trying to slag people off or anything, I just wanted something that felt more immediate, you know?

So I started doing that when I did this 20 minute piece about being the only white guy at an all black basketball court in Chicago. And you know, everyone calling me Dan Akroyd and Wayne Gretzsky. They’re not basketball players but they’re just white so that was me. And then I won this crazy grant to go around the world studying globalization in eight countries and that became my first show. I think I’ve always thought the solo show is pretty dynamic. It’s a unique medium. […] But I’m not wedded to that. I think it would be great to have some collaborators – besides the mirror.

J: Yeah, I know. It’s very scary… My one foray into that world I found I was very scared, very lonely. There’s just this feeling of: “I have no idea if what I’m doing is good.” I mean, you get that in a regular show, but it’s quadrupled when you’re the only person onstage.
D: Yeah, I’m lucky to work with a director I’ve worked with for a long time. My initial process is I work a lot in front of a mirror. I take recordings when I’m going out there. I listen to those recordings. Then I create characters in front of my mirror. There’s that initial four or five month period where I’m just trying to create something out of nothing. Although, I do have this block of experience and material. So I try to create things up out of that.

J: Is that pretty formulaic? That four to five month creation period – before you jump into actual rehearsals?
D: I wish it was formulaic. I wish I could just discover the… I could be teaching master seminars on “creating knock-dead, sure-fire, linear characters!” Although, I think I’m teaching something at the festival…

J: Yeah!
D: But, obviously, I have a few tricks that I do and I’ll pass those on. But it’s excruciating. Writing is definitely the hardest part. And then I do workshops. I do always several workshop performances over months and as you know, the audience never lies. And if something’s not working, then you know it. You can do the post-show feedback sessions, but you kinda already know what worked and what didn’t.

J: This whole concept of “going out into the world, gathering information, interviewing people and then bringing it back to the stage” is actually new to me and my personal process. And this is something I’m doing with my show right now, with my ensemble. We’re all just gathering our stories. How have you felt people receiving you when you go to interview them? Have you had any resistance? Have you had any really good successes? What’s that like?
D: Right. There’s a whole interesting art to that. Generally, I find if you are honest with who you are and at the same time are able to show a respect and curiosity for the other person’s culture or background, then they’re going to want to take you in and show you. There’s a fine line between pretending that you’re “down” when you’re not – that’s not where you’re from – and having a curiosity and interest and a fascination in it. Then there’s this weird thing of wanting to blend in, in a respectful way of: “I want to see. I want to have this experience.” You’re never going to be able to necessarily enter into that world the same way those people are. But it’s similar to what an actor does, really.

One way I sometimes think about what I’m doing is it’s just like a really intense three month acting exercise. Where I’m going out and instead of writing down given circumstances for these characters, I’m going out meeting these people, hearing their given circumstances, hearing their stories, hearing their cadences, hearing what it sounds like when they’re telling those stories, listening to the people that are interrupting them… Basically seeing the drama of their lives first hand.

J: What is it about solo performance that attracts you? As opposed to working in ensemble or in a bigger process.
D: People didn’t pay attention me as a child. Nah, I’m just kidding. (laughs) I dunno. And this is true about all theatre, but of solo theatre its just you and the audience. It kinda goes back to people telling stories around a fire. Its also like really good bar stories. And so even though most solo performance kind of occupies this bougie place in our culture, really what it is is pretty ‘everyman.’ It’s a guy getting up there and using really just his own personal tools to tell a story, you know? And almost all solo work is 90 percent about the person onstage. Yeah, you’ll have a few sound effects, a few light cues, but I don’t have a set. My costume… I have three hats and a guitar. And a chair. So, yeah, you can kinda do that anywhere and I think that’s kinda cool.

J: In The Real Americans, without giving any spoilers, what is your favorite moment? Or the moment that you love that the audience is reacting to?
D: Gosh, there’s a lot of pleasure in performing this show. There’s this character, Jack, from Kentucky, who starts out (impression of inaudible talking)… He does this whole thing and the audience is going: “that the ___?” And then he just turns and says (impression) “That’s small town people, you know everybody.” And the supertitles come up.

J: That’s amazing.
D: All of a sudden, the whole show, the whole character… You have to have supertitles. This is somewhere outside of our normal America. There’s a character who is saying all these really racist things – he’s kinda this Southern Alabama small town guy – and he’s a difficult character to do cause he’s saying things that are kinda hard for people to take. But its really interesting because he’s right on this edge. It’s like he’s performing this redneck identity. And it’s the identity politics that we never really talk about – what’s it like to be an unrecognized redneck? Saying (impression) “Yeah, I mean they got that united negro college fund. Can you imagine if we had the united redneck college fund?” And its kinda like oooohhh… on the edge. There’s another character who is in Mississippi and he’s (impression) “My whole life…” I mean, its sorta hard for me to talk about these characters without going into them, you know. I’ve been doing this show now for almost ten months, so they’re kinda like your best friends. Your imaginary friends.

J: So how many people are we going to meet when we see your show?
D: Gosh, including the brunch people and everything, its somewhere between a dozen and twenty. I guess it depends. Some have one liners and at least a dozen are full characters.

J: And the show follows a kind of arc? Or does it follow your exact map as you went through?

D: It’s a little bit of both. We go through the south, then we go through Appalachia. Part of the show is me being like “Oh my god. I’m meeting all these really angry people. How am I going to be able to make a show about this?” There’s this whole thing of me sorta freaking out about it. But at the end, the final third of the show, I start to break through a little bit. And start to meet people and you get characters who are right on the edge. So, I think there’s a lot of stuff that the show is trying to say, but at the end we’re all in this together.

I think a lot of times people just try to totally write off small town America as being: “that’s not our America.” Or they say “I’m just gonna be in my liberal bubble. I’m not going to try to participate in this country that’s becoming so polarized. I’m not gonna participate.” You know, after traveling around, I felt like… I dunno, I started wearing American flag t-shirts for the first time in my life. Not ironically. Kinda like “hey! This is my country too. I want to take an active part in being a part of its identity.” Not letting guys, rednecks, claiming the flag as their own. And all the liberals in the city have to go on vacation in Europe or something to feel culturally at home.

J: Did you ever feel unsafe or scared when you were traveling?
D: Yeah. I hung out with this Aryan brotherhood guy late at night in smalltown Nebraska. And there was a moment when I thought I was gonna get my teeth kicked in. But I didn’t (laughs). And he’s actually not in the show because he got radicalized as an Aryan brotherhood guy in the California prison system. So his story is really more about the crazy prison system we have in California and not so much about this kind of rift between small town, what I call “Palin country” and “Obama-nation.”

J: Did you ever come across… I’m asking this question from a viewpoint thinking about my piece. Did you ever come across any people that have recently immigrated to America or any minority groups that are trying to live here?
D: Yeah, definitely. There’s a whole thing happening now in tiny little towns in Wisconsin and Nebraska and places… there’s all these immigrants mostly from Central America and Mexico. That’s shaking up all the white people who have never had to compete for the jobs at the factory. All of a sudden, they are. We meet this character, Ramon, who’s a Dominican from New York who has this long story about when he has this experience with this guy in this small town café who sorta calls him out for not being American.

At the core of the show, there’s this question of: who owns the country? Right now, we have a lot of people on the right saying: “we own this country.” We’ve had that before with the no-nothings, the whole Nativist phenomenon – we’ve had that before in this country. And it’s sorta coming back. Then there’s this whole other side and the demographics are changing. Really, the country is belonging to a whole bunch of different people trying to be see how that all plays out.

J: Has this show radically changed for you what it means to be American?
D: I don’t know. You know, the other thing I really should say is that throughout the trip… I mean the hospitality of people was overwhelming. The first two weeks I had seven free meals. People were praying for me constantly. “Oh yeah, go ahead, crash in our yard… you want to stay another night? No problem… You need a shower?” And these are strangers that are taking me in. So, there is an immense hospitality and kindness. Even though a lot of times I’ll be talking to people and our views would be really different, it was almost always very civil. So, I hope the show inspires people to also get out and get to know their country. Because there’s only good things that can come of it.

I had this sorta naïve idea that you just go out, you just talk to people, and everything will be okay – its all just a little misunderstanding we have about what the whole point of America is, and that’s not necessarily true. I mean, the differences are serious and real, but by going and talking to people – especially in a kind of one-on-one setting where they’re from – you’re serving as an ambassador for city intellectuals. Saying “hey, we’re not all crazy folks that are not anything like you.” Its like: “yeah, hey, I got a Ford van and I’m driving around the country and I’m cooking my meals in my stove and I’m going camping.” So I think its really important to get outside of your bubble. I think it’s the same for a lot of people in small town America. And they would say that too – “We’re in a bubble too and we don’t really go to the city. And when we do, we try to be back by sundown.” You know? I think there’s a lot to be gained from getting out of your comfort zone.

J: Of course. Just a couple last things. Have you been to Philly before?
D: Yes. I’ve been to Philly and I’m super excited to go to Philadelphia again. When I was doing my show in New York, I went to this youth hostel place outside of Philadelphia that was super nice. In Bucks County, I think? And was amazed that there was nature because I was living in New York, doing my show six nights a week, and hadn’t literally seen a duck in like, 3 months. So I have all these photographs of ducks and leaves. I felt like losing it on nature. But I’m super excited to play Philadelphia.

J: How do you think Philadelphia fits into The Real Americans?
D: Philadelphia, I know, is not as precious as San Francisco by any stretch of the imagination. Part of the motivation for me is that San Francisco, like I said, is this caricature of over-priced brunch menu items that you cannot even pronounce and activist causes that you don’t even understand. And I know that’s the extreme of urban, liberal, yuppie tranquilism. I think that still exists in Philadelphia, and I know that Philadelphia is much more within the mainstream of America than San Francisco is. I’m interested to see how it all plays. I hope that people still recognize this gulf within their own lives and I hope that people are excited to see their country in a new way.

J: So my last question is… You do a lot of journalism as well. And so you’re marrying journalism and theatre and that’s one avenue of using the arts to make a change, or to make a difference, or make some impact. What is our responsibility as artists, in your view, either in forwarding the form of theatre or putting things out there to affect other people? What is our responsibility?
D: To all come to my show (laughs). No. You know, sometimes I feel like I wish I could write a show that is just pure entertainment. I sometimes get frustrated. Like: “why do I have to make this character? Or why can’t I make it mindless, pure fun?” But I find that I’m kinda incapable of that. I think that theatre is a tough sell for a lot of young people, and yet, when I get young people to come to my shows, they really like it. And they’re like “wow. That was super cool.”

Our responsibility as artists, I think, is to… especially as theatre artists… We’re probably not going to make a lot of money. So I think we need to keep audiences on their toes and continue to make theatre that is exciting and entertaining enough that people really wanna come and really wanna buy tickets and really wanna spend an evening. But that when they leave the theatre, there’s something new that’s implanted inside them. Either in their thoughts or in their heart that sticks with them… for at least a week.

-Justin Jain


Gentle Crosshairs

Get in gear with this week’s featured story from the First Person Museum Online Gallery. This week’s tale is more than classic! “Gentle Crosshairs” comes to us from Andrew from New York City. Take a ride through Andrew’s story about an unconventional hood ornament that once sat perched on the edge of a 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. But this hood ornament is not just special for evading the late ’80’s and early ’90s fad for hood ornament theft. Read the story behind Andrew’s gentle crosshairs and learn about a comfort and luxury that exceeds even powered leather seats.

Now it’s YOUR turn! Upload your story to firstpersonmuseum.org and be featured in a Museum! Read through stories by other Museum contributors or upload your own using media including a photo of yourself, your object or video. Who knows? Next week’s featured story could be yours!

Theme: Good Times
Object Type: My Wheels
In the winter of 1997, I set out to buy a sensible car and, instead, fell in love with a 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. A couple thousand bucks got me two tons and twenty feet of harvest gold luxury, replete with four-way powered leather seats, sun roof, and a working 8-track stereo. To my enormous delight, the car remained intact save for one glaring flaw: It hadn’t survived the late ‘80s and early ‘90s fad for hood-ornament theft. With at least ten feet of hood, the missing crest made it nearly impossible to determine where the world started and my Cadillac stopped.

By chance, at a flea market, I discovered a lovely chrome swan, lightly pock-marked and imperfect, but with a delicately arched neck and a dramatic spread of wings. It made a stunning, if unconventional, replacement, rivaling the luxury and prestige of any not-quite-classic vehicle anywhere.

The Cadillac and I moved a lot in the late 90s, and the swan perched on the hood as a gentle cross-hairs on my various aspirations, pulling up targets and driving them down. Anything was possible in that car. In the fall of 1998, I drove across the country, up through Canada (where I evaded a speeding ticket because the speedometer wasn’t graduated in kilometers) and down to my new home in Los Angeles. From Venice, I barreled south along the beach to the Palisades and north on the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu, the chrome swan leading the way. Gradually, though, the stuff of adulthood crept into my possession, eventually exceeding the ample trunk capacity of the Cadillac and forcing a painful choice. In advance of a move to Philadelphia, I reluctantly prepared to part ways with the car, listing it in the Auto Trader at an ambitious $2500. One Saturday morning, I pointed the swan towards a diner in the Valley and sat down for breakfast with Frank, a retired janitor who looked wistfully at the car through the diner window while pushing eggs around his plate. It was his dream car, the first vehicle he’d lusted after as an adult, but there was a problem: He could do $1500 up front, but he’d have to make payments on the balance. For my taking on the risk–for trusting him–he’d even pay $2700. Frank’s palpable love for the car made the deal, and, impulsively, I shook on it. We agreed to meet at a mall in Santa Monica the following week.

Frank had brought a friend–a fellow retiree–and over lunch we talked cars and life in Los Angeles. At a break in the conversation, Frank looked around furtively and leaned in: “Are you ready to make the swap?” He was afraid we’d be seen with cash and robbed. With his friend standing guard at the door, Frank and I swapped paper and shook on the deal in the mall bathroom. In addition to the cash in hand, he’d make eight monthly payments of $150 each. We walked together to the car, and lingering over the swan for a moment, he looked at me and said he’d like me to have it. He’d already found an original Cadillac replacement, and he had no use for it. “To remember this great car” he said.

The sensible, utilitarian little pickup truck I bought as a replacement lacked a hood ornament or badge of any kind. No cars have them anymore. They’re too ostentatious, maybe, or too vulnerable to theft. Frank made every single payment as promised, calling to make sure the check had cleared and updating me on his life. In ‘retirement’ he’d started a small solo janitorial business–he just couldn’t sit still, it turned out, or play golf like his buddies. The car, of course, was everything he’d hoped.

For ten years, the swan has occupied a nook or shelf, a memento of my days on the wide-open freeways of L.A and of something else as well. Once an emblem of ambition, movement and change, the swan reminds me now of my deal with Frank, of the virtues of simple human trust and a confidence in people, that, as it happens, is a comfort and a luxury exceeding even powered leather seats.

Read Andrew’s official entry.

-Becca Jennings


Cooking with Joan Nathan.

This Sunday I made Crustless Quiche Clafoutis with Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, and Olive Oil with my friend Moira (she graduated from my school last year and now lives in a house in Philadelphia – with a kitchen and everything). I should thank her now for helping me make the quiche. I don’t think it would have worked as well in my dorm’s microwave.

The recipe comes from Joan Nathan’s newest cookbook, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous, the result of Nathan’s exploration of Jewish cuisine in France. On November 13, during the First Person Festival , you can brunch with Joan Nathan and hear all about her culinary adventure while munching on delicacies from Argan Moroccan Cuisine, Hershel’s East Side Deli and Zahav. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

After taking the short train ride from Bryn Mawr to Market East, I joined Moira and headed over to 10th and South to Super Fresh. There we bought crumbled goat cheese, grated parmesan, cherry tomatoes, eggs, and fresh basil. We only had a problem finding creme fraiche (probably because we were unsure of what it was); luckily, the nice man at Whole Foods (conveniently right across the street) pointed us in the right direction.

I’m not going to lie, I was really nervous for this assignment. I had never made a quiche before and am not the greatest culinary talent (except for my morning bagels which I toast and spread cream cheese on myself). Fortunately, I had two important tools with me: Moira and Joan Nathan’s cookbook. The recipe was easy quick and easy to follow. It only took about 15-20 minutes to prep and 45 minutes to bake. I feel like Julia Child, only Asian and in Philadelphia.

After only 5 minutes in the oven, the quiche already smelled great. The recipe said to serve the quiche immediately after coming out of the oven. So, after (im)patiently waiting for the timer to go off, Moira and I quickly gave ourselves generous portions. “This is the kind of thing you would make if you were going to a dinner party with a cute boy and you want to impress him,” Moira said gleefully. I was definitely impressed with our efforts, the quiche was light and airy. Plus, anything with tomatoes and basil gets an A in my book. The fact that the quiche tasted great this morning after heating it up for breakfast was the cherry on top.

In the end, it was a great way to spend my Sunday afternoon, and I hope I will be able to make more of Nathan’s recipes before anyone finds out that I have a copy of the cookbook in my dorm.

Here’s a sneak peek at the recipe I used: 

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for greasing pan
1/4 cup whole fresh basil leaves
6 large eggs
3 heaping tablespoons creme fraiche
1 cup of milk
1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly round pepper to taste
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes


  1. Grease and line the bottom and sides of a 10-inch quiche mold or springform pan with parchment paper 
  2. Put the basil leaves in a small cup, and coat with the tablespoon of olive oil, letting them macerate while you prepare the quiche
  3. Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl. Then stir in the creme fraiche, milk, goat cheese, Parmesan cheese, flour, salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste, making sure there are no lumps of flour. 
  4. Put the cherry tomatoes in the prepared pan, cover with the egg mixture, and poke the basil leaves in throughout 
  5. Put the quiche in a cold oven, then turn up the heat to 350 degrees. Cook for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the quiche starts to turn slightly golden on top. Serve immediately or at room temperature. 

Don’t forget to hear all about the stories behind this recipe and many others at Nathan’s event. (Besides, you never know when you’ll need one of the recipes to impress a cute boy).
– Laura Reeve


Law & Order: Criminal Intent

Here’s our latest featured StorySlammer! Don’t miss all of our wonderful contestants compete in our Fall Grand Slam and Soiree! on November 10!

Aaron won our hearts when he won our Criminal Intent StorySlam when he told us a humorous and really embarrassing story about, well, in his own words, “involuntary public nudity while defecating.” Watch Aaron perform his story below.

You can also read up on our previously featured winners here.

Name: Aaron Stella
Age: 25
Location: Philadelphia (Newbold Area)
Slam won: Criminal Intent

What was the last thing you won (story slam not included)? A laptop computer at a raffle.

In honor of FPA’s 10 year anniversary in 2011 – Tell us a story in 10 words. Went to the park, killed a bird, and ate it.

What would your dream theme be for a StorySlam? What story would you tell? Cults. I would tell the story about my life living in a crazy Christian cult in Georgia.

Who do you know that tells the worst (or best) stories? My friends Gavin McMonigle, Andrew Thompson (previous Storyslam winner) and Ryan Briggs tell the best stories.

Why are you a good storyteller? (aka why should your competitors be scared?) Because I wear thongs. Because I drink whiskey. Because I cry to cathartic, frenetic, anime. Because I use my hands to accent my images. Be afraid. My hands are comin’. (Not in the bedroom fondler sort of way)


Friends With Benefits

Here’s another Fall Grand Slam and Soiree contestant who will be brawling on November 10!

When Erica moved from the west coast to Philadelphia, there was only one thing missing…good weed. So she went where most people go to find special friends. Craigslist! Hear the rest of her saucy story below!

Don’t forget to check out our previously featured contestants here.

Name: Erica
Age: 32
Location: Germantown
Slam won: Friends with Benefits

What was the last thing you won (StorySlam not included)?
An award for “Best Style” at a staff bowling outing in NYC.  I count my approach out like dance steps and do a little hop between beats 3 and 4.  I really can’t bowl without the hop.  I believe the prize was two tickets to the movies.

In honor of FPA’s 10 year anniversary in 2011, tell us a story in 10 words.
These scars are bites from a 750 pound pig, Hilda.

What would your dream theme be for a Storyslam?
What story would you tell?
A story about one of the surgical scars on my body.

Who do you know that tells the worst (or best) stories?
My Bedouin father in the Peace Corps, Dakhilallah Gublan Al-Fikur, told the best stories around the dinner fire pit.

Why are you a good storyteller? (aka why should your competitors be scared?)
I’m an adventurous person.


Mail Retaliation

When Chris brought out his top secret plans to defeat his friend Chuck (he wrote them when he was sixteen, by the way) there was no way he wasn’t going to become an audience favorite. His diabolical plan included subscribing Chuck to Playgirl! You can watch the full story below.

Don’t forget to read about our other featured competitors here

I know you want to see all our featured performers compete on November 10 at our Fall Grand Slam.  Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Name: Christopher Granville Oberlin
Age: 36
Location: Drexel Hill, PA
Slam won: It’s in the Mail (audience favorite)

What was the last thing you won (StorySlam not included)?
Four free tickets to the Battleship New Jersey in a raffle at my step-son’s Cub Scout banquet.  Score!

In honor of FPA’s 10 year anniversary in 2011 – Tell us a story in 10 words.
Got lost in Brazilian rainforest. Sadly, no monkey rescued me.

What would your dream theme be for a StorySlam? What story would you tell?
My dream theme would be “Any Story Told With A Scottish Accent” and I would tell a sad story about my cat dying but it would still be hilarious because it would be told in a Scottish accent which makes everything awesome.

Who do you know that tells the worst (or best) stories?
My 85 year-old grandparents tell horrible stories because they tell every story together yet can never agree on a single detail.  They’re also the best because they’re 85 years old and when they argue with each other about which restaurant they were eating at yesterday, it’s kinda cute.  But also sad.

Why are you a good storyteller? (aka why should your competitors be scared?)
I like to think I have a knack for details.  And I can totally do different voices and stuff.


Western Electric

Hold the phone! This week’s featured story from the First Person Museum Online Gallery comes to us from Dan from Bala Cynwyd. Travel back in time through a story about a rotary phone that is squat, black and solid — much unlike its owner. Gather ’round what Dan calls “a household altar” for a tale that pays homage to a grandmother and the pre-satellite era.

Have you uploaded your story yet? Drop the First Person Museum a line at firstpersonmuseum.org along with media including a photo of you, your object, or video. Choose from Themes like “You Can’t Go Home Again” and Object Types like “From Long Ago.” Operators are standing by! Who knows? Next week’s story could be yours!

Theme: You Can’t Go Home Again
Object Type: From Long Ago
My grandmother’s phone is squat, black and solid, and in that respect it was unlike her, a tiny Italian woman with narrow birdlike bones. Otherwise, however, they were in parallel: built of stronger stuff than their modern-day equivalents, and hard-wired once and forever into a tidy house in Ardmore. It bears an exchange number, MI for MIdway, which is vastly more permanent than fungible 64.

It works by means of magnets and metal, dense with respectable copper, resting firmly on hard rubber feet, an artifact of an age of clear cause and effect. A household altar to the electromechanical mystery of the single, totemic Phone Company. First the old AT&T was slain, then the very wires themselves, and the phone and my grandmother were both thrust into a contingent, unreliable era of cells and satellites. “You’re walking on the street in Canada? You sound like you’re right next door!”

Like her, the phone ended its days affixed in the same place but severed from its context, cast out from the eternal verity of the 215 area code and into the distressing meaninglessness of 610. People say it was a stroke that carried her off, three days short of her ninetieth birthday. I know better. It was ten-digit dialing.

Dial up Dan’s official entry here.

The Museum is officially open at the Painted Bride Art Center. (230 Vine St.) Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 12-6. You can also visit whenever there are performances and events during the First Person Festival. Thanks to everyone who came to Friday’s opening night reception.

See you at the Museum!

-Becca Jennings

Upcoming Events
  • May StorySlam – Grand Slam
  • Date: May 22, 2018
  • Time: 8 PM
  • Venue: Fringe Arts Building
  • Location: 140 N Christopher Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia, PA 19106