Want to hear a story? The First Person Arts fest celebrates 16 years

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova tells her story in Philly on November 6. (Image courtesy of First Person Arts.)

What is the place of memoir and documentary art at a time when the truth is considered up for debate? Jamie Brunson, the executive director of First Person Arts, has a bold yet hopeful outlook.

“It is important now more than ever to build memoir [and] documentary art… Nothing resonates more deeply than the truth. You know it when you hear it… you know the truth when you hear it at a cellular level.” It’s a tall order for personal narrative, but this year’s array of artists in the 16th annual First Person Arts Festival (November 5 through 18) stand poised to hold up Brunson’s faith in the truth of first-person storytelling.

Hot talent and high stakes

The festival, 12 shows spread out over the course of two weeks, will feature both local and internally known storytellers and comedians. But don’t let the list of famed comedians convince you that this is low-stakes storytelling. Margaret Cho, Maria Bamford (of Netflix’s Lady Dynamite fame), and Hari Kondabolu will be using their wit and keen sense of humor to tackle hot-button topics like race and addiction while providing heartfelt insight into human nature. Activist Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot (the feminist punk-rock group whose members were imprisoned for their guerilla performances in Russia) also joins the ranks of noteworthy festival guests for The Price of Protest on November 6 at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. This year’s events are anything but a bedtime story with a glass of warm milk.

Though the festival has expanded greatly since its 2000 launch and now attracts some of biggest names in contemporary storytelling, comedic or otherwise, Brunson has balanced the lineup with emerging Philadelphia artists to keep the ties to the city strong. For example, local theater company Applied Mechanics, known for its work in artistic activism, is opening for Tolokonnikova. Pennsylvania comedians Alyssa Al-Dookhi and Krish Mohan will join Kondabolu onstage November 8 at Punch Line Philly, for a discussion on race and comedy moderated by BSR’s own social-media manager, Neil Bardhan.

Brunson sees it as her duty, and the duty of the festival, to offer Philadelphians the chance to expand their reach and to grow as artists by pairing them up with potential mentors. She says she gives a lot of thought to whom to reach out to: “people who will not only be satisfying curatorially,” but will also be a great partnership opportunity for a newer Philly-based artist.

Philly in vogue  

As the festival continues to grow, Brunson plans to continue incorporating programming that promotes the work of local artists and collaborates with other organizations in the city. A cultivated partnership that Brunson is particularly proud of for the 2017 festival is the one between First Person Arts, the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility Services (DBHIDS), and the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Together, the team has organized Legendary, an event that will combine the talents of Leiomy Maldonado and viral choreographer Kemar Jewel to celebrate the next generation of ball culture, almost 30 years after Paris is Burning. The night will include a performance and a talkback moderated by a member of DBHIDS. It’s happening Monday, November 13, at 7:30 at Underground Arts. It’s free and open to the public, but advance registration is required.

The First Person Arts Festival is packed to the brim with engaging and varied events, but the activists in our midst might want to add this to their calendars. You’re sure to get a good story out of it.

The 16th annual First Person Arts Festival is running November 5 through 18, 2017, at venues throughout Philadelphia. For more information, tickets, and the full lineup, visit online.

Above: Legendary will reimagine the iconic balls of the 1980s New York City drag scene. (Image courtesy of First Person Arts.)