In search of that Aha!’ moment

Slam Nation’s’ night of story telling

4 minute read
Leitman: Remembrance of leotards past.
Leitman: Remembrance of leotards past.
What exactly makes a good story?

A night of story telling can be magical— there's no script, no rehearsed lines. "Story Slams," like the recent gathering of supposed champion storytellers at the Kimmel Center, have grown in popularity lately, thanks to recorded stories broadcast on programs like "This American Life" and "Studio 360."

In keeping with the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, this "Slam Nation," as it was called, revolved around Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. First Person Arts, an organization dedicated to first person narratives, asked eight storytellers from around the U.S. to choose their "Madeleine" to transport them back to a particular time or memory. It was a successful conceit: A cheese dome, a vintage black dress, a tablecloth, a potted plant— these objects all provoked interesting stories.

It's harder to tell a good story than you might think, especially without a script; yet the spontaneity of this form is the source of its charm. Perhaps the most successful performer was Adam Wade of New York, who seemed never to have grown up. Although his story was less than compelling, the little lovesick boy in his story shined through his voice and his mannerisms.

Uses and abuses of humor

By contrast, it was almost distracting when the story seemed over-rehearsed. Laura Packer of Boston, who spoke of confronting her past through items her family brought over from Europe, related each event with such precision that the content of the story was lost. Without the truth of emotion behind her words, I couldn't see or connect with the tablecloth that belonged to her great-grandmother before World War II.

To the extent that the evening's performers succeeded, humor was usually a key element. Margot Leitman of New York, described like Wade as a "Grand Slam" storytelling champion, relived every detail of fourth grade with hilarious accuracy, from the leotards to the Fisher-Price records.

On the other hand, Leitman's tale of her brief and anonymous phone affair, as a 12-year-old giant, with a short and probably balding 30-year-old had the potential to directly address issues of our often-desperate attempts at human connection. Unfortunately, the story ended a bit flat— a case of empty humor without apparent purpose.

Joyce's epiphany

Unlike written stories, in which very little can happen but the story can be rich with atmosphere, on stage there must be what James Joyce called an epiphany— an "aha!" moment for the audience. Despite Katonya Mosley's oversized personality, her series of uniquely touching vignettes about her devoutly religious mother never added up to any specific transformation, for her or the audience.

The best stories left me transformed in some way because I could recognize the depth and importance of that particular experience. Elna Baker, who related her efforts to lose weight to fit into her grandmother's handmade dress— a moment that defined her achievement as officially "beautiful"— ended her story with an almost tragic realization that beauty resides not in a dress but in the individual. This cliché was delivered with such evident sincerity that you could overlook its banality.

Daughter's brief life

Not surprisingly— to me, at least, most of the storytellers were women. Where men are often preoccupied with tales of heroic adventure and conquest, women are masters at empathy. Giulia Rozzi's recollection of her time as a confused fiancée was both hilarious and heartbreaking— and also the sort of thing you're unlikely to find in women's print media, like fashion magazines and feminist periodicals.

The most moving story was told by Jon Aaron of Baltimore, the evening's final performer. Aaron set the scene by describing a gentle moment with his "Madeleine," a nearly two decades-old plant. The story that surrounded the acquisition of that plant— a difficult pregnancy leading to a brief life of his first daughter— was delicately structured and punctuated with moments of surprise and humor. A mood of solemnity and respect filled the auditorium; the audience was on the edge of their seats, moved by the tragedy and Aaron's openness. It was the perfect story to end the evening— serious yet lighthearted, touching and well crafted.

What, When, Where

Slam Nation. Produced by First Person Arts for Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, April 26, 2011 at Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts.

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