First Person Arts is celebrating its 10th anniversary with the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art, with events Nov. 10-20 throughout Old City. The offerings range from theater and storytelling to documentary screenings and workshops.
Year-round this organization showcases the power of the personal narrative, most often with bimonthly Story Slams storytelling competitions that invite anyone and everyone to reveal true stories around a theme.
A few gay performers are presenting their stories at this year’s festival. Two of them are combining their stories into one show.
In “Beaut,” Philadelphia performers Thomas Choinacky and John Jarboe perform two one-man shows as one theatrical experience, telling their stories about growing up gay in conservative Midwestern families.
Choinacky said he and Jarboe realized they had similar backgrounds when they worked together for a local theater company.
“We are in another theater company together called Applied Mechanics and we met through that,” he said. “The original idea was us combining two separate stories and intertwining them together. It evolved over time. We realized the similarities that we had between us in the stories that we told to each other. The relationships we talked about sounded so similar. So it kind of morphed and we realized we had to create something together.”
In “Beaut” — the title is inspired by B.H. Fairchild’s poem “Beauty” — Choinacky and Jarboe, separated by just a thin cloth, relate their experiences growing up in Catholic Midwestern households, attempting to come to terms with themselves as gay artists, and tackling the relationship between fathers and sons.
Choinacky said the sheet at first isolates the two and their performances but, as the play progresses, it functions as a conduit for them to interact.
“We’re using a lot of lighting effects where a lot of times we will interact with the shadows, and then there are times where the cloth will be pulled away and moved aside for us to have scenes together,” he said. “We wanted to develop a sense of aloneness that we felt growing up being gay from the Midwest, where you feel like you’re the only one at times. That cloth is that separation that we feel. Then, as the show develops, there’s this merging and realizing you’re not the only one and you’re going through it similarly with other people.”
Choinacky added that while his and Jarboe’s stories have similarities, there are significant differences.
“They’re not totally parallel to each other. The show is not all dramatic sad things about our lives. One thing we have realized in the process is that there’s a strong age difference between my dad and his dad. You’ll find that in how they react to certain situations and to a different type of conservatism. I come from a larger family than he does, so I had more siblings that I could turn to. That had a bigger influence on my life than his. We’re learning about ourselves as well and we work on this together. The process of having this feeling separate and alone, and having [both stories] happen at the same time, make a stronger impact.”
Another gay performer, playwright and storyteller R. Eric Thomas, flies solo on his new show, “Will You Accept This Friend Request?” In the show, Thomas weaves a tale of humor and heartbreak chronicling his attempts at making connections (and mistakes) while seeking friends and companions online.
“It basically details my adventures in being popular on the Internet, but not so much in real life,” Thomas said. “I looked back at all the profiles I made for every website over the last 10 years and it’s this compendium of demographic information that, when combined, says to the world: ‘This is who I am. Is that OK with you?’ So I started asking myself how do I present myself to the world and how does anybody present themselves to the world using the Internet? I took a look at some specific experiences. I was on the gay softball league this past summer and that was kind of a disaster. I thought it was going to be like ‘A League of Their Own’ and it wasn’t. So I talk about that. And I talk about an experience when I was in college when I was mistaken for a white racist even though I’m black, because of something that I wrote on the Internet. It’s mostly funny but it has some touching moments in it as well.”
While social media has made it easier for people to connect with each other, Thomas said it does occasionally have a down side.
“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “I love the Internet and social media. I remember last summer I was dating somebody and we became Facebook official. It was the first time I had done that and that was extraordinary because I got all these likes and comments from people I hadn’t talked to in years. It was like I was starting an online engagement party. In that sense it’s extremely helpful. It’s also really helpful when I’m trying to stalk my exes. On the other hand, because I’m always connected, I have this expectation. It’s like constantly having a barometer of how people feel about you, perceived or actual. So my imagination takes that and runs away with it. It’s always being able to get attention through Tweeting or updating your status or messaging someone. It’s really easy to step up out of yourself, which usually is more about personal responsibility as opposed to the Internet or social media being anything particularly harmful.”
He added that the Internet was a major component in his coming out.
“The first people I ever encountered were on chat rooms,” he said. “The first of any admission I was able to make was online. So that sort of started the pattern of identifying myself using profiles and the online component. It’s easy. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on Grindr but I do find that a lot of people on there are trying to make friends. For a lot of LGBT people, the distance that social media places between each individual is a little bit of a safety net. I tend to eschew meeting people online as much. But some of my best friends I met on OK Cupid as well as most of the people that I’ve dated. But the person I’m dating right now I actually met at the grocery store, which is astounding to me. It’s so fascinating that I walked up to someone and asked him for his number. For me, it’s retro. It’s like, this is fun. You can actually speak to people.”
Thomas is no stranger to the world of First Person Arts, as he has performed at many Story Slams and won Best Presentation at two First Person Arts Grand Slams. He’s also hosted Slam Nation at the Kimmel Center for Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts and teaches writing and storytelling workshops to high-school students and adults for First Person Arts.
He said the organization has been integral to his development as a writer and performer.
“It’s been completely life-changing,” said Thomas. “I went to a Story Slam just like every other person with a story to tell and I didn’t really know that my story was all that important. The organization, their whole idea, is that each person has something important to say because they experienced it. Over the last four years, I won a lot of slams and I’ve been asked to do certain projects by First Person and host different shows with them. They really shepherded this show and without them it would have been a lot harder for me to put on a show like this. And it would have been a lot harder for me to actually believe what I had to say was important.”
First Person Arts presents “Will You Accept This Friend Request?” 7 p.m. Nov. 14-15 at Khyber Upstairs, 56 S. Second St., and “Beaut,” 8:30 p.m. Nov.14-15 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. For more information on the First Person Festival, performances and tickets, visit www.firstpersonarts.org or call 267-402-2055.