“Free stories! Get them while they are hot, get them while they are buttered,” Steadman shouts outside Carpenters’ Hall in Old City.
It is a slow morning for the openly gay actor and his shift just started, but he is optimistic and quickly draws in a couple from Maryland who has never been to Philadelphia before.
Steadman has worked as a storyteller for Historic Philadelphia, Inc.’s Once Upon A Nation program for seven years. Once Upon A Nation features 10 different storytelling benches where actors tell stories of the nation’s history right where they happened. Stories are three-to-five minutes long and are told from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day.
This year, Steadman, a Philadelphia native, has the privilege of telling stories about another fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Franklin.
Steadman’s love for the job developed from both his passion of meeting new people and performing.
“It is everything that permeates my being,” he said.
Steadman’s love of theater was sparked in 1997 after he graduated from high school and saw the movie version of “Oliver.”
“They were acting, singing and dancing the whole time and I said, ‘I’m going to do that for the rest of my life,’” he said.
Steadman, who considers himself a “stage” actor, came out at age 29.
“I was dating one of my best friends at the time and she came out to me and I came out to her at the same time, so that was fun. But it was kind of scary because I didn’t know what my mother would think. When I told her, her exact words were, ‘I kind of knew that’ and then that made it easier for me,” he said.
Steadman entered the theater world in college, studying first at Community College of Philadelphia and then Temple University, and ultimately went on to join Chicago’s famed improve group, The Second City.
When the Once Upon a Nation auditions came up, Steadman said he won over the director with the retelling of a humorous, adventurous anecdote from his youth.
“I am always crazy-nervous before an audition, so I had to tell a story about my life and I got in with this story: I was dating this young lady and I went to visit her and her family was not home, so we watched ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and once the movie was over, shirts were unbuttoning. I heard a key in the door and it is her mother, so she is doing everything she can to stall her mother, then her dad comes in and she is trying to keep him away and her little brother comes in and busts through the door and up the stairs so she jumps outside to keep him from coming into her room,” Steadman said, recalling the story with an air of suspense that makes it unsurprising that his was a winning audition. “Her dad gets wind that somebody is upstairs and apparently he owns a sawed-off shotgun and I am not waiting to see if he has a gun in his hand or not. I jumped up, ran to the window, leap out the window and onto a tree. I was hanging there and she has two Doberman pinschers and they are barking and the branch collapses. They start chasing me and all of a sudden all my track experience came back to me and I started leaping through people’s fences in their yards.”
Steadman quickly captured the director’s attention and, once he was cast, had to navigate how to engage people of all ages with historical stories.
“First, I learn where the audience is from and if they are from somewhere like New York, I will sing ‘New York, New York’ to them. If they are from Oklahoma, I will sing ‘Oklahoma’ and be really cheesy just to engage them, and go into the story from there,” he said. “I tend to find ways to engage children and their parents are really helpful. I am extra-animated and I bribe them with little flags.”
While Steadman spends his days talking about the city’s past, its present offerings are also vast, he said.
“I like that it is accessible. I don’t drive because I am in a large city, so it being accessible is appreciated. There is a good theater community that I love and the arts scene is really good; the poetry and spoken-word scene here is really fantastic.”
The free Once Upon A Nation benches are open from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays until Sept. 2.
For more information, visit www.historicphiladelphia.org.