First Person Arts: R. Eric Thomas Tells Us His Story

Photos by Kevin Monko and Ben Droz (respectively)

Next week, First Person Arts will kick off their 11th annual, a series of live events focused on the stories we share.  On November 8th, esteemed Philadelphia storyteller R. Eric Thomas will host the Grand Slam at Christ Church’s Neighborhood House, where FPA will crown this season’s “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia” in front of 200 story-loving audience members.

Here, Eric talks to magazine about what it takes to tell a story effectively, and about the rise of the art in the Philly community. magazine: People who tell stories live often engage the audience through elements of comedy.  I wondered what drove you to storytelling and to characterize yourself as a storyteller rather than, say, a stand-up comedian?

Eric Thomas: I never really thought of myself as primarily funny.  I went to school for playwrighting, and I started off my artistic career as a playwright — some comedy, some drama — but mostly I found at that core was that my interest was in telling stories.  I worked at a comedy club actually for a number of year, in Baltimore, where I’m from, just as a waiter, and I sort of saw how people craft jokes and how people structure a stand-up act.  And what’s different for me between storytelling and stand-up comedy, is that there’s an art, and it’s not sort of imperative that there’s a laugh at the end, and I really appreciate that.  I really respect stand-up comedy, but I’m more drawn to the arc of storytelling.  I’m drawn to the idea that I can build a reflection of reality that is sometimes funny but also a lot of times kind of poignant or dramatic. So, what sort of effect to you hope to have on the audience?  What take-home messages to you want them to get from your relating a more dramatic story from your life to an audience?

ET:  Ultimately, my goal, every time I get on stage, is to try to make my experience in life, in general, sound as unique but also as relatable as possibly.  A lot of times when people stop me after a show, they’ll tell me, “I’ve never had an experience like that, but that reminds me of something that happened at this other time in my life!”  So, for me, it’s a sort of translation.  And it’s the same thing that anybody does when you’re on a date, or you’re at a job interview.  You’re trying to say, “these are the things that I’ve done, and this is the experience that I have in the world, and it’s similar to your experience in its basic makeup , basic feelings, basic thoughts, or you know, whatever!”  So basically what I try to do with my stories is to try to create a sort of Rosetta Stone (to make it sound really much more important than it actually is!).  So, to that end, what elements do you feel sort of help create the most effective type of live storytelling?

ET: Well, you know, it really helps if you are borderline insane.  It helps if you just have no filter whatsoever, and if you have you know, probably some lingering emotional damage from some area of your life!  Short of that, a fair amount of either bravery, or false courage, or even adventurousness.  Because, honestly, i feel like being honest, on stage — or even almost anywhere, in life — is actually pretty difficult.  So when you’re entrusted with the truth, I think you need to either have some actual courage, or some liquid courage or, like I said, just be a little bit crazy.

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R. Eric Thomas delivers a story to a TEDxPhilly audience. Photo by Kevin Monko. In the TEDxPhilly talk that you did, you made a couple distinctions there between Baltimore, where you grew up, and Philadelphia.  I had always seen some similarity between those cities.  Could you comment a little bit about your appreciation of Philadelphia from being an outsider, and your appreciation from your experience as a resident of the city?

ET: I have really grown to love Philly.  And that sort of surprised me.  Baltimore and Philly I guess are sort of similar in the fact that they both have sort of interesting relationships with different populations, and they’re both cities by the water… I’ve lived in South Philadelphia for the last six years, in a couple different places, and what I love is that I can live this, you know, young, urbanite artist, I can live next door to an ancient Italian lady whose house always smells like rosemary or garlic, and we can share an experience.  And that’s kind of what Philadelphia is to me: there’s definitely a respect for tradition, but there’s also a really active push toward the future, the next thing.  And that carries over into the arts.  And that’s exciting to me. There’s a huge arts community here!  There’s a growing movement for the StorySlam performance here.  Where do you see that going integrated with in arts community in Philadelphia?

ET: Well I think it’s the basis for every art form in urban areas, whether it be a dance, or theater, or performance art — even visual art, in a lot of ways, has a narrative within it — so i think that we’re gonna start to see (and I’ve started to see this within my own career) people in different art forms drawing in more acts of storytelling.  I think it’s universally applicable.  It’s the oldest art form.  You know, Homer and I mean, cavemen were doing it!  So, you know, it’s nothing new, but I think that we’re gonna start to see more and more basic storytelling just sort of popping up in theater, in dance, in ways that I can’t even think of right now. You can say that it’s nothing new, it’s one one of the oldest arts, but this particular format of a live stage act seems to be kind of a new thing.  Do you see that growing that way, or do you see Story Slams as more kind of a fad?

ET: Hmmm.  I don’t know!  I think it is going to continue to grow.  It seems like in New York and DC, the storytelling communities are maybe a couple years out from where we are here in Philly.  And it’s definitely grown and I think you’re right, the stage presentation of it will grow.  If you look at the way the storytelling community has developed in New York, it’s driven to the level of the independent form, like cabaret, or other sort of art forms that have broken out of a niche category.  So I think you’re gonna see the same thing here.  I can imagine a couple years from now storytelling companies, just like theater companies, put on a season of storytelling.  I think that’s something that’s totally possible and really viable.  You are a gay Black man.  As it sort of informs your storytelling, how does it make you feel to be able to relate that experience — which is in a sense a niche experience, and a very unique experience — to a broader audience?

ET: Well it really helps in the translation aspect.  You know, I spend a lot of my time in life just trying to figure out how to be just like everybody else.  I’m like the Little Mermaid: I just wanna be part of your world.  I comb my hair with a fork!  So you know, being able to tell stories that have the details — maybe it’s a story about my parents, who in my mind are the Huxtables from the Cosby show and in your mind, yours are, whoever, the Seavers or whoever — in telling the story, ultimately, what I’m always able to get to, hopefully, is that I’m much more similar I think, beyond the basic differences, beyond the demographic anomalies of being gay and Black or whatever: at the heart, I’m the same, you’re the same, everybody is pretty much the same in a lot of ways. So, the audience that comes to these events — let’s face it, it’s an urban, hipster audience.  Do you think there’s a broader appeal for this to any other demographics or areas of the country, or for expanding it beyond the sort of urban situation it’s in now?

ET: Absolutely!  It’s funny, a lot of the opportunities I’ve had career-wise have been with urban audiences, but I have had great experiences with older populations.  I’ve actually run a workshop with seniors, and what i’ve found is that everybody wants to be heard.  Everybody feels that their story is in some way important, and that’s a connection that I think crosses all kinds of divides.  I did a Story Slam at a VFW hall in Chestnut Hill, and there was a hockey game on in the background, and I was thinking,, you know, “these people are not going to get what I’m saying at all.”  But it was exactly the same.  People laughed at different places, but they still laughed.  And people appreciated that ultimately what i’m doing is not delivering some sort of political diatribe so much as just telling the truth about what life is like sometimes.  And that bridges all kinds of divides.  So yeah, I think there’s definitely some applicability to the larger population. Outside of yourself, are there any other sort of up-and-coming Storyslammers in the area that you think people should be looking out for, as part of the Arts Festival?

ET: There are a lot of really awesome storytellers in the community right now.  Jaime Fountaine runs a series called do not take cialis at the Dive, which is every second Tuesday at the Dive.she’s great.  Hillary Rea runs a couple different storytelling shows.  Her most popular is, which is at Shot Tower Coffee, which is I want to say on the third Tuesday of every month.  She’s really great.  Brady Dale is also a really another really exciting storyteller and stand-up comedian.  The three of us, along with a stand-up comedian named TJ Hurley, we actually do a storytelling podcast we just started, called best rated auto loans for bad credit.  There’s a lot.  There are a lot of people in the community!  Alejandro Morales is a stand-up comedian and also a storyteller, he’s gonna be in the Comedy Confessions program in the First Person Festival, hosted by Corey Cohen, so that’ll be really cool as well. What about any other festivals we should be looking out for coming up?

ET: I mean, First Person Arts really has the market cornered in terms of storytelling right now, but hopefully that will grow!  There’s some really great stuff going on up in New York, but I guess that’s probably not what you’re looking for… In terms of festivals, not really, but what’s great about this being right now in Philly is that there is something to do every week that involves storytelling, and it’s actually not that hard to find.  I mentioned Second Stories, and Tell Me a Story, and First Person Arts continues to program a lot of stuff!

More on Eric at  More on First Person Arts at their website, or at the festival website.  Visit websites of Jamie Fountaine or Hillary Rea, and get more information on The World Exists podcast here.  Click here for more info on Corey Cohen’s show, Comedy Confessions.  Look for a related interview with “The State” comedian and First Person Arts Festival host Kevin Allison, coming soon!

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