Early Pennsylvanians told stories around raging campfires or at the local general store. Story Slams revive that lost art, one that fell by the wayside thanks to radio broadcasts, and later, digital screens.
These events feature traditional storytelling in an intimate setting. Each evening is built around a theme, and the drama is amped up thanks to some light competition: The prize is bragging rights. Ten randomly chosen storytellers deliver up to five minutes of oration. The stories are recorded and transformed into podcasts for easy sharing.
“Sharing inspires others to come out and tell their stories,” says Event Producer Jim Breslin.
We’ve heard stories from diverse groups – their struggles, their goals and their successes. Everyone has a story.Jim Breslin
Breslin founded West Chester Story Slam, then co-founded Lancaster Story Slam with Carla Wilson. For him, the most rewarding part of these events has been getting glimpses into different perspectives through personal stories.
“Some stories are hilarious, while others are truly sad,” he says. “We’ve heard stories from diverse groups – their struggles, their goals and their successes. Everyone has a story.”
Breslin and Wilson passed their knowledge and format on to JJ Sheffer, who launched York Story Slam. She believes that sharing personal stories connects people, creating a ripple effect.
“I feel more connected to Lancaster and West Chester than before attending their Story Slams,” explains Sheffer. “It’s helping connect the dots to create a broader, regional sense of community.”
With sell-out events at Holy Hound Taproom, Story Slams have become part of York’s growing slate of cultural programming. Sheffer sees new faces every month. The venue’s owner reports an average revenue increase of 50 percent on Story Slam Tuesdays, an otherwise slow weeknight.
“We spend about $500 per month to produce these events,” says Sheffer. “And we hire local people.”
A monthly sponsorship from local beer distributor Beer Ace helps underwrite expenses and promote the event.
Volunteer Melissa Snavely has noticed similar mid-week draws at downtown Lancaster’s Tellus360, as well as that uniting spirit. Story Slam audiences are as diverse racially, politically and economically as the stories they hear.
“We’ve all had experiences that connect us way more than separate us,” she argues. “We all have more in common than we think.”
“Audiences are respectful and patient in a way you don’t see in typical groups at an entertainment event,” adds storyteller David Smith.
I feel more connected to Lancaster and West Chester than before attending their Story Slams. It’s helping connect the dots to create a broader, regional sense of community.JJ Sheffer
These events also serve as nontraditional networking opportunities.
“You see someone at the next table tell an incredible story, so you start a conversation,” says Breslin. “You become friends on social media, and maybe do business together.”
Storyteller Tony Crocamo of Tony Crocamo Associates uses Story Slams as an opportunity to build his business, which involves coaching clients in presentation skills.
“Through Story Slam, I’m able to post short recordings of my stories on my website,” he says. “That’s a huge economic benefit.”
Story Slams are spreading across Pennsylvania. In July 2017, they landed at Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center, with the events themselves held at the adjoining Hilton. A final “Grand Slam” competition capped off the series in November, with all the winners competing against each other for the best story. In March 2018, the Whitaker Center will begin a new series, this time with a semi-final round built in. Check out the website, and see if any of the poignant themes inspire you to tell your own story.
And if there isn’t a Story Slam near you, start your own.
Gina Napoli is a freelance writer living in Dauphin County.
Lead image: Brad Jennings (2016 Grand Slam winner), Eileen Joyce (2017 Grand Slam winner) and event producer JJ Sheffer / photo: Isaac Edmondson