What's in a Word?: Storytelling in Central PA

Photographer: Michelle Johnsen via Lancaster Story Slam

Language and spoken word have an incredible power – to divide us, to unite us, and to entertain us. Not all that long ago, oral tradition was often the extent of formal education. Stories and myths passed down through the ages taught us not to leave the homestead after dark, or why two rival factions wouldn’t stop killing each other. (Now, of course, we have things called  “common sense” and “history books” that purport to teach us these things.) It was more common then to verbally share stories verbally about our lives, about our lives or about made-up events, to bond with others.

Now, we still share these stories, but we do it quickly and in written form – 140-character tweets, Emoji-fied text messages. There’s something gratifying in these quick hits of each others’ lives – but, as is so often the case, there’s a tradeoff. We lose a kind of direct connection with one another when storytelling shifts to the page (or the webpage.)

In Central PA, however, the fine art of word-weaving is seeing something of a revival. Groups like Untitled Harrisburg and Lancaster Story Slam are making story time cool again; spaces like The Parliament and the Hanover Area Arts Guild and Gallery are hosting events meant to bring oral history and the art of storytelling into the arts scene. The cool thing about storytelling – besides, you know, baring your spooky soul to a bunch of total strangers – is that it can take myriad different forms.

Take the Lancaster Story Slam’s series – currently hosted at Tellus360 in downtown Lancaster every fourth Tuesday of the month – where Lancaster’s most loquacious gather to tell a story from their lives based off of a theme. Anyone can sign up to tell a story, provided they buy a ticket, sign up to do so at the event and base their story off a predetermined prompt.

The prompt for this month’s slam on July 28, for example, is “Boiling Point.” Depending on the narrator, it can be taken as literally as a story about you burning yourself accidentally on some steam, or as figuratively as that time you impulsively quit your summer job after a week of people demanding “no salt” fries when you know damn well they just want fresh fries but refuse to say it. Last month’s prompt was “It’s My Job,” and it prompted some incredible entries.

This straight-up storytelling is only one facet of the current spoken word revival, though. Poetry offers people an incredible opportunity to connect and share stories, and it, too, is having a moment right now in Central PA as literary groups like The Triangle and Poetry is Alive in York work to program poetry slams, readings and workshops.

At The Parliament in York, at 7 p.m. on July 31, Josue Estrada Laboy will be presenting his performance piece, “The Bedroom Sessions.” The piece consists of him sharing several of his own pieces and a few created by others that serve as a capsule of his life and journey towards coming out. The event includes different open mic slots throughout the evening, and the Parliament has invited attendees who want to share similar pieces to fill those slots.

The collaborative effort is remarkable; instead of putting the artist on a pedestal, you, the viewer, join together to make the piece, to create the event. The Lancaster Story Slam, as well as its counterparts throughout PA, are likewise open to the public. Even if an audience member doesn’t stand up and recite, they’re still participating: what’s a story without a listener?

In an increasingly digital age, there are some ways that we are all more closely connected than ever before. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, you probably know what your aunt a hundred miles away ate for lunch, for example. Twitter lets you know what your friends and acquaintances are idly wondering about. Still, there’s something incredibly cathartic in sharing a fraction of your life story with people you might never see again.


Would you ever consider doing a story slam or open mic poetry night? Have you participated in a spoken word open mic night? Share your experiences below (or, if you’re opposed to typing, a link to an audio file where you’ve recorded your thoughts verbally…)


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Posted in Arts+Culture, Arts+Culture – Harrisburg, Arts+Culture – Lancaster, Arts+Culture – York

Ed Hirtzel is the Summer 2016 Fly intern. She’s currently an English Honors student at Millersville University. Her hobbies include scribbling, writing both fiction and nonfiction, and compiling useless information about cryptids.

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