When the now-15-year-old First Person Arts — Philly’s home of all things spoken word and imaginatively told memoir — hooked up with WHYY for the new concept of Commonspace as a radio show and podcast in January, its goal was to go beyond the personal, and focus on news and civically engaged dialogue with an individualistic, idiosyncratic touch. Mental health, immigrant issues, gender identification and Black Lives Matter were immediate concerns of the Commonspace shows with commentators pulled from the First Person’s ranks.
“I’m a news junky, but honestly, feel bombarded by the headlines — traumatized even — as after one story runs its course, we’re onto the next,” says First Person Arts boss and Commonspace host, Jamie J. Brunson. “We wanted Commonspace to be a place where people could hear real life stories, historical context and artistic responses pertaining to current headlines. We’re hoping to put those headlines into greater context.”
With WHYY providing a large on-air audience and network affiliations, Commonspace could be a fusion between storytelling and journalism.
“Most of us don’t live in isolation, so each story is a reflection of the personal and the collective,” says Elisabeth Perez Luna, Commonspace Executive Producer and WHYY’s Executive Producer of Audio Content. “Commonspace lives in that intersection between the story and the larger news context. It’s a rich, fertile territory for a journalist like me.”
Now that territory comes to the stage with the debut of First Person Arts and WHYY’s first collaborative, dedicated event series Commonspace LIVE. It will be held from May 22 through May 31 at multiple venues throughout the city.
The biggest differences between a First Person Arts and Commonspace LIVE come down to focus and intention.
“Our StorySlams allow audience members to share their stories spontaneously on stage,” says Brunson. “Commonspace LIVE events will be stories that have been curated and refined through a development process in the rehearsal room with story coaches and directors. The live shows, storytelling performances organized around themes, will definitely have theatrical elements, however.”
Perez Luna goes on to state that many of the Commonplace LIVE issues are selected by its directors based on story pitches from everyday people at live auditions. “We all spend a lot of time participating in lively editorial conversations about what issues we want to address,” she says. “It’s an exciting, intense process.”
The Commonspace LIVE schedule includes events like “Battle Scars,” which addresses true tales of heartbreak and broken limbs and “Woke,” where fake news and fake life gets together with real life and real headlines with theatrical dialogue and life-altering consequences.
There is also the “Gentrified” reading where spoken word artists from Point Breeze to Fishtown investigate the deepest fears and victories behind each newly built condo. While Christian A’Xavier Lovehall, an African American trans artist, discusses a hard luck life within gender and hip hop circles during the “Targeted” event, two magicians and storytellers — Shreeyash Palishikar and Randy Shine — unveil the mysteries of masculinity and race, touched by feats of magic or legerdemain.
“When I do use legerdemain, it must complement the reading, and serve as a visual interpretation of the story,” says Shine, a Philadelphia storyteller and magician who got involved with First Person Arts through a Pig Iron theater workshop.
Without giving the game away, Shine will seamlessly address the mysteries of masculinity and race tied to magic and illusion with ease.
“Magic can be used as a metaphor to address and provoke questions about larger social issues. As a professional African American magician, people often say I am the first African American magician they have ever seen. But did you know that the first American-born magician was Black?”
Shine also notes that, as a performer at President Barack Obama’s “Salute to Heroes Ball,” the magician got the unusually stupid question, “Do you think you got the job because Obama is black?”
”These are my experiences as a magician of color,” he says. “My experience is not unique to any marginalized group. In this performance I will share some of these personal stories and perform a trick that highlights my experience and my thoughts on such encounters. That’s Commonspace for me.”
Commonspace LIVE runs from Monday, May 22 to Wednesday, May 31 at venues across Philadelphia.