Standing next to the semi-circular bench positioned under a tree just outside the entry to the Friends Meeting House at Fourth and Arch streets, Fairmount’s Katie Stickney rang her bell and welcomed a family of five as they took their seats on the bench.
“Ready for a story?” she asked, and then launched into one that took place in Philadelphia during the centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence.
“It’s July 4, 1876, and all eyes are on Independence Hall,” she began, purposely using present tense to add immediacy. ldquo;A huge crowd has gathered, and the vice president of the United States reads aloud from the Declaration of Independence.”
Stickney started intoning the famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Then she paused for dramatic emphasis. “But suddenly, there’s an interruption!” she said, conveying excitement in her voice. “Susan B. Anthony and four other women run up to the speaker’s platform and present the vice president with a Declaration of Rights for Women.”
Stickney’s voice gained momentum, and she used gestures for emphasis. Her listeners were captivated by now. “There was chaos!” Stickney continued. “‘Order! Order!’ shouted the vice president. But Susan B. Anthony ignored him and passed out copies of their declaration.”
Then, as Stickney told it, Susan B. Anthony and four other women led interested people to the other side of Independence Hall.
“She gets on a bandstand and starts giving a speech for women’s rights,” said Stickney.
Minutes later, Stickney brought her story of the famed suffragette to a conclusion. “People weren’t ready for these bold ideas,” she said. “It took forty-four more years — until Aug. 18, 1920 — for the 19th amendment to the Constitution to be passed, giving women the right to vote.”
Afterward, her visitors — a family from Colorado — applauded with enthusiasm. “That was a compelling story, and you told it so well!” said the mother.
The Anthony tale is one of four stories that Stickney relates to the visitors who sit at her bench. All of them are true, and all involve Philadelphia history.
Stickney is one of a group of specially trained storytellers who are part of the popular Once Upon a Nation program. It’s a unique summer program administered by Historic Philadelphia Inc. that brings Philadelphia history to life with free storytelling, plus a variety of tours for all ages.
The storytelling benches are a favorite as visitors roam the city’s historic area. Thirteen benches, each seating about eight, are located throughout the area. They are identified by an oval sign next to the bench that reads, “Once Upon a Nation.” The storytellers are not in costume. Instead, they wear light green polo shirts with the same logo.
At each bench, storytellers entertain visitors with little-known but historically accurate stories involving Philadelphia. These stories often have particular relevance to the location of the bench. For instance, Stickney’s bench is outside the Quaker Meeting House, and all four of her stories involve Quakers.
This is her first summer with Once Upon a Nation. Stickney, 24, moved to Philadelphia from Gettsyburg last September. Coming from a city with history, “I fell in love with the historic area,” she said.
Stickney was delighted to take a position with the operations team of Liberty 360, a new multimedia program of Historic Philadelphia Inc. presented at Sixth and Chestnut streets, headquarters for the tourism organization.
While working there — and she still does — Stickney learned about Once Upon a Nation. With her lively and outgoing personality, her supervisors at Liberty 360 encouraged her to try out as a storyteller.
An audition is required of all applicants. ldquo;I was terrified of that,” Stickney confessed.
But the audition was a success and she was accepted into the program. In May, Stickney attended the “Benstitute,” an intensive three-week orientation and training required of all storytellers.
They get a cram course in Philadelphia history, as well as preparation for their roles.
“We’re given the stories and we also get suggestions about how to present them,” said Stickney.
As she practiced, she got tips on gestures and even staging, since each story is a mini-drama.
This summer’s storytelling began on Memorial Day. “By then, I had shaken off my jitters,” said Stickney, “And I was eager to tell my stories.”
She still is. Stickney is at Bench 11 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. She has met visitors from all over the United States and from France, Germany, Australia, and even China.
As for the age range of her listeners, it extends from kids of 3 or 4 to seniors in their 70s and older.
When kids are on the bench, Stickney often chooses the stories with the most drama. “The story is real and it gets them involved in history in a way they weren’t before,” she said. “It’s as if a lightbulb goes off in their head.”
She especially recalls one boy, about 4, who became increasingly excited as the story unfolded. “He was enthralled,” she said. “At the end, he just kept clapping.”
And adults are just as responsive. “Often, they’re surprised to learn new facts about history,” said Stickney. “They didn’t expect to learn something new; they expected the same old history stories.”
Visitors of all ages seem delighted with the dramatic and energetic way Stickney presents a story. Although she makes it look like fun, it’s actually quite challenging. Working outdoors, she competes with traffic on Arch Street. A major distraction often comes from the fire station directly across the street.
“Sirens go off, the fire trucks start up and it can get pretty loud,” she said.
Then, too, there’s the stamina required to be “onstage” from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with just a 30-minute lunch break. On a typically busy day, Stickney estimates that she’ll have 100 visitors and will tell 15 or more stories. This is quite a workout for her voice, and she drinks two to three quart-size bottles of water each day.
But she’s accustomed to challenges with her voice — although, until now, it had involved singing, not storytelling.
Stickney is a lyric soprano who is classically trained in opera, having attended the Sunderman Conservatory of Gettysburg College. For the past three seasons, she has participated in the Varna International Opera Tour, a cultural exchange between the U.S. and Bulgaria. In June, she took a break from storytelling and was on a two-and-a-half-week tour of Bulgaria, performing in four concerts. In two of them, she had a leading role.
But then the versatile singer returned and eagerly resumed her storytelling role. No matter how often Stickney tells these stories, each time is a new chance to engage her listeners.
“I get to interact with so many different people of all ages, and I can do this multiple times during a day,” she said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity.” ••
It’s time for a history lesson
“Once Upon a Nation” offers free historical storytelling through Labor Day.
Historic Philadelphia Inc. also sponsors many other summer tours and activities.
Full information is available on the Web site: www.historicphiladelphia.org