Not the same old story with 'Once Upon A Nation'

Loc­al storytellers help to give Philly's deep his­tory some ex­tra drama and de­tail.

Fair­mount res­id­ent and Once Upon A Na­tion storyteller Katie Stick­ney’s per­man­ent bench is at the Arch Street Meet­ing House at 4th and Arch streets.

Stand­ing next to the semi­cir­cu­lar 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 which 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.  “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 re­lated, 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. She then re­cited a few ex­cerpts from her speech, giv­ing it the same pas­sion that the famed suf­fra­gette pre­sum­ably did.

For in­stance: “We can­not for­get even in this glad hour that while all men … have been in­ves­ted with the full rights of cit­izen­ship … all wo­men still suf­fer the de­grad­a­tion of dis­en­fran­chise­ment.”

Then Stick­ney re­turned to her nor­mal voice as she brought her story to con­clu­sion. “People wer­en’t ready for these bold ideas,” she said. “It took 44 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.

This is one of four stor­ies Stick­ney relates to the vis­it­ors who sit down 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 his­tor­ic area. At total of 13 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. Of­ten the stor­ies 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. She was de­lighted to take a po­s­i­tion with the op­er­a­tions team of Liberty 360, a new multi- me­dia pro­gram of His­tor­ic Phil­adelphia, Inc. presen­ted at 6th and Chest­nut streets, headquar­ters for His­tor­ic Phil­adelphia. 

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.  “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,” a three-week in­tens­ive ori­ent­a­tion and train­ing re­quired of all storytellers.

They get a cram course in Phil­adelphia his­tory as well as pre­par­a­tion for their own 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.”

And she still is. Stick­ney is at bench 11 on Mondays, Tues­days and Wed­nes­days. She’s 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 light bulb goes off in their head.”

She es­pe­cially re­calls one boy, about four, 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.”

Some­times, a story has spe­cial res­on­ance for vis­it­ors, as happened with two wo­men from Wyom­ing who heard Stick­ney tell the Susan B. An­thony story.

Wyom­ing was where the very first wo­men’s votes were cast. “And both wo­men got tear­ful as I told the story,” re­lated Stick­ney. “It really hit home.”

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 one half hour for a 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-sized bottles of wa­ter each day.

But she’s ac­cus­tomed to chal­lenges with her voice — al­though un­til now, it has 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’s 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 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.”••

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