First Person Arts Grand Slam performance winner, Andrew Panebianco, came to Drexel yesterday to perform for and work with Drexel students. Needless to say, this self-proclaimed “half-forgetful, giant child” brought a lot of learning, and a lot of laughs.
Proving his own assertion that “a story is an active performance,” Panebianco opened the afternoon by telling a story of his own: one incident at summer camp when, at 13, he had to look after a group of 8-year-olds. He set the story up, giving the audience the information important for the story’s punchline. He explained how he was not the best swimmer and was therefore on a canoe trip with much younger campers. When it began to storm and the river started rising right next to the group’s campsite, Andrew was left in charge of the rambunctious kids as the counselors went for help. To diffuse the situation and regain control, Andrew tasked the kids with digging a moat in the mud. That was the kicker. Until that point, Panebianco’s exposition had the audience chuckling, but this image put everyone in stitches: Half naked, muddy, blonde 8-year-olds, vigorously digging moats with their bare hands.
If you didn’t laugh out loud while reading that last sentence, then you are the perfect example of one of the things Panebianco hit on yesterday: how to convert the honesty of a performance onto the page. In the Q&A portion of the afternoon, Drexel Professor and PBQ Editor, Dan Driscoll, asked, “What’s your fictive podium?” referring to the podium onstage that seemed to get in the way while Panebianco was performing. Not used to having a podium in his performance space, it was interesting to watch how he almost subconsciously tried to work around it, a subtle dynamic that would lend to the overall depiction of the performance, but would be difficult to convey through the written word.
That authenticity of a story, Panebianco stresses, comes from the characters, and from the purpose. Characters’ actions and motives need to feel true to themselves. The author cannot manipulate the character in an unnatural way in order to advance plot, and only with purpose can a mere anecdote become a story in its own right.
At the heart of storytelling, however, is the conveyance of truth, even if that truth is “embroidered” a bit. “True story telling is manipulating fact to arrive at truth,” Panebianco said. However with storytelling comes great responsibility as an artist, “There’s a responsibility to whoever is affected by your story, whoever’s story you are telling. You have to decide your limits as a storyteller.”
After the Q&A, Drexel students were given their own prompt and five minutes to write a story. A handful of brave students got on stage and told their stories based on the theme of “nemesis.” They were met with thunderous applause not only for their bravery, but for their true ability as storytellers. It seemed that each student that read inspired another to read his or her own story, a chain of inspiration. Many made us laugh, some made us gasp, but what was consistent throughout all the performances was the authenticity.
In the end, everyone learned that we must know our limits, but at the same time not let our fictive podiums get in the way.