by Grant Moser
Mt. Airy resident Marjorie Winther, 59, will be competing in the Grand Slam at the 12th Annual First Person Arts Festival. She is trying to become the “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia” for the second time in two years.
She remembers when she first heard of StorySlams, a storytelling competition. Her 30-year marriage had suddenly ended, and Winther was dating a man who talked about his ex-girlfriend in “glowing terms. So I Googled her and saw her telling a story at a slam. I had never heard of a slam, but she was phenomenal. I was like, ‘Wow. I like her way better than the guy I’m dating.’ I decided I wanted to go do the same thing.”
The StorySlam season runs for six months, with two events every month. Every event has a theme that the stories should incorporate. Participants show up at the event, put their names in a hat, and 10 people are picked. Three judges are randomly selected from the audience. Each contestant has five minutes to tell a first-person true story. The winner of each StorySlam automatically competes in the Grand Slam at the end of each season.
Winther went to her first StorySlam, where the theme was “Naughty and Nice.” She told a story about her marriage breaking up and her recovery from it. She won the event.
She was shocked at winning, but she’s had a lot of experience putting together stories and talking in front of people. As a child, Winther loved writing stories. Today she is an instructional designer at Philadelphia Gas Works, someone who takes content and designs courses that make it teachable. She has also been a high school teacher in Illinois and a stand-up comedian in the Philadelphia area between 2004 and 2008.
Even with that background, she still finds herself nervous before performances. “What relaxes me is laughter. If I’m telling a story and the audience laughs, I know they’re with me, that they’re paying attention, that now it’s just a conversation,” she explained.
After the win at StorySlam, Winther was terrified at competing again. She thought she had only one story: the dissolution of her marriage. She was scared to compete in the Grand Slam because any other story she had would not be very interesting. As it turns out, she won the Grand Slam.
The theme of the Grand Slam in May 2012 was “Burned.” It was announced two weeks before the competition, and Winther began preparing. She sat down and started writing whatever came to mind. By the fourth draft she figured out what the story was. For her winning story, she connected two fires that happened the first year she taught high school in Illinois.
“It was half-humorous, half-not,” she said. “The first part was when I had the kids design their own science experiments, and they came up with this spontaneous combustion chamber. It was the ‘80s, and there were lots of hair products, and one boy caught on fire. It was more drama than pain. The second part was when I took the kids on a field trip, and somebody burned a cross on the lawn. All the kids were African-American and were freaked out. What made that story work was the notion of being in a situation where you don’t know what to do and how you pull it out. People can relate to that.”
Winther has learned a lot about how to tell a story since she her first StorySlam. Her time as a stand-up comedian makes her most comfortable with comedy, but she knows that all stories aren’t funny. “I am learning not to go for the joke,” she said, “to let the emotion settle. I realize it’s easier emotionally to be funny, but to just say something and not undercut it with a joke feels very vulnerable to me. I want to do that more.”
Marjorie recently attended a workshop on storytelling given by Elna Baker, a writer and comedian. There she learned the difference between an anecdote and a story. An anecdote is when you say, “This happened to me.” A story is when you say, “This happened to me, and this is why it matters.” It’s putting the tale in the context of the storyteller’s life that is important, she has found. The audiences and the judges are looking for a way to connect with the story.
Winther is also learning how to pace her stories better to fit the five-minute time limit. A bell is rung at four minutes as a warning. She remembers in the beginning how she’d hear that bell and not even be halfway through her story and would talk really fast for the last minute. Even though hearing the audience laugh is a good feeling, it also takes time. Once the audience laughed for 15 seconds at one of her lines, and all she could think was “That’s like five percent of my time up here!”
Winther was happy to win her first Grand Slam of course, but part of her didn’t want to beat anyone else. “It’s my hippie roots. I don’t have a huge competition gene. I feel like we’re a community of writers who are here to listen to each other, help each other.”
Winther has continued participating in StorySlams, winning another one this season. The Grand Slam is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 7, 8 p.m., at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. in Old City. She says she’s in “a low state of panic, but I’m excited for the camaraderie with the other storytellers. They’re just cool, interesting, quirky people. I would encourage other people to do this. Just do it. Be scared, and do it anyway.”
To see Winther perform, visit youtube.com and search for Marjorie Fine. For more information about the Grand Slam, call 267-402-2055 or visit grandslam.firstpersonarts.org. The church phone number is 215-922-1695.