Claudia Ginanni has a story to tell. It's a great story, as a matter of fact, about the time she "inadvertently" stole a car.
"You reach the age of 42 and you think you've got a pretty good handle on who you are and what you are capable of," she says. "And then something unexpected happens."
Ginanni was leaving a supermarket. She got into her red 1996 Plymouth Neon, drove off and slowly over the next few hours - hours, mind you - she began to suspect she was driving someone else's Plymouth.
By this point in her story, the standing-room-only crowd is howling with laughter and Ginanni, who is not a professional or even an amateur comic, is pleased but worried that her five minutes in the spotlight is ticking away.
Other people have stories to tell, you know.
According to Vicki Solot, who founded the nonprofit First Person Arts organization some seven years ago, "everybody's got a story to tell."
That's why we're at L'Etage, a bar/event space at Sixth and Bainbridge: for First Person's first-ever StorySlam.
Like its better-known cousin, the poetry slam, the story version is a low-stakes contest in which baring one's soul in the interest of connecting with the audience trumps all else.
Throughout the year, First Person runs classes in writing, photography and filmmaking as routes to storytelling. And once a year, the organization goes into high gear for a five-day Festival of Memoir and Documentary Arts plump with exhibits, lectures, demonstrations and discussions.
This year's festival, Nov. 7 to 11, will also bring together the winners of seven StorySlams at L'Etage to compete for the grand title, Philadelphia's Best Storyteller.
"First Person is about sharing real life stories," board member Adam Travia tells the crowd, "in all their forms."
Madi Distefano, the Barrymore Award-winning actress who founded Brat Productions, is hosting this first StorySlam.
Each contestant will get a prize, she says, tantalizing the crowd with the offer of gently used, cheap, plastic trophies.
Apparently, that's incentive enough for 17 extroverts to put their names in a hat. Ten will be selected at random, and they alone will take to the stage to tell their stories.
Judges, also volunteers from the audience, will score the contestants from 1 to 10.
Stories will be measured on the quality of their content and tellers on their performance, their adherence to a five-minute time limit, and their interpretation of the theme, which is, appropriately: Firsts.
The stories must be true ("Yeah, like we'll know the difference," Distefano quips) and the storyteller cannot read from or use notes.
With those caveats in place, we give our undivided attention to Ginanni and her automotive incident.
"So I'm driving and I'm noticing that my car seems cleaner than usual," she says. No piles of newspapers, coffee cups and take-out containers. "Hmm," she says, "How come I never noticed this cassette player before?"
We totally believe she's telling the truth because she claims to have been en route to Staples to have her ACLU membership card laminated when all this happened.
Besides, who intentionally steals an aging Neon?
But, oh no! We don't get to find out why her car key fit the ignition of somebody else's Plymouth or how the much-to-be-lamented incident was resolved because just when officers of the law enter the story, the timer indeed goes off and . . .
We have to move on to Kevin Lee, a self-described recovering workaholic recounting his spontaneous (first) trip to Spain, and then Elizabeth Bridges embracing her armpit hair for the first time in public.
Dan Kost, who does marketing for a record label outside Plymouth Meeting, told a story about moving to Philadelphia a while back and immediately getting involved in a male prostitution ring. Like Ginanni's experience, Kost's was also "inadvertent."
"I've been telling that story to my friends for years," he said, explaining his presence at the StorySlam.
Before the night is out, we'll hear tales we only wish we could repeat: antics of a cocaine-inflated waitress, and somebody's jaw-dropping trip inside a South Street sex club (since shut down by Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections).
Truth knows no bounds, but this is a family newspaper.
After about an hour, one of the judges pleads for a bathroom break. This is a moment of truth at any live performance. When it's not going well, people take off at intermission.
No only do they sit still, this audience responds with remarkable kindness and good humor to mumblers and engaging performers alike. Nobody's cell phone goes off. Nobody heckles. In fact, the crowd boos when one of the judges isn't generous enough in her rankings.
In the end, Juliet Wayne, a fast-talking 30-year-old from West Philly, gets the grand prize: a gold foil ticket for the November face-off.
Wayne, who had probably the best body language and presence on stage, told a story about her first day on a new job and we'd rather not ruin her life by repeating it here.
Kost, the accidental prostitute, came in third place. He said he had a great time and would be back for more.
"I think I have some other stories to tell."
Travia encourages everyone in the audience to give it a shot. But arrive early; the slam filled L'Etage to capacity with 100-plus folks and about 30 other late-comers who were turned away at the door.
"If you think you're better than some of these guys," Travia tells them, "come back next month and prove it."
If You Go
First Person StorySlams are on the fourth Tuesday of every month at L'Etage, on Sixth Street at Bainbridge. Doors open at 7:30; slam begins at 8:30. Suggested admission is $5. Information is available at 267-402-2059 or www.firstpersonarts.org.
Dates and themes are:
May 22: Home and Away
June 26: Boiling Point
July 24: Miseducation
Aug. 28: Trespassing
Sept. 25: Cohabitation
Oct. 23: Horror Stories