Art Ryan has worked as a storyteller with Historic Philadelphia’s Once Upon a Nation program since 2006 and, this season, was appointed to direct the 30 storytellers who lead the free summer program.
The thespians are stationed at 11 storytelling benches throughout Old City, running from Memorial Day through July 31, and dispatch brief, five-minute stories about little-known pieces of Philadelphia history.
“We tell a lot of stories that have to deal with little-known aspects of the birth of our nation, but there is also a great wealth of Philadelphia firsts, from the 18th century through the 20th century, that people often don’t know about,” Ryan, 45, explained, noting that some of the stories reference Philadelphia’s status as the birthplace of such icons as the Slinky, Girl Scout cookies and the nation’s first carousel company.
While history and kids — especially on a hot summer day — may not always mix, the program offers youngsters a rewards program that earns them a free carousel ride when they’ve visited all of the storytelling benches.
The brevity of the stories, and their interactive nature, also keeps the kids engaged and interested, Ryan said.
“In our world now, little kids may have cell phones and can easily go online and get distracted, so we need to make our stories short and to the point,” Ryan said. “What may have started as a two-page script has since been shorted into a tight, little nugget. And we make sure to get everyone into the stories, having them cheer or boo when the story calls for it, and getting the kids up to put them into the stories at times.”
The energy Ryan has to bring to the job is an ideal outlet for both his love of acting and of history.
A native of Massachusetts, Ryan grew up in Delaware County, the youngest of six siblings, a number of whom were involved in the arts and music. Ryan was bit by the acting bug as a child and later participated in the Upper Darby Summer Stage program, acting alongside Tina Fey in “Guys & Dolls” in the late 1980s.
Ryan came out in 1990 and said his immersion in the theater world facilitated that process.
“Who in theater isn’t gay?” he joked.
Throughout the 1990s, he worked at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., as comedic knight “Sir Bumbly.”
He returned to the Philly area in 1998 and spent two years as a historic interpreter and storyteller, portraying an 18th-century tinker.
In the intervening years he pursued film, television and stage roles and has acted at such regional venues as Walnut Street Theater and Prince Music Theater.
Ryan is stationed at the Once Upon a Nation bench at Carpenters’ Hall from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekdays and also spends his weekends as a Once Upon a Time storyteller at Valley Forge.
“I have always had a great love of American history, and I’ve been able to use that as a performer,” he said. “I was born in New England where the Revolution got its start, moved to Philadelphia where the government got its start and then worked down in Williamsburg where people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were from. So my whole life I’ve worked in some aspect of the cradle of liberty.”
Although Once Upon a Nation may seem geared to tourists, Ryan said native Philadelphians often stop by the bench.
“I can’t tell you how many folks I meet who say they’ve grown up their whole lives in Philadelphia and this is the first time they’ve come to the historic district and it’s because so-and-so from out of town wanted to come,” Ryan said. “But they always say they wish they came sooner. What’s that song, ‘Stand in the place where you live?’ The city has so much to offer and people who live here should really take advantage of that.”
Among the wealth of historic locations in Philadelphia, Ryan said he is most impressed by Carpenters’ Hall and Christ Church, which are two of the best-preserved historic buildings in the city, largely owing to their operation by the same private groups for nearly two centuries.
Ryan’s own historic hero is Robert Morris, considered the financier of the American Revolution, yet a little-known figure to non-history lovers.
He said he most enjoys being able to enlighten listeners about the contributions of overlooked pioneers such as Morris and African-American Revolutionary solider James Forten.
“My first year at Carpenters’ Hall, I told the story of James Forten and when I was done, I saw people at the bench who were visibly moved and tearing up,” he said. “It was great to be able to use my skills as an actor to not just entertain and make people laugh but really make people think and have an emotional reaction. That’s a great reward as an actor.”
Being able to bring the full gamut of American history into the lives of children is equally valuable, he said.
“I was telling a story last year about Octavius Catto, who helped desegregate the horse-drawn trolley cars in Philadelphia back in the 1860s, and a kid asked, ‘Well, why did Rosa Parks have to do that later?’ And I explained how the South was different, and it was really great to see them connecting the dots like that. It’s a great moment when a child really learns from the story. I’ve had parents tell me that their kids never liked history before and then all they wanted to do is talk about the story I told, and that really makes standing out in 100-degree weather all day really worth it.”
Once Upon a Nation storytelling benches are open from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday through July 31. For more information, visit www.historicphiladelphia.org.