“Good stories surprise us. They make us think and feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that a PowerPoint crammed with bar graphs never can.” ~ Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow, “The Storytelling Edge”
If you’re reading this column, chances are you love a good story. This week, I had a chance to get the story of the storyteller. Miriam Reid is an actor who works with Once Upon A Nation, performing historical storytelling on a bench in Franklin Square. The program brings history to life with stories about real people and events, which occurred in Philadelphia. These are not the same old stories you were told in grade school. They’re diverse and underrepresented stories of those who impacted our country’s history, including tales about women and African American individuals, folktales from Native lore, and more, all in short bites under five minutes.
Tell me a little about who you are and where you come from.
I’m originally from Harrisburg. I went to high school in Maryland, where no one seemed to know anything about Harrisburg even though it’s the capital of Pennsylvania. Granted, most of the capitals, Massachusetts being the exception, were chosen so that if they got overtaken — oops — no one cared. And that was by design…OK, that’s me being a history nerd.
No problem, I like to learn new things. Tell me something about your family. Big? Small?
I’d say a relatively average-sized nuclear family. Including my parents, there are five of us. I have a sister and a brother and I’m nonbinary, so my parents collected the whole set! I’m the oldest so I was the guinea pig child while we figured out what on earth children are supposed to do. How that manifests is that both of my siblings are things like scouts and swimmers and I am neither.
What things did you like to do?
I was a theater kid. I started when I was about seven years old, which is about the same age that I started taking piano lessons. When I started high school in Maryland, I stopped playing piano because I had an hour and a half commute to school and simply didn’t have time for lessons. But the school had a very good arts program so I was able to do theater, and I read a lot.
How did you get back and forth?
It was a Jewish High School and because there wasn’t one in Harrisburg, a handful of us commuted in a van that was provided.
What did or do your folks do?
My mother is a graphic designer and a teacher at a preschool Jewish enrichment program, and an arts teacher. And my father is a doctor who practices family medicine. When I was younger, he also did theater when he had time. It’s something that we did together, so that was fun.
What was the first role you ever played?
I was technically part of the ensemble for awhile but I was one of those precocious kids in musical theater who figured out how to sing Sondheim for auditions. So when I was seven, I was in a production, and I’m not sure it counts as a role, but I got to be the little froglet who hops up on Papa frog’s back and sings.
I was the cat in “Peter and the Wolf” in kindergarten and I’ll have you know that there were supposed to be different casts for the AM and PM performances for the parents, but I apparently was so good, they put me in both. I was a ringer for the afternoon showcase!
There you go! A rising star! I think the first “real” role that I played was “Annie” in the musical. I think I was 10, but I have a bad habit of assuming that any memory that I don’t have a real age for was probably 10.
[Laughing] Noted. Outside of the theater, and lots of time in a van reading, any other extracurricular things?
I was in a recycling club in middle school, but that’s not really a life event. I was in choir, but that was a required class, so not really extracurricular.
I love the idea of a recycling club, so that counts. What’s your earliest memory?
That’s easy, I remember stepping out onto the porch when I was three years old, and walking down the steps with the snow on either side of me, piled up over my head at least twice as tall as I was. For the longest time, I thought it was a dream until I discovered that sure enough, when I was three, there had been an enormous snow storm that year.
Gosh, there are so many. Like most people I guess, a lot revolve around holidays. My parents often described their wedding as a treaty of who went where for which holidays. I guess I’d say that I really enjoy our Passover tradition of going around the table and getting to the part where we tell the story of Passover and then get into random arguments about what really happened. For anyone who practices, they’ll recognize the annual argument about the four sons. It’s a joyful way to approach religious practices. Oh, a non-religious tradition that I loved is that whenever someone had a birthday, my mom would wake up before everyone else and set up a whiteboard sign that would say “Happy Birthday” and surround it with stuffed animals and a little gift.
Lovely! Switching gears, what was your coming out story and were there any signs?
I came out to my parents pretty quickly after I’d figured it out for myself in ninth grade. I’m not good at keeping secrets about myself. Other people’s secrets, fine. My own? Nope. I don’t think that there were any signs, though they probably should have seen the nonbinary identity coming because I was something of a tomboy. But generally, I was one of those eccentric little kids, which might have messed with the radar. It was probably unclear what to understand from a “special” child who would later turn out not just to be queer, but also neurodivergent with both ADHD and autism. I fully embraced being nonbinary at 19. [Laughing] But I forgot to come out to my dad and at one point, he referred to me with female pronouns and I corrected him and he just looked at me. And I was like, “Oh, riiiiight, I forgot to tell you!”
That’s funny. What was the first gay bar you ever went to?
I have not gone to many, if any, gay bars in America. But the first and if memory serves, only gay bar I was in was — because I generally, full stop, don’t go to bars — [in Tel Aviv]. I was on Birthright and we were in Tel Aviv and had some spare time. Some friends and I went, “Hey, the drinking age here is 18, let’s go to a gay bar!” That was when I discovered Cosmopolitans. I have a sweet tooth and I like citrus, so that was a match. It was a Tuesday night so it was pretty empty except for a handful of lesbians from, I think, Norway. I’ve never been a big drinker, I’ve always been a bit of a goody two-shoes, but recently I have leaned into the sweet tooth thing and have been making my own mead.
I have a need for mead. Let me know when you’re making the next batch! I understand that you went to Drexel. What did you study?
I began as a music industry major and about two-ish years in, I realized that I hated it and switched majors just as COVID was happening. So somehow I managed to graduate mostly on time with an English/writing degree during a plague.
And now you have a new and exciting job with Historic Philadelphia, Inc.’s Once Upon A Nation Storytelling program.
Yes, the things you never learned in school. I’m getting paid to be excited about history. I didn’t know you could do that! It’s such a fun program. Through Drexel, I’d done a co-op with the Science-History Institute as a temporary staff writer, so there are a couple of articles on their site that I wrote, so I’m technically a published writer, thank you very much! And I realized that I really liked working in the museum environment. I’m a people person so I printed up little cards shaped like a bookmark and went door-to-door to several museums. Multiple people said, “We’d love to hire you but we don’t have the budget, but you should check out the Greater Cultural Alliance Job Bank.” I looked on the site and saw a listing for “Storyteller” and thought, “That’s a job? Really? Okay!” and set up what I thought was an interview but turned out to be an audition. I got the job and now four times a week, I sit on a park bench for 5-6 hours telling stories about Philadelphia’s history to strangers.
Super cool! Are you in costume?
No, the History Makers wear costumes because they are portraying characters from history, whereas we are telling stories about different historical figures, so it wouldn’t make sense for us to be in period clothing. Also, we tell stories about people in different time periods, and the clothing differed significantly from decade to decade so we just wear a polo shirt and cargo shorts.
Do you pick your own stories?
No, they gave us stories and I have to say, I love every single one that I do. They’re all so cool.
How many do you have and what are they?
I have five different stories. You should come by my bench and see me, but I’ll give you a teaser. I have one about the great Bone Wars with Edward Cope as the main figure. There’s a story about Philadelphia’s history with Girl Scout Cookies, one about Caroline LeCount — who did something similar to Rosa Parks but 100 years earlier and with street cars. Her fiancé was Octavius Catto who’s statue is on the side of City Hall. They were such a power couple but he was killed before they could get married, which gets me riled up at least once a week until I try to remember that I’m getting upset about a murder that happened hundreds of years before I was born! I also talk about Henry “Box” Brown who famously mailed himself to Philadelphia to escape slavery. Who am I forgetting… oh! There’s a Lenape folktale. That’s one of my favorites. It’s a story about storytelling.
Outside of those 5, who’s a historical figure that intrigues you?
One of my favorites is Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben [laughing]. Unfortunately, the things that I like about him are not really appropriate for the bench! Especially the way I tell his story with gay sex scandals, and pant-less parties! I could tell a PG version of his history, but I’d have to lose all my favorite parts of his story!
The owner of the PGN, [Mark Segal], is a big Steuben fan and there’s a big portrait of the general in the John C. Anderson Apartments, which Mark helped get opened. What’s the most unexpected thing that’s happened when you were on the bench?
I was relaying the Lenape story to a couple at the bench and the one person was nodding and responding to what I was saying and the other was looking off into the distance and seemingly not paying attention. But afterwards, they turned to me and said, “I know that folktale because my grandfather told it to me.” And I got to listen as they told me all about their grandfather and the stories he told. They had me practically in tears at 11 in the morning!
Do you ever get heckled?
I get people, mostly kids, who don’t realize that it’s a story and not a conversation. I don’t mind with kids, but adults who want to keep offering commentary can be annoying. I try to just take it in stride.
I read that there are stars involved.
Not the Hollywood kind, but people can pick up a Story Flag at any storytelling bench, then collect a star from every storyteller on their journey. Once you get all the stars on your flag, you can redeem it for a History Hero Certificate at Franklin Square.
OK, random question time. What song can always get you on the dance floor?
Oh dear Lord! Well, “on the dance floor” will have to be taken metaphorically because I am socially anxious and white as all get out, so the only time you’ll find me on the dance floor is with those songs that have the dance moves in the lyrics. If I had to pick something that would get me grooving, I’ve been listening to an artist named Upsahl lately so something from her.
Allergic to anything?
Not officially, but boy howdy do I react to mosquito bites. I get big hives which is probably not normal but hasn’t killed me yet.
Favorite book as a kid?
I’ve read the “Percy Jackson” series so many times. I guess you have to define “kid.” Are we talking small kids? Like Sandra Boynton book age? Oh, wait, back to the question of what music gets me going, have you ever heard her albums? Oh my gosh. It’s amazing. She couldn’t find good music for her kid, so she commissioned a bunch of musicians to record songs that are child appropriate but really good for adults. Crazy things like a song written by Kate Winslet and performed by Weird Al Yankovic. There’s even a Meryl Streep song! They’re so good!
Nice! Favorite quote?
Not sure where I got this but it’s something like, “It’s going to be OK. It’s just that OK might not look the way you thought it was going to.”
How/when can people find you?
The benches are open Tuesday through Saturday, 11am to 4pm. I am an observant Jew, so I don’t do Saturdays but you can find me [through Friday]. It’s free and fun so come check us out!
Visit historicphiladelphia.org for more information.