After sprinting around Franklin Square on a humid morning last week, children seeking some shade and stories gathered around a circular bench nestled under an oak tree.
The youngsters were enchanted with a bell rung by Lower Moyamensing actor Joseph DiOrio, who captivated the crowd with historic tales about squirrels inhabiting the open-space park planned by William Penn.
“Everywhere in the city, you’re in front or around the area where that particular story happened where everything took place,” DiOrio said. “And, especially for the little ones, it helps them to imagine what it must have been like. What it must have felt like.”
Having taken the stages at Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School and later Temple University, DiOrio is pursuing a new performance setting with Historic Philadelphia Inc.’s Once Upon A Nation, a collection of programming comprised of immersive walking tours, colonial reenactments and storytelling benches throughout the city’s Historic District and at Valley Forge National Historical Park.
For DiOrio, a graduate of Preparatory Charter School, this new role as a historic storyteller fuses his love for museums and musicals.
As a preschooler at Forever Young in South Philly, DiOrio says he found himself in trouble after reenacting the “Blue Moon” scene from “Grease.” Growing up, DiOrio’s family exposed him to movie-musicals, ranging from the John Travolta blockbuster to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
But, he also developed an interest in classical theater.
“I might have been the only person in my family who was excited about Shakespeare. I was very, very excited,” he recalled.
DiOrio’s passion for theater thickened as his mother took him to regional shows at the Academy of Music, the Merriam Theater and the Walnut Street Theater.
By the time he was finishing high school, DiOrio knew he wanted to study acting at Temple University.
In college, he further dabbled in his fascination for Shakespeare, including visiting the Globe Theatre while studying abroad in London. He spent his college years practicing Scansion techniques and examining the works of playwrights, such as Anton Pavlovich Chekhov and Tennesse Williams.
“That was an amazing arts education of getting to see all aspects of theater,” he said.
After graduating in 2016, DiOrio started developing his own interest in arts education, as he worked as an assistant teaching artist at Philadelphia Theatre Company and later with an education program at Theatre Horizon in Norristown.
Striving to pursue his own acting career while teaching children, DiOrio auditioned for the Once Upon A Nation program in the winter – a platform where he would not only act but educate.
After making the program, DiOrio spent the winter and spring performing in story strolls around Old City, which was geared toward elementary school field trips.
Later, he was assigned to one of the 13 free storytelling benches scattered around Philadelphia’s Historic District. The program, which runs every summer, was established in 2005 after Historic Philadelphia and former Pennsylvania Gov. and Philly Mayor Ed Rendell partnered with the National Park Service.
“They’re these treasures that are in historic Philadelphia,” said public relations executive Cari Feiler Bender. “Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center, the Museum of the American Revolution, Christ Church – and it helps visitors navigate. It’s a trail that you can follow, hear a true story of history that happened right where you’re standing.”
Inspired by facts, the stories are crafted by historian Sandra Mackenzie Lloyd, who has been a part of Once Upon a Nation since its founding.
Much like an ordinary production, the actors rehearse their performances leading up the storytelling season. They receive special training at the “Benstitute” – named after Ben Franklin – where they learn to not only entertain but educate.
“When you go to our benches and you hear our stories, you’ll hear them very differently, too, from almost like our points of view looking at that story,” DiOrio said. “…All of our stories are 100 percent true. They have happened. These people are real, especially my squirrel story. Some people just can’t believe it.”
DiOrio’s signature story this summer surrounds the introduction of gray squirrels into Franklin Square during the 1840s – a movement that has been attributed to the proliferation of the species in American cities.
In 1847, a few of the creatures were released into the urban space with food and nesting resources in response to an 18th-century poem written by Ben Franklin expressing his affection for a pet squirrel.
Eventually, the animals began reproducing and migrating across Philadelphia and later into cities such as New York and Boston, as DiOrio says, “Ben Franklin’s to blame” for the pesky urban rodents.
“It’s even more important today to – I know it sounds cheesy – to keep history alive,” DiOrio said. “So, I do hope that not only our young audience members but our older members, as well, want to hear more and want to explore more…there’s always something else to discover. There’s always something else to learn and see. I’ve learned that even through acting: there’s always more to learn.”