By Joe Nick Patoski
For four fun-filled days, the art of the story is brought to life, thanks to the annual Texas Storytelling Festival.
Storytelling is an art form as old as humanity itself. The main entertainment around campfires since the dawn of mankind and more recently expressed in books, movies, and even video games, the old-fashioned version of storytelling is in the throes of a renaissance at gatherings around the globe. But nowhere are the stories told quite so vividly and appreciated so enthusiastically as at the Texas Storytelling Festival in Denton each March. The family-friendly festival, the premier event of its kind in the Southwest, celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2005 with four days and three nights of tall tales, urban legends, cowboy poetry, sacred Indian sagas, Texas brags, Spanish cuentos, and just plain folks who know how to hold an audience spellbound.
THE FATHER OF FAMILY TALES
Donald Davis, the homespun retired Methodist minister from North Carolina who is one of this year’s featured attractions, believes Denton has more than just a little to do with storytelling’s resurgence. “The Texas festival is a wonderful festival, one of my all-time favorites,” says Davis. “Tellers love to come here because it’s such a great audience. They’re very different from a first-time audience. The folks in Denton know how to listen.”
Davis, who was raised in an Appalachian family with several generations of storytellers, says listening is as much of the experience as the telling. “I was at a festival a few years ago where there were two tellers who were very, very new,” he says. “One just showed up, told his story, and got in his car and left. The other spent all day on the front row, listening. One of them has gone on to enjoy quite a career as a teller. You can probably guess which one that is.”
WHAT, AND WHO, YOU’LL SEE THERE
Along with Davis, this year’s tellers include Baba Jamal Koram, the Story Man and spirit drummer from Virginia who celebrates African and African-American lore and traditions, and Susan Klein, the teller from Martha’s Vineyard who works with businesses to incorporate storytelling into the workplace. Joining them are three storied tellers from the Texas circuit: teller Blu Cooksey, story weaver Susan Kuentz, and Denton homeboy Dalton Gregory. In addition to these featured tellers, there will be more than 50 others ranging in age from 5 to 85.
The four-day event is organized into a series of concerts, each 90 minutes to 2½ hours long, held in four circus tents scattered across the grounds of Civic Center Park. The 25 scheduled concerts all have a specific theme, beginning with Thursday morning’s Tiny Tales for Tiny Tots and Friday’s daylong Voices of America/Voices of Tradition young people’s concerts, which attract more than 2,000 students from throughout the region. “We’re trying to train
and develop the next generation of storytellers. This is the legacy we have for our children,” says festival director Karen Morgan. “There’s an old African-American saying, ‘You’re not dead till your name and your story are forgotten.’ We keep the story alive.” The evening concerts draw up to 1,000 listeners in each tent, among them Thursday night’s ghost tales, Friday evening’s Late Night Liars Club (no polygraphs allowed), Saturday’s War Stories, and Sunday morning’s Sacred Tales.
There’s more than just stories being told and heard. Sixteen storytelling workshops provide opportunities to hone your own storytelling skills. The workshops this year include one with employees of Southwest Airlines demonstrating how the company utilizes storytelling in
its business and another seminar showing teachers how to incorporate the art into their school curriculum.
You can take the stories home with you, too, by purchasing books, CDs, DVDs, tapes, and trinkets from the festival gift shop, all while enjoying familiar and exotic fare from food vendors in the park and nearby restaurants. And if some of the whoppers heard seem too exaggerated to be believed, like the one about the dog eating your homework or the fish story about the one that got away, just remember that old Texas saying, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.” Just as long as you also keep in mind that Pecos Bill didn’t lasso that tornado for nothing.
LEND A HAND
For schedules and more information, call (940) 387-8336 or log on to tejasstorytelling.com. That Web site, produced by the parent nonprofit organization that runs the festival, also provides useful information if you find you’ve got your own tale to tell or catch the storytelling bug at the festival.