Heart of Utah: Storytelling festival helps young performers find their voices
OGDEN, Utah — For 25 years, the Weber State University Storytelling Festival has helped kids across northern Utah gain confidence and find their voices, and it is continuing to do so even in the midst of a pandemic that forced the event to go virtual.
But putting the storytelling festival online means even more people can now discover these young performers.
Storytelling festival helps Utah kids gain confidence
Davis School District Library Supervisor Monica Flint has been the Davis storytelling coordinator for the last 15 years. Students come from the Davis, Ogden, Weber and Morgan School Districts.
“They perform in front of an audience, and they have two judges that will evaluate them on their story,” Flint said.
Many begin by retelling a fairy tale, or portraying a picture book. Next, they progress to telling a family history story or something more personal from their own lives.
In the past, Flint says the storytelling festival took place over several days.
“They just get a bus and spend the morning, and it is so fun to watch those kids come out of those conference rooms after they’ve heard three or four storytellers,” she said. “They’re excited, they’re retelling the story, they’re laughing — they want to be storytellers themselves.”
Flint says the storytelling festival gives students an opportunity to be storytellers themselves. The students can also learn from professional storytellers and other students. She says they find it inspiring.
A lost art
Flint says learning how to tell a story, or to communicate in this way is almost a lost art.
“We have really wanted to be able to help storytellers understand, ‘This is a great way for you to tell how you’re feeling or what … you’re experiencing. Or even be able to present information to other people in a way that’s not scary, because sometimes our students nowadays don’t know how to communicate or talk with anyone, unless it’s on a virtual platform,” Flint said. “That’s not the case for everyone, but we hope we’re still building skills so that students can have those verbal communication traits that will pass down.”
David Byrd, a Weber State education professor, chairs the storytelling festival. He says teachers report the students who participate receive higher test scores.
“Reading is really fundamental,” he said. “It is in every subject area. … we read in all of them, and so having those basic skills of being able to pull information out, identify the characters, vocabulary — [it’s] absolutely huge. It is absolutely crucial for the development of any student.”
Flint believes the program is changing lives.
“Our teachers have said, ‘You know, here’s a student [who] has really grown and has come out of their shell, or storytelling has helped them with a certain issue,'” Flint said. “It’s really been a great experience for students who shine in that normally, but also for those who may struggle with that audience kind of presentation.”
What makes a good storyteller?
Byrd said a good storyteller knows her audience.
“For me, the good storyteller is able to engage the audience,” Byrd said. “They’re able to just captivate the audience, keep ’em quiet, as it were, or have them respond in the correct way at the right times. And they’re able to navigate that and it’s with the story that it resonates with people, that connects with that audience.”
For Flint, a successful storyteller makes it personal.
“The stories that really are the best are the ones that the students come up with themselves, and tell about an experience that they’ve had, or they tell about something funny that happened to one of their parents,” Flint said. “They put themselves in the place of their parents or of someone else that they’re telling about, so those skills really start to develop as they learn.”
The annual Weber State Storytelling Festival is the largest event for youth storytellers. With the event taking place online, this year, organizers post new stories online every day for 25 days.
“Somebody on the committee had an idea of doing something like an Advent calendar. And so many stories each day. So we’re hoping that’s going to move forward, that we will do a better job [of] recording the stories as they’re being told on the stage, and continue to share them through social media,” Byrd said.
All of the stories presented so far can be viewed on the festival website.