Many events this spring have been postponed due to COVID-19. The St. Louis Storytelling Festival did the opposite, launching a month early—as a virtual festival, of course.
For more than 40 years, the St. Louis Storytelling Festival has brought local, regional and nationally recognized storytellers to St. Louis for a week of workshops, presentations and free storytelling events.
Though this year’s festival was originally scheduled for April 23-May 2, when public health measures ruled out holding the event as planned, organizers saw a way to keep the festival alive and relevant in a time when much of life seems to have been put on hold.
“With schools suddenly closed and people stuck at home, we moved up the timeline to address an emergent need,” said Lisa Overholser, festival director and University of Missouri Extension community arts specialist.
The first virtual Storytelling Festival began March 24 and continues through May 1 with weekly and twice-weekly online storytelling events, including a Friday night “open mic” event for adults. These virtual storytelling events are free and feature talented local and regional storytellers, Overholser said.
People can join via Zoom videoconferencing (go to muextension.zoom.us/j/519027333), watch the livestreams on the festival’s Facebook page at Facebook.com/STLStorytellingFestival or call in by phone to 312-626-6799 and listen. Participants can ask questions or submit comments as text through the Zoom chatbox or as comments on the Facebook livestream.
St. Louis storyteller Sherry Norfolk led off the festival with kid-friendly stories about tricksters from myths and folktales, including Anansi, a character from West African folklore who often takes the shape of a spider.
“It’s never as satisfying as really, truly being face-to-face with a live audience, but Zoom makes it pretty good,” Norfolk said.
Unlike webinars she’s conducted, Zoom lets her see her audience, or at least some of the audience. She set her screen to show only five participants at a time. “Otherwise they were so tiny.” That allowed her to gauge how they were reacting to the story. “They were intensely listening, laughing, responding when I wanted them to respond,” she said.
Her advice to storytellers new to the virtual format: “It’s helpful to tell stories you’ve told many, many times,” she said. That will give the speaker a better idea of how the audience will react and respond to different parts of a story.
“School's Out Storytime,” for elementary-age kids and their families, happens Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m.
“Way Back Wednesdays,” Wednesdays at 10 a.m., focuses on history and is designed for kids elementary-age and older as well as adults.
“Thursday Later Tales for Adults” happens Thursdays at 7 p.m. and, as the name suggests, is aimed at adults.
“The Digital Decameron,” Friday evenings at 7 p.m., is a virtual story lounge for people to share stories in this age of social distancing, Overholser said. It is named after Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” a 14th-century collection of stories presented as tales told by 10 people sheltering together in a deserted villa to escape the Black Death.
The Digital Decameron is open to anyone interested in sharing stories of how they are managing during an unprecedented and uncertain time of self-isolation and social distancing.
“I invite people to tell their stories about what they have learned—about themselves, their neighbors, their communities,” Overholser said.
For a full schedule, visit www.STLStorytellingFestival.com. Recordings of the storytellers will be available on the festival website at a later date.
Major sponsors of the festival include Missouri Arts Council; MU Office of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity; National Endowment for the Arts; MOHELA; Edward Jones; and the festival presenting sponsor, the Kranzberg Arts Foundation.