A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma City Storytelling Festival showcases liars, folklorists and story-spinners
The 34th annual Oklahoma City Storytelling Festival continues Friday and Saturday with performances by local and nationally known storytellers, workshops, a family matinee, a poetry stand, live acoustic music and more.
Bil Lepp doesn’t mind if you call him a champion liar.
The five-time winner of West Virginia’s Liars Contest comes from a long line of tale spinners.
“My brother Paul won the Liars’ Contest six times, and none of the other family members have entered it. But I think that it’s safe to say that if my grandfather had ever entered, nobody else would ever win. Then, both of my children have won the 17 and under division of the Liars’ Contest more than once. We’re pretty proud of our little liars,” he said by phone from his home office in South Charleston, W.Va.
“I grew up in a family that was very oral. Everybody in the family was always telling stories; it was always up to the listener to decide what was true. So you could say anything you wanted at the Thanksgiving supper table, and folks just had to decide if they wanted to believe that.”
Sooner State fans of tall tales, folksy humor and youthful remembrances tinged with wishful thinking can believe that Lepp is returning for the third time to the Oklahoma City Storytelling Festival. The 34th annual festival kicked off with Thursday night and continues Friday and Saturday with performances by local and nationally known storytellers, workshops, a family matinee, a poetry stand, live acoustic music and more.
“It’s one of the few festivals in a big city that’s been successful. There’s a lot of storytelling festivals, but most of them are in little towns, tiny towns, and that seems to work better. The ones that have been tried in bigger cities haven’t, for whatever reason, I guess been able to compete with everything else that’s been going on,” Lepp said. “But the Oklahoma City festival, it thrives.”
For the second year, the Oklahoma History Center is the place to be for the festival, which is organized by the Arts Council of Oklahoma City. In addition, a competitive, open mike OKC StorySLAM titled “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Adulthood,” will be open to the public from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Urban Roots, 322 NE Second.
“We love the partnership with the history center. It’s just a perfect fit for us over there,” said Arts Council of Oklahoma City Executive Director Peter Dolese. “It’s just a perfect place for listening to stories, because the History Center tells the story of the state of Oklahoma.”
The OKC event is one of the oldest storytelling festivals in the country, he said.
“Storytelling’s been around for a long, long time, but as an art form in the United States it really didn’t catch on and we didn’t actually have storytelling festivals until the national festival was started (in 1973) in Jonesborough, Tennessee. And we started very shortly thereafter. You know, 34 years is a long time, and people of all walks of life in Oklahoma City have participated over the years,” Dolese said.
“Plus, Oklahoma, we’re in the heartland, and I think we really understand and appreciate what story is and how important it is to be connected to your roots.”
The event annually brings in featured storytellers scouted at the National Storytelling Festival. This year’s lineup includes returning favorites Lepp, Donald Davis and Elizabeth Ellis, along with Lyn Ford, a newcomer to the OKC festival.
“They’re the kind of folks that people love to see, and we always try to bring in a new voice,” Dolese said. “And there’s a lot of Oklahoma flavor.”
Oklahoma acoustic musicians Lauren Lee and Casey & Minna will provide the pre-show entertainment at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday night, respectively, with the featured tellers performing for adult audiences at 8 p.m.
In addition, Oklahoma’s Territory Tellers will be showcased during free lunchtime events Friday and Saturday, when the featured tellers will teach workshops at the History Center.
“Anybody can learn something from this. The workshops can definitely teach you to develop more of those personal skills in whatever occupation you work in,” said Miranda Wilson, the Arts Council of OKC’s communications director.
Festivalgoers and workshop attendees will have the opportunity to tour the history center for no additional charge. Plus, popular local poet and artist Kerri Shadid will be writing free, customized, spontaneous poems on request Friday and Saturday nights at her Poetry Stand.
Katelyn Carter, assistant director of the OKC Storytelling Festival, said stories are fundamental to our relationships as well as to our sense of self.
“I think it resonates because it’s not just an art form, it’s part of our daily lives. I mean, everybody has their stories,” Carter said.
This year’s lineup of nationally recognized storytellers will have an Appalachian flair. Davis, who was born in the southern Appalachian Mountains, recounts tales learned from a family of traditional yarn-spinners who have lived on the same western North Carolina land since 1781. Ellis, who is stepping in after storyteller Syd Lieberman had to cancel for health reasons, grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and worked as a popular children’s librarian at the Dallas Public Library before becoming a full-time storyteller.
Ford will share her “Home-Fried Tales” during Saturday’s family matinee, but she also will tell a specific kind of Appalachian story in her OKC Storytelling Festival debut.
“She does what she calls the Affrilachian stories – African American tales from the Appalachian part of the country – and there’s a rich heritage there … that she elaborates on,” Dolese said.
“All of them have their own brand of personal story, which can be laced with humor or can also be laced with poignant, deep introspection. All four of the tellers really resonate with the audience.”
We may be a West Virginia lying champ, but Lepp has also been featured 13 times at the National Storytelling Festival, traveled all over the country weaving his tales and even performed on the Comedy Central Stage at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles. From a hunting trip or a funeral to a visit to the dentist or a search for a plunger, he said he tries to infuse his stories with humor and resonance.
“Whether you’re telling a true story or a made-up story, whether you’re telling a tall tale or a fairy tale, there has to be some element in the story with which the audience connects,” said Lepp, who will perform at Saturday’s family matinee with Ford. “You have to find some common ground no matter what you’re talking about to get the audience involved in the story. Then, you can kind of go anywhere once you’ve established that we’re talking about something that we all know about.”
While some of his stories are based on true events, others are whole-cloth fiction. He spun his new story, “Wally, You Come Down Right Now!,” about grade-schoolers who climbs the rope in gym and then decides to live up in the ceiling like a bird in a big-box store, out of a flight of fancy he wished had happened when he was a kid.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer, from about the time I was in fourth grade,” he said. “What I found out about being a writer is that it’s difficult to get somebody to read what you wrote. As I started to tell stories, I found out that people have to listen to you — unless they can outrun you.”
The 34th annual Oklahoma City Storytelling Festival
When: Friday and Saturday.
Where: Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive.