Thoughts from the 2016 Timpanogos Storytelling Festival

tsfThis morning I woke up see Teresa perusing the Internet. I asked, “What are you searching for?” She replied, “I’m checking to see if Mister Money Bags has written anything about you.” Mister Money Bags is a longstanding figure in Gashlarian lore. From the early days of our rock band, through our years of puppet shows, storytelling, plays, and films, we’ve dreamed that this elusive, faceless billionaire would show up at the end of a performance, shake our hands, pull out his cigar, and say, “My friends, you have got it.” He’ll then offer us an amazing contract with a gargantuan advance, and we’ll live happily ever after as celebrated artists.

This weekend my family and I have been performing at our favorite event of the year, the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival. As the winner of the Hauntings Contest, last October, I was invited to tell my ghost story for the pre-show of “Shivers in the Night.” As the second place winner at the Utah’s Biggest Liar contest in April, I was invited to perform my tall tale with the other winners, including my seven-year-old daughter Ariah, who won the youth contest. Ariah also got to be the first storyteller of the entire festival, performing with national teller Kim Weitkamp. As always, the festival was refreshing and inspiring.

71504235I’ve concluded that there’s only one rational explanation of why Mister Money Bags has yet to make an appearance in my life: he doesn’t exist. I mean, surely no talent agent or wealthy patron of the arts could behold my genius without pulling out a checkbook. This is tragic, because the world needs a Mister Money Bags. So many brilliant artists are dying for recognition. So I’ve decided that the only suitable thing to do is to become Mister Money Bags myself. While I’m not yet in a position to offer checks and contracts, what I can do is give praise where praise is due. It is my hope that those who are searching the Internet to see if anyone loves them will discover their names in this post and that my comments will provide useful quotes for their marketing literature. So if, dear artist, you are reading this now, you are more than welcome to quote me. You can refer to me as an author, storyteller, playwright, composer, blogger, reviewer, disco dancer … whatever suits your needs.

And now, with no further ado, I will now praise everyone who impressed me over the last three days:

The Mountainside Jazz Orchestra

These Utah Valley college-aged jazz junkies are bursting at the seems with energy. It was my second time seeing them perform, and I hope it’s not the last. Their male vocalist does uncanny Michael Bublé, and every musician not only sounded great but was fun to watch. They hold nothing back as they rip those brass bells, swing their bodies, and jump onto their seats. During one of their uncontainable songs, I was amazed at how so many musicians got carried away with wild improvisation at the same time. I expected cacophony … chaos … but far from it, they just kept raising the roof higher, and it sounded awesome. Their closing number was a jazzed up version of Disney’s “I Wanna Be Like You.” This song will always hold a special place in my heart, as my friends and I often performed it in high school. The Mountainside Jazz Orchestra brought new life to this old classic, for which I echo the sentiment of Baloo the bear: “Man, what a beat.” Hours after the concert, I was still snapping my fingers and busting out, “Oobeedoohs!” The only thing that would have made it better would have been a scat battle a la Phil Harris and Louis Prima.

Emily Brown

While I’m on the subject of musicians, there were too many great performances at the festival to write about. Though one that really stood out to me was Emily Brown. Her website describes her style as anti-folk. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds about right. Reminding me of Regina Spektor, her simplistic and sincere music was comprised of beautiful violin, gentle guitar, vocal harmonies, and Emily’s fantastic voice. She has a phenomenal range and a delightful, vintage timbre from a time that never was. Whatever it is, it’s so sincere that I couldn’t help but love it. Her melodies, brilliant and catchy, simply flow. I definitely hope to hear more of her.

Daniel Morden

And now to the storytellers. Daniel Morden, from Wales, immediately stood out to me. While some storytellers are all about big eyes, larger than life expressions, and (frankly) the timbre of Kindergarten teachers, Daniel Morden breaks the mold with a dry and sometimes dark demeanor. His stories lead us in a refreshing departure from Little Bunny Foo Foo and into the enchanted, “Grimm” woods, where you just might be hexed by a witch or have your head chopped off by a little, green man. Morden is a master of folk tales, though he does far more than recount ancient myths; with each story, he passes on his sagacity. For his Laughing Night performance on Saturday, in his dry way, he presented himself as a Welshman, who is, therefore, virtually incapable of humor. It was one of the funniest performances I’d ever seen.

Joe Herrington

Joe Herrington, Texas cowboy, was the only storyteller who received a standing ovation during the Thursday night concert. To be honest, I wasn’t overly excited about the idea of cowboy poetry, but when he started speaking in rhyme, so naturally and earnestly, I didn’t want him to stop. Touching on themes of brotherhood, civil responsibility, and our fading all-American values, this wise cowboy preached without preaching, taught without being didactic, and inspired with a commendable humility. He was the first storyteller I’d seen that was completely free of antics and gimmicks. He was just his true, honest self, a scholar and a gentleman, and consequently, his stories were mesmerizing. It was like watching a French naturalist film after an American blockbuster. I loved it, and I made a point to sit through as many of his stories as I could. After my Friday night performance, Joe Herrington took me aside and complimented me on my timing. Aw, shucks. He also told me how impressed he was by this festival and how special the place and the people seemed. I agreed.

Geraldine Buckley

If I wrote everything I felt, I’m afraid this post would come across as long-winded and schmaltzy. For the sake of brevity, Geraldine Buckley was simply charming. What makes her unique is that, unlike other storytellers, she doesn’t lie. Not that there’s anything wrong with lying. As the current holder of the title “the Second Biggest Liar in the state of Utah,” I’m quite fond of lying. But Gerlaldine’s stories brought a unique inspiration, that stranger-than-fiction flavor of meaning and relatability. She has a flare for finding the color, drama, and fun in every-day life. Though I’m sure she could spin fabulous lies if she wanted to. She clearly has a strong theatre background and an excellent stage presence.

David Novak

While I observed that some of my favorite tellers, such as Bill Lepp and Kevin Kling, have a gift for playing off the audience with spur-of-the-moment banter and digression, sometimes this lack of firm direction can get tedious. What I liked about David Novak was that he took full control of his stories. From his world-building and word-smithing to his character voices and diction, David Novak is truly a master storyteller. His ghost story gave me at least three distinct sets of chills, and his folktales were so good that I found myself taking notes so that I could retell them to my children.

McMazing Tales

I honestly loved all of the storytellers, but because I don’t have time to write a novel this Sunday afternoon, we’ll have to leave it at that. Moving on to the other performers, my review would be incomplete without a little praise for my favorite puppeteers. As one who’s done puppetry at this very festival for seven or eight years, it’s fun to see what my fellow performers are doing, and Teresa and I find ourselves laughing with an inside appreciation. What I love about McMazing Tales is that they always push the envelope into the bigger, wilder, and crazier. On Saturday, after a hilarious routine with a quack magician and brilliant interactions with the audience, William McAllister made an appearance in a life-sized monster suit and chased Randall McNair’s character around the stage. I’d never heard children roar louder with laughter. As if this weren’t good enough, the show reached an unforeseen climax as two more puppeteers entered in life-sized dinosaur suits, taking the craziness even further. After the show, the two raptors (Will’s sisters, I believe), decided to go on a stroll through the festival and spook the passerby. And why not? Do you see why this is the best event of the year?

I guess that’s enough for now. It’s been great to see the festival grow bigger every year, and it’s been fun to get more and more involved as a storyteller myself. For those of you who think that storytelling is just something that happens between seventy-year-old librarians and kindergartners, you don’t know what you’re missing. This is humanity at its best, the purest dissemination of wisdom, humor, and good, old-fashioned fun. I think it’s tragic that, year after year, my family ends up with so many complimentary tickets (from competitions won or service rendered) that a handful of tickets inevitably go to waste. And it’s not that we don’t try to give them away. Again, people really don’t know what they’re missing.

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