What did you love most about the 2020 Olympics? While it’s thrilling to watch the close wins and cheer for your team, it’s the stories we remember most. We love hearing the stories of overcoming personal trials and hardships, stories of triumph in spite of family and personal challenges, and stories of the incredible amount of work that goes into winning an Olympic medal.
While stories may be the obvious connection, here are some other things the 2020 Olympics and this year’s Timpanogos Storytelling Festival have in common.
Both events bring people together and connect them emotionally and socially with no regard to color, nation of origin, or socio-economic backgrounds.
The 32nd Olympiad, held in July 2021, was a highlight, not just for the athletes who trained and worked tirelessly to reach personal goals, but also for their families and friends who shared their journey.
The 32nd annual Timpanogos Storytelling Festival (Sept. 9-11, 2021) also represents the dreams and ambitions of people who communicate stories of love, courage, and humor一causing the hardships of a pandemic, unrest, and global confusion to fall into the background for just a little while. We celebrate coming together through common goals and find joy in the everyday triumphs and small victories.
The Olympic back stories of sacrifice, mentoring, and guidance remind us that everything worth achieving is remarkable and of significant worth一the parents who paid for lessons and practice time, the coaches who taught athletes to get back up and try again, the achievements over injury and pain.
The Olympics started in 1896 in Athens, Greece, and this year drew an international television audience of 15.1 million.
The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, which began in Alan and Karen Ashton’s Orem, Utah backyard with an idea discovered by Karen at a national festival, drew a few hundred participants. Last year’s audience, combining virtual attendees and in-person listeners in schools and community conferences, numbered in the thousands.
Like the athletes who join those from other nations at the Olympics, listeners at the Festival are transported to all parts of the globe, gaining experience and understanding of cultures and people they may never have the chance to know in person. And that brings us all a little closer together.
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Andy Offutt Irwin really likes to tell his fictional stories involving his 85-year-old, widowed, aunt, Marguerite VanCamp, a newly minted physician. He talks with humor and candor about aging and growth, even amongst the aged.
Since he is from Georgia, he also likes telling stories about the area and the people, addressing the issues that pertain to the “New South” and the social changes occurring therein.
His stories are flavored with humor and framed on truth. “Good fiction must be framed in truth, even if one is not dwelling completely in fact,” he said.
“My characters are developed in such a way that they inform me of what they need to say. This is truer than you can imagine.”
Fellow storyteller Ed Stivender told Irwin he loves how he protects and takes good care of his characters in his stories.
Irwin started out in a comedy troupe that provided shows to Walt Disney World: SAK Theatre. He performed, wrote and directed with them but failed to find the connection there he wanted with people.
He started working as a teaching artist with “Young Audiences of Atlanta” when he met storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy. She pitched the idea of storytelling to Irwin. He had done some stand-up and performing but hadn’t considered storytelling. He tried it and was soon invited to the National Storytelling Festival which turned out to be a life changing experience.
He describes himself as a humorist who listens to his audience and is working on his “funny.”
“I utterly live on the reaction of an audience,” adds Irwin. “Although I have dabbled in radio and television, I have been a live performer all my life. The audiences’ reactions inform me as to what is working, what is heard and understood, and what needs adjusting. The laughter I listen for tells me that the people are present with me in the story.
“Laughter is “the sound of comprehension,” he shares.
He was awarded the 2013 National Storytelling Network Circle of Excellence Award.
Sheila Arnold took a leap of faith “with a trampoline in place” when she decided to try storytelling as a career. She was a single mom with a young son when her parents offered her financial support and a safety net if she wanted to give it a serious go. They took care of her bills and her son who also offered his unconditional support.
“When God opened the door in 2003, I told my parents ‘I should do this.’”
She had been telling stories at her son’s daycare center. That was almost 20 years ago, in fact, it was 18 years on Sept. 3.
Since that time she’s become a successful, full-time storyteller, traveling all around America sharing songs, stories and historic character presentations.
She enjoys writing, telling, directing and helping others learn to enjoy stories. She doesn’t put herself in a niche.
“If I like a story, I tell the story,” Arnold shares. “I tell several original stories, inspirational and Christian stories. I tell whatever feels good in my mouth!”
She’s a history buff as well as a story lover.
She brings to life 13 different women from history, including her favorite representative of the early slave people, tavern slave “Ol’ Bess.”
She has been heavily involved with the Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, presentations as a character. She has been a featured regional storyteller at the Williamsburg Storytelling Festival. She is the CEO and a lead performer of the television series History’s Alive!
She’s been successful enough to be able to pay her parents back for their financial support and her proud son is now a high school senior.
He has told her, “Mom, this is what you’re supposed to be!”
Arnold is happy to be telling stories because she believes storytelling is truth-telling, creating a community.
“It may be just between you and your grandchild,” she says.
She acknowledges that stories entertain but stresses that storytelling is truth-telling.
“Take some of the funniest stories and you realize you are also getting some truth. Look at Bil Lepp’s stories, Arnold said. (Lepp is also a storyteller at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.)
“It’s also illuminating. I love that moment when you realize the story is about more than the story. I love that part!”
This is her second year at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Robert Jones, also known and ordained the Reverend Robert Jones, was invited to be a
storyteller at the 2020 Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, It turned out to be a virtual festival only but he still found it
to be a highlight experience as the storytelling community accepted him without reservation.
(The 2021 festival is both live and virtual.)
“It was wonderful. It’s such a welcoming fraternity,” he said.
He is just one of several storytellers on the circuit who have been or currently serve as
“The two things are connected,” Jones said, “preaching truth and telling meaningful stories.”
He points out that the Bible is actually the ultimate ancient way of telling stories and of
Jones said society today is so divided that people need stories more than ever.
So he’s intent on telling stories that teach cultural diversity and tolerance.
The really great stories bring us together, he said.
“Tolerance?” That’s something we do when we’re in pain, something that we bear, like a
“Cultural diversity is the story to celebrate. We celebrate the things that enhance your life,” he
Jones started telling traditional African American and American humorous and powerful stories
to go along with his music.
He’s a self-taught blues musician and a longtime DJ.
“People would tell me they enjoyed my stories as much as my music,” Jones said.
He has entertained audiences of all ages in schools, prisons, churches, libraries. and colleges.
He was invited to the National Storytelling Festival. He told stories there and determined right
away, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up!”
This year will be his and his wife’s first visit to Utah.
He’s anxious to be here.
“I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Timpanogos Festival,” he said.
Donald Davis—who has become an icon of storytelling at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival and who is a master at taking listeners to the North Carolina mountains to laugh at stories about spilled syrup, broken bones, “doobies,” and pink lotion rubbed all over the baby—says he grew up listening to and loving stories.
“I did not choose to be a storyteller. I simply grew up in the North Carolina mountains in a world that was pre-television and with relatives who still did not even have electricity. There was lots of visiting on porches and in living rooms and kitchen. . . . I didn’t even know it was called storytelling,” Davis explains.
When he was in school, he would share his stories with others. “This continued on through college and into early adulthood.”
As storytelling festivals took root, Davis started getting calls asking him to be a teller.
“The first festival at which I was featured was the National Storytelling Festival. I have now told there for forty-one years.
“It was purely a matter of demand that led me to spend my life in this way. The invitations did not stop and pretty soon they included asking for workshops as well as performances. Then a publisher asked for a book.”
Davis believes “Storytelling just happened to and for me!”
He thinks things in life happen the way they are supposed to happen, “You cannot force them because you simply want to be or do something.”
He does, however, encourage his audience to search their memories and find the stories they can share.
“What I love is seeing other people relate to the stories I tell by remembering and telling their own stories. When they come up later and say “that reminded me of” I know they are going home with a story they would not have remembered if they had not first been a listener,” Davis says.
“The audience is my partner in telling. I describe pictures and watch the listeners ‘til they show me that they are not listening to but rather watching the story happen. Then we go forward.”
Davis has been part of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival since it started 32 years ago, telling stories, teaching workshops and conferences; making friends.
He is beloved, funny. and unique. He says the same things about the Festival.
“Timpanogos is my favorite festival and I look forward to being back after missing the reality of last year.”
For Susan O’Halloran, inclusion has been her passion since she was a teenager and met Dr. Martin Luther King’s people in Chicago.
“I’ve been telling stories “professionally” since the 1970s.” O’Halloran says, “I did what we would now call Performance Art.
“In the 1950s and 60s, I grew up in a storytelling family — not everyone had TVs — and so we entertained each other sitting out on our Chicago front porch steps. Neighbors would gather in the evening and you learned the value of keeping people’s interest with a good story.
“I really started to pursue storytelling as a career in 1990 when I moved back to Chicago and started working with Jim May, Beth Horner, Nancy Donoval, Anne Shimojima and Syd Lieberman. It was a hugely supportive community and I feel that my storytelling really began to grow.
“I won’t be telling a lot of my social justice repertoire at Timpanogos because I’m told that there will likely be children in every set. While my stories always have humor, some of our history is hard to hear. When I do take on difficult subjects, I find stories are the best way because they can bring people together rather than divide us. When stories open our hearts, we can feel our common love for each other and our country.”
O’Halloran is the author of several books and diversity curricula and the producer/director of multicultural performances and films including “Black, White and Brown: Tribes & Bridges at the Steppenwolf Theatre” and “More Alike Than Not: Stories of Three Americans – Catholic, Jewish and Muslim.”
She teaches diversity and inclusion seminars in Fortune 500 companies and Graduate Schools of Business. Sue also works with nonprofits to capture more press, volunteer and fundraising attention through the power of stories.
The Chicago Reader’s Critic Choice said, “O’Halloran has mastered the Irish art of telling stories that are funny and heart-wrenching at the same time.”
“I tell many kinds of stories but when I am telling autobiographically, the stories fall into two broad categories: personal/family stories and teaching stories. With the teaching stories, the trick is to provide inspiration, to show people that the solutions are truly doable without bringing the whole piece to a grinding halt.”
O’Halloran presents with humor, suspense, heartbreak and drama. The audience learns as the character in the story learns.
“If we are having realizations at the same time, the audience is more likely to change right along with me. They’ll eventually end up understanding what I’d like them to understand, not because I preached at them or knew more than they knew, but because we took a journey together.”
“I find that personal and teaching stories are similar in the way that matters most: together, we encounter our despair, our immeasurable victories and the perfectly, imperfect, common experience of being human,” O’Halloran says.