Legends and lessons: History comes to life during opening day of Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival

Saturday, April 4, 2009
David Woeltje of Cape Girardeau, left, his son Adam, 11, and wife Julie listens to the story of Samson told by Barbara McBride-Smith on Friday at the second annual Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival downtown. (Elizabeth Dodd)

More than 2,500 grade-school students got a new view of history Friday afternoon at the second annual Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival.

Storytellers from around the country enlightened students from Missouri and Illinois on such topics as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's travels in the United States and Missouri native Bertha Gifford, America's first female serial killer.

Other stories included tales of experiences as fourth-grader, an excursion with gunfighter Wyatt Earp and crickets singing in the kudzu.

Third-graders Olivia Loenneke and Bailey Mayfield were among the 120 students from Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Jackson who attended the opening day of the festival, which runs through Sundayin downtown Cape Girardeau. The girls said they enjoyed seeing history presented in another method away from the classroom.

"I liked the last guy who spoke because he really talked to us about history in a funny way," Loenneke said of Bobby Norfolk, who explained the travels of Lewis and Clark using hand motions, impersonations and colorful anecdotes. "And I enjoyed getting out of class."

Students file into buses along Spanish Street following a session of the Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival on Friday morning. (Kit Doyle)

Mayfield said her favorite part of the morning was "listening to the stories on a pretty day with all my friends."

Festival organizer Chuck Martin, executive director of the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that last year 700 students attended the inaugural festival Friday. This year, Martin said, organizers made a deliberate effort to partner with more regional schools.

"On Fridays we try to bring storytelling to a whole new generation so they'll have an appreciation for oral communication and sharing one's history and heritage," Martin said. "This is presenting that information in a fun way."

Bil Lepp, whose award-winning storytelling career has taken him to churches, libraries and schools and more than 200 festivals throughout the country, spoke during an afternoon and evening session Friday. He said that while he has been in the field for 19 years, it never has become mundane.

"It's better than having a job," said Lepp, a West Virginian who will perform in three sessions today. "Most of my stories are based on what's really happened to me. I just blow those out of proportion."

Storyteller Barbara McBride-Smith of Tulsa Okla., impersonates Samson on Friday while telling the Bible story of Sampson at the Storytelling Festival.
ELIZABETH DODD
edodd@semissourian.com

National speakers like Lepp were chosen during a visit by Martin and festival co-producer Joel Rhodes to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. Rhodes said such well-known storytellers are in such high demand that they had to be booked as far as two years in advance.

"When we went to the festival that first year we knew we wanted to get a national lineup and had heard this was the place to go for that purpose," Rhodes said. "After attending it we knew this was something that would do well here.

"Storytelling is such an amazing art form," he said. "Some people may say the stories are just comedy, but they're much more. These stories have the power to transport you to where they are with the images they create in the audience's mind."

Crowd estimates were unavailable Friday night. Last year's festival attracted about 1,100 on the first day.

The festival resumes at 9 a.m. today with stories by Norfolk in the tent at Broadway and Spanish Street and Kim Weitkamp, Sue Hinkel and Rosie Cutrer in the tent at Main and Merriwether streets. Storytellers will be available for autographs through 4:15 p.m. and WSIU Public Broadcasting of Carbondale, Ill., will offer an opportunity for individuals to tell their stories at no charge from its outreach van. Each person will receive a free audio CD of their story.

The evening concludes with a 7 p.m. performance at the River Campus at Morgan Oak and Spanish streets.

Based on Friday's results, Martin believes the final two days of the festival will be a success.

"Many who came last year have come back again, and we're having a lot more new faces come for the festival," Martin said. "Sometimes it takes that first year for people to understand what a great event we have here in Cape Girardeau and that then spreads through word of mouth. Once people are here and experience it, they know what a great time they had here."

bblackwell@semissourian.com

388-3628

Pertinent address:

Cape Girardeau, MO

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