Storytellers spin colorful yarns at eighth annual county festival

By Mary Katherine Murphy

April 14, 2014

LAURINBURG — Showcasing stories from the perfectly true to the completely implausible, the eighth annual Storytelling Festival of Carolina this weekend treated thousands to two days packed with entertainment.

The festival showcased four storytellers on the grounds of the John Blue House: Donald Davis, Carmen Deedy, Antonio Rocha, and Kim Weitkamp, all nationally-known raconteurs who have performed at the national festival in Tennessee.

“I love Carmen Deedy and Donald Davis — I’ve gone to Jonesboro several times to hear them,” said Bea Swajkoski of Burlington. “These are some pretty talented storytellers.”

Davis, an Oakracoke Island resident and storyteller of more than four decades, is no stranger to commanding an audience as a retired Methodist minister. He performed at the festival for the fourth time this weekend with stories about his experience in that vocation.

“Everything comes out of stuff that’s really happened, that I’ve either been in the middle of or watched it going on,” said Davis. “I can’t go beyond that place.”

Davis called the task of choosing a story from his repertoire of 250 to tell at a festival serves an emotional balancing act.

“If you’re first, then you’ve got to just make a decision,” he said. “If you’re not, then a lot of what I decide is based on what the person before me told. Like did they go deep down with a serious story and now we need laughter, or did they laugh, laugh, laugh, and you can’t outlaugh that so you’ve got to come from somewhere else.”

Even introducing a story about an overbearing retired preacher who proved to be one of his most difficult parishioners, Davis wasted no time in pulling laughs out of his audience.

“I’m beginning to realize that it was 47 years ago when I was ordained,” he said in a tone tinged with glee. “Most of those people are dead. So I can tell all kinds of stuff.”

Deedy demonstrated her improvisational ability when someone’s phone rang — complete with chirping cricket ringtone — at the climax of her retelling of Horatius at the bridge.

“And the crickets sang, and the birds — the elephants would have too, but Hannibal wasn’t around yet.”

The storytelling tent was packed with more than 500 people at a time, with listeners of all ages. Sisters Nancy Testerman of Maryland and Bonnie Briant of Seattle, Wash. attended the festival with a flock of grandchildren between them.

“These kids think those guys are rock stars,” said Testerman, who attended the festival for the sixth time this weekend.

“(Storyteller) Bil Lepp sat at their table last year at the gala and they were thrilled to death,” Briant added.

The sisters have been drawn to storytelling since their mother “indoctrinated” them 20 years ago.

“The first one she took us to was the national, but that one is too big,” Briant said. “This is just the perfect size, it’s great to bring kids to, and it’s a great value for your money to be this entertained.”

From retired minister Davis to Rodger Ellingwood, president of the South Carolina Storytelling Network, there exists a broad diversity of storytellers and storytelling enthusiasts. As Ellingwood, a nuclear engineer, began to consider earning a mid-career masters degree, he became aware of storytelling through Toastmasters International.

Though he still works by day for Duke Energy, he now holds a master of education degree in storytelling.

“My passion for it has wavered at times, but this year I’m in a transition of cutting down on my work hours and doing more things that I want to do, and this is one of them,” he said. “There are certain things you just don’t get tired of.”

Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 17. Follow her on Twitter @emkaylbg.