The Not So Ancient Art of Storytelling
By Marina Riker
Although hundreds of people are squeezed under a tent in the middle of downtown George West, everyone is silent.
The only voice that can be heard, however, is one of the many storytellers that flock to George West, a sleepy town of 2,500 just 60 miles north of Corpus Christi. During the annual George West Storyfest, the population more than triples.
“I can't believe you can pack a tent with 600 people to listen to stories and they're quiet,” said Becky Allen, who ran the festival for more than two decades before retiring. “They’re not coming to a rock concert or anything like that, they're coming to go back in time.”
For the 29th consecutive year, personal stories and local folklore will come to life at the George West Storyfest, which shuts down the main street of the town. The festival, which started with a few hundred attendees, now attracts nearly 8,000 people for a weekend of games, food, and storytelling from nearly 20 hand-picked individuals from across the nation.
Imaginations run wild at the event, which has been dubbed one of the best storytelling festivals in Texas. The Texas Legislature, in fact, declared George West the Storytelling Capital of Texas.
But, storytelling isn’t all the event offers. Local nonprofits set up booths to serve home-cooked fare such as funnel cakes, barbecue, and baked potatoes as a way to fundraise for their causes. There’s also a parade, children’s games, car show, and living history exhibits—which makes George West the place to be for the first weekend in November.
“It’s the biggest thing that happens in our town all year,” said Mary Margaret Campbell, who took over as executive director after Allen retired.
This year, Campbell and her volunteers will work feverishly to arrange hundreds of chairs, dozens of booths, and multiple stages for thousands of dedicated attendees, many of which flock to the festival year after year.
Campbell is tasked with organizing events ranging from open mic sessions for story-telling newbies to the Texas State Liars Contest, which attracts performers from across the state to see who can tell the wildest tale. Some of the event’s performers are recognized nationally, while others specialize in tales that preserve the history and folklore of Texas.
“I don't get to listen,” said Campbell. “I’m the energizer bunny.”
But, preparation wasn’t always that busy—what is now the town’s largest festival was once just a few hundred people sitting on hay bales around a wooden stage in the late 1980s.
The festival’s humble beginnings date back to 1989, when George West — like many other Texas communities — was struggling in the aftermath of the oil industry crash. Rob Schneider, who grew up in the town, was the president of the local Chamber of Commerce at the time.
“Things were kind of depressed,” said Schneider. “So we were trying to figure out how to help morale.”
George West is a sleepy, small town where the majority of the businesses, most of which are locally owned, are situated on the town’s main street. Even today, the town closely resembles what it looked like when Schneider was growing up, when storytelling became an important part of his childhood.
More than three generations of Schneider’s family grew up in the area, and storytelling became one of the key ways to pass along knowledge and local folklore to younger generations, Schneider said. His relatives were far from the only ones who engaged in the art.
“You'd go to the Dairy Diner, and all the older men would be sitting around it telling stories,” said Schneider.
Decades later, that gave Schneider an idea for a festival: “Maybe if I could create places where people could tell stories, that would be a theme to talk about the history of the communities.”
Schneider had another mission, too. In the midst of the economic downturn, the chamber wanted find a way to allow local nonprofit organizations to raise money. So, Schneider and his team asked them to run food booths, selling items ranging from sodas to chili. Other vendors set up children’s games and arts and crafts.
The first year of the festival was a success. On the first weekend of November in 1989, hundreds of people showed up to hear from local storytellers, ranging from cowboy poets to people sharing personal tales. Jim McGee, who has lived in George West since the late 1960s, was also a part of the team that put it together.
“Really, it’s been by word of mouth to start and it progressed from there,” McGee said.
But nearly three decades after the festival began, the atmosphere hasn’t changed much, McGee said.
Unsupervised children play games and run around the festival grounds while their parents enjoy live music and tall tales. Despite thousands of people flocking to the area, the event is safe; children are watched carefully by volunteers, while local law enforcement — some of which participate in the event — keep an eye on the crowds, McGee said.
McGee credits the event’s success to keeping the venue family friendly—all storytellers, vendors, and musicians are thoroughly vetted before they’re invited to the festival. Plus, the day before the event starts, the storytellers kick off the weekend by speaking to children and teens in more than a dozen public school campuses in towns ranging from George West to Alice, Texas.
“You’ll hear stories that will have you laughing, and then crying the next,” said McGee.
Campbell, the Executive Director, is the woman in charge of hand selecting the storytellers and musicians that perform at the school and the event itself—some of which come from out of state.
Several times a year, the George West native travels to hear up-and-coming performers who specialize in the art of storytelling. Campbell listens carefully to their performances to ensure they’re the best storytellers to captivate both children and adults.
“Storytelling was dying,” said Campbell. “That's what we’re here to do—make sure that art form stays alive.”
Campbell, who first got involved by volunteering as a stage manager, sees the event as a way to help children and their families appreciate history and the cultures of other people. The former high-school english teacher also invites local storytellers to share tales during an open mic segment.
“A lot of times it's healing to tell your story,” said Campbell. “And we're just trying to make sure that doesn't die out.”