Stage set for Page’s first storytelling festival

Bil Lepp, who will be the headliner at the festival, is one of America’s favorite storytellers.

Winter is the time for planning adventures, spring and summer are the times for pursuing those adventures, and autumn is the time to gather together and tell the stories. So says Steven Law, founder and producer of the Grand Circle Storytelling Festival, which will have its debut at the Cultural Arts Building in Page on Sept. 17.

Law is excited about this year’s event and its potential for the future.

“I think it’s going to be big,” he said. “It has the potential to be bigger than the Balloon Regatta. Now, that’s not going to happen this year, and it won’t be next year, but if we do it right, we can grow it every year. I hope to make the Grand Circle Storytelling Festival a fall tradition in Page.”

“The Cultural Arts Building can hold 800 people, and I would love it if every seat was filled,” Law said. “But even if there are only 100 people in attendance, I want those people to feel like it was the best night of their year, then go tell all their friends how awesome it was.”

The whole idea began three years ago, when PUSD’s then-superintendent Rob Varner gathered a group of PUSD employees together and asked for ideas and ways to better utilize the district’s Cultural Arts Building, an amazing, under-utilized facility. Law suggested that a storytelling festival would be a perfect fit for the CAB. Law had volunteered with the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival for years when he lived in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“It’s a huge, multi-day event with dozens of storytellers coming from all across North America, but the first year it started, it was just one night, one stage and two storytellers,” Law said. “I can see that same thing happening here in Page.”

That meeting with Varner occurred in January of 2020, and the group set a date for the festival for the following autumn. But COVID arrived and everything was postponed.

“We tried to do it again last October,” Law remembers. “We even had the first two storytellers booked, and one of them had already made his flight plans. But then we had another spike in COVID, and I decided to call it off. I hated to do it, but it would have been pretty bad for the school district if we held the event and it turned into a super-spreader.”

The key to hosting and building a successful storytelling event is bringing in top-tier, entertaining storytellers, and Law believes he has succeeded at that.

“The best storytelling festivals I’ve been to have humorous stories, stories that make you stop and think, stories that restore your faith in humanity, and stories that deepen our understanding of the human condition,” Law said. “I believe this year’s storytellers will fulfill that vision.”

At a proper storytelling festival, the audience will see a large variety of storytelling varieties and methods.

“At a big festival, such as the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, the audience will listen to true stories and tall tales, serious stories and funny stories,” said Law. “Some storytellers incorporate music into their stories, some incorporate puppets or other props. Some are just alone on stage with a microphone. Really, the only requirement is that the story has to be great, it has to be original, it has to be well-told and it has to resonate with the audience on some level. We want the audience to be impressed, entertained, and moved by the experience. To do that we sought out the top storytellers in America.”

Law’s first choice was Bil Lepp, a professional storyteller from West Virginia. Lepp is one of the most popular, most sought after, favorite storytellers in America. 

“I really wanted him at our event, so I built the storytelling festival around his availability,” Law said. “When the audience watches him perform, they will understand why we wanted him at this show. Lepp is the greatest storyteller in America. When he replied back that he could do it, I was ecstatic. Having Bil Lepp tell stories at your storytelling festival is like having Santa Claus attend your Christmas party.”

Lepp will be the festival’s headliner. He specializes in humorous, tall-tale-type stories. He has been traveling the storytelling circuit for 32 years and doing it professionally, full-time for 19 years. He’s on the road performing at storytelling festivals across America 180 days of the year, performing at 50 to 60 events per year. In addition to performing, Lepp spends a great deal of time writing new material. He estimates he has more than 30 or 40 hours of material, “almost all of its humorous.”

With such a vast catalog of stories to choose from, Lepp says he usually doesn’t decide which story he’ll tell until he’s walking onto the stage.

“I try to feed off the room,” he said. “I try to tell a story that will complement the stories the other tellers have told.”

Lepp will be attending The Grand Circle Storytelling Festival with his wife Paula.

“We’re absolutely looking forward to visiting Page and have a chance to look around and see some areas we haven’t seen before,” he said.

Another one of the storytellers this year is Laura Tohe, another highly sought after, highly regarded storyteller and poet. Tohe is a Dine’ author, poet and storyteller, and professor at Arizona State University’s English Department. She is also the Navajo Poet Laureate. 

Tohe will be telling stories about the Navajo experience.

“The stories I will tell are Navajo stories, but they are stories about my family, who are Navajo,” she said.

Law recounts a time he saw Tohe perform live.

“I had the great opportunity to see Laura read some of her poems on stage,” he said. “She was one of four or five poets doing a reading. When Laura took the stage, she read a group of four or five poems. Her words were strong. Her words were profound and true. Her words spoke of suffering and hope. Her words transformed the energy of the room into something sacred and holy. I still number it as one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.”

“So, when Laura Tohe responded to my invitation to be part of the Grand Circle Storytelling Festival, I couldn’t believe it,” Law said. “I was a little bit in shock. I cannot wait to hear her words again.”

Eighty percent of PUSD’s student population is Navajo, many of whom still live on the Navajo Reservation and practice traditional Navajo ways of life.

“It was absolutely imperative that we have a Navajo storyteller,” Law said. “We will always strive to have an indigenous storyteller at all future storytelling festivals.”

Tohe will share some of her narrative poems at the festival.

“I’m really looking forward to this,” she said. “It will be fun to hear the other storytellers and contribute my own stories. We all have different stories to tell. From region, age and experience, it's always fun to plug into those stories. Stories are just something we need. We’re all hardwired to like stories, to just sit together and listen. Stories are one of the best ways I know to bring communities together.”

Another one of this year’s storytellers is Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, who is most famous for her award-winning poetry. She brings a unique method of storytelling to the stage, which consists of stringing together a series of six to 10 poems. Each poem is its own small story, and the arc of the poems reveals a larger narrative.

“Rosemerry is going to bring a great deal of depth to this festival,” Law said. “Months from now, those who were in the audience will still be thinking about her words, her story and her message. Next spring, you’ll be planting flowers in your front yard and you’ll find yourself thinking about Rosemerry’s story and the way it made you feel.”

Law said it’s no coincidence that two of the four storytellers at this year’s festival are poets.

“Poets are the best storytellers,” he said. “No one touches on the full range of the human experience better than a poet. And they do it so beautifully, succinctly. And all of it with a touch of reverence, respect and grace.”

Law himself will round out this years’ crop of storytellers. In Page, Law is best known for his roles as the former editor of the Lake Powell Chronicle and currently as the public relations coordinator for Page Unified School District.

But Law’s storytelling range extends far beyond that. He’s also an award-winning essayist, travel writer and poet. He’s the author of "Polished,” a collection of poems about exploring the Colorado Plateau by foot and by raft.

He's coproducer for a weekly radio segment on Flagstaff, Arizona's NPR station KNAU called “Poetry Snaps” that highlights working poets of the Colorado Plateau and American Southwest. He’s a contributing writer for “Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel.” His travel writing has won numerous gold and silver awards at the Travelers Tales Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing. He has received numerous awards from the Arizona Newspaper Association for his feature and opinion writing.

“But telling a story for the page and a story for the stage are different,” Law said. “When written for the page, go ahead and pack in the visual imagery. Readers are expecting that. They can handle it. But if you do that too much onstage, the eyes start to glaze over. It took some hard lesson to learn that difference.”

At this year’s storytelling festival, Law will be telling the true story of a time when he was lost and should have died.

“I tell it because it was one of the most profound, pivotal experiences of my life,” he said. “I should have died that day. Heck, I should have died three times that day. But by the grace of God I didn’t. And believe me, something like that will make you stop and think about what it is you want from your life. And now, at my age, it makes me stop and think about what it is I’ve done with my life.”  

Law came to storytelling from years of writing narrative travel stories for magazines and newspapers.

When he writes a story for the stage, he first writes it as an essay that would appear in print. He then reworks it so that the final version has better flow, so it will sound natural to anyone listening to the story.

The storytelling festival will also include an educational component. The day before the main event, the storytellers will go into classrooms at Desert View, Page Middle School and Page High School and meet with groups of students. Lepp and Trommer will discuss the craft of creating a story from the inception of the idea to a finished story that’s ready for publication or presentation. Tohe will meet with students from the Navajo Language and Government classes and discuss with them the importance of storytelling as a way to preserve and celebrate Navajo culture, language, history and heritage. 

Law said he is encouraged by what this year’s gifted storytellers will bring to Page. 

“A storytelling festival is such an amazing experience,” Law said. “In the course of two hours, you will experience raucous laughter and holy reverence. A good storytelling festival is one of the most transportative experiences I know. Everything about it is wonderful!”

The Grand Circle Storytelling Festival will be held Sept. 17 at the Cultural Arts Building. Tickets are $8 for adults, $3 for children and $5 for PUSD students, teachers and staff. Advance tickets are on sale at the Page Public Library. The program will last around 90 to 100 minutes.

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