Master storytellers come to Denton to connect with audiences and showcase their craft at the Texas Storytelling Festival

The 39th Annual Texas Storytelling Festival runs from March 7-10 at the Denton Civic Center.

The 39th Annual Texas Storytelling Festival
The poster for the 39th Annual Texas Storytelling Festival – Pictures courtesy of the Texas Storytelling Festival

Nestor Gomez immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in the mid-80s. “When I came to this country, I used to stutter. I wasn’t documented, and I didn’t know the language, so I didn’t have a voice,” Gomez said.

Even after getting his papers and grasping the language, Gomez felt he still didn’t have a voice. He was afraid of public speaking. In order to conquer his fear, he signed up for a storytelling event. He thought the event would be a one-time activity but “fell in love with it.”

Gomez is now a 79-time Moth Slam winner, an open mic storytelling competition, and a National Storytelling Association Grand Slam Winner. When he first started telling stories, however, he was concerned that people wouldn’t be able to relate to them or that they wouldn’t listen. He eventually realized that his stories of immigrating to the United States were rooted in universal themes, touching on common desires like wanting a house or to be with the people you love.

Gomez tells the story of how his parents came to the United States from Guatemala five years before he did. There was no internet at the time, and his house didn’t have a phone. “For many years, I couldn’t see my parents, and I compared that with the COVID experience and how we were separated from our families,” Gomez said. “We all experienced that.”

It’s a story he tells to help audiences relate and connect to the immigration experience. “Our experiences shine through our stories and build bridges across other people’s stories and experiences,” Gomez said.

Gomez is looking to build those connections between stories when he takes the stage as one of four featured storytellers in the 39th Annual Texas Storytelling Festival at the Denton Civic Center from March 7-10. During the festival, each featured teller will participate in several storytelling concerts during the weekend and host individual workshops. The festival will also include poetry and story slams, a lying contest, story swaps, youth storytelling opportunities and many more events with other accomplished storytellers. “It’s about 23 hours of storytelling, which is pretty amazing, and nine workshops,” Kim Lehman, the Texas Storytelling Festival marketing director and a participating storyteller, said of this year’s event.

The 39th Annual Texas Storytelling Festival
The featured storytellers at this year’s festival

Although the four featured storytellers at this year’s festival come from a wide variety of diverse backgrounds and experiences, they all share the same desire to form connections between themselves and the assembled audiences during their concerts.

“A connection with the teller is like this wonderful magic that happens,” Lehman said. “It’s like this sacred space that just happens when a storyteller starts telling, and everybody’s in it together.”

Gomez said he goes into events like the Texas Storytelling Festival with an idea of his strongest stories he would like to tell but often ends up changing his plans based on the audience, the other storytellers participating and what speaks to his heart at the time. It’s a common approach between each storyteller as they strive to tailor their tales to resonate with the audience in front of them.

“I heard someone say you come loaded for bear and then wait until you see the whites of their eyes,” featured storyteller Fran Stallings said.

Stallings is an “EarthTeller” with a Ph.D. in botany. As the oldest of five, Stallings called storytelling “a survival skill” that she developed as a child, telling bedtime stories and entertaining her younger siblings when babysitting.

Fellow featured storyteller Donald Davis can relate to having a large family. Davis’ dad was one of 13 children, and his mom was the oldest of nine. Growing up in the southern Appalachian Mountains, hearing stories from his relatives and retelling them at school became one of his favorite activities.

“That was just the beginning place, and it just grew from there because every time somebody asks you a question about a story, that’s sort of a doorway into another story,” Davis said.

Davis used storytelling in his 25-year career as a United Methodist Minister and became an award-winning teller and author of 18 books. Similar to Gomez and Stallings, he approaches an event like the Texas Storytelling Festival with an open mindset when it comes time to tell his stories. He considers everything from the age of those in the room to the news, weather and space around him before choosing what story to tell.

“Certainly, I enjoy the engagement with the audience,” featured storyteller Kathy H. Culmer said. Culmer is an author, educator and a Doctor of Ministry in Biblical Storytelling. She tells her stories from the heart and hopes they touch audiences and help foster a sense of understanding and connection.

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Beyond having audiences connected with the stories told on stage, the festival and featured storytellers also aim to get attendees to consider what some of their own stories may be. At the different workshops throughout the festival, storytellers will help attendees find their own stories.

“What I’m gonna try to do is to show people that we all have stories to tell,” Gomez, who will host the “Tell Your Winning Story” workshop on March 8, said. Gomez said he often hears how his struggles coming to America and learning English help him have stories to tell when, in reality, they actually served as roadblocks in his journey to become a storyteller. He said that stories don’t have to be about massive, life-altering events or tales of thrilling heroics, but little things throughout our everyday lives that let “you find the common thread that is gonna make it special to another person.” “That’s why it’s a winning story because it’s something that you don’t think is a big deal, but you could create a big story out of.”

“We all have this whole lifetime of stories that we didn’t notice that we just tucked away somewhere without even realizing as the time went by,” Davis, who will host a masterclass called “Exploring the Attic of Forgotten Memories” on March 10, said. Davis will be helping attendees reach into their memories and “pull back those parts and pieces and then put them together into whole stories that make sense to other people as well as to us.”

Culmer and Stallings’ specialized workshops on biblical storytelling and “Stealth Eco-Telling” take place on March 8 and 9 respectively. Their workshops similarly focus on helping would-be storytellers learn they can reach others through their topics while still being widely relatable.

“My point is that there are things in the stories we already tell that are essential concepts to the environment, and you can learn to recognize those and learn how to maybe tweak them a little bit to make them more accessible to people,” Stallings said of her workshop.

Culmer described how there’s often a notion that “we consider things sacred to be off limits,” yet many stories about interactions with God are rooted in stories of people’s own lives and interactions. She hopes that attendees to her workshop will see how “you can have fun with those stories as much as you can with telling non-biblical stories.”

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Festival organizers hope that the offerings at this year’s event will reach a diverse group of audiences. Lehman detailed how the festival will have American Sign Language interpreters at many of the concerts. There will also be a youth storytelling concert as well as a push to reach Toastmasters International members. Organizers also have emphasized providing more opportunities for local storytellers who have already picked up the craft through expanded story and poetry slams.

Texas Storytelling Festival Artistic Director Vivian Rutherford said she hopes the overall event will give attendees a nostalgic feeling of listening to stories in their childhood while developing an “affinity for storytelling” that keeps them coming back for more.

It all leads back to forging a connection between storytellers and listeners, some of whom will likely go on to tell tales of their own and continue to pass the craft to the next generation of tellers.

“Even after the stories when people come to you and say that they want to share their own stories, for me, that’s the best thing about it,” Gomez said of events like the Texas Storytelling Festival.

The 39th Annual Texas Storytelling Festival runs from March 7-10 at the Denton Civic Center. For more information, including a full schedule of concerts and workshops, visit

These interviews have been edited for clarity.


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