Elizabeth Ellis wants to scare the living daylights out of you – all in the name of education and good fun, of course.
Ellis is one of the featured storytellers and workshop hosts at the upcoming 38th annual Texas Storytelling Festival at the Denton Civic Center from March 9-12. Hosted by the Tejas Storytelling Association (TSA), the festival is a coming together of all those who share and enjoy the spoken artform along with those who are curious to learn how to effectively tell their own tales.
Ellis explained that the telling of ghost tales and spooky stories are often one of the highlights of the festival’s many events which include live storytelling performances, a poetry slam and youth activities.
“Kids love it. Young adults love to be scared, and a lot of adults as well,” Ellis said. “So, if you’re trying to hook people and get them to come to their first storytelling event, ghost stories are often the best way to go.”
Ellis knows more than a thing or two about both storytelling events and spinning a spinetingling tale. As the TSA’s first president and a guest at the festival since its inception, as well as one of its current advisors, Ellis is an accomplished storyteller with several published works to her name.
She also just plain relishes a good fright, recognizing the power that effective verbal storytelling can have.
“There’s nothing scarier than people’s own imagination. Scary movies are wonderful. Scary TV shows are good. But there’s no substitute to making all the pictures in your own mind, listening to what somebody tells you and creating the entire landscape in your own imagination so that you can be re-frightened.” Ellis said, punctuating the point with her best bone-chilling laugh.
She explained that she sometimes comes across teenagers who view storytelling as “baby stuff” when she’s out at an event and subsequently decides to tell them one of her most blood curdling ghost tales.
“I just cannot resist the temptation to scare the livin’ snot out of them,” Ellis said, laughing. “I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but that moment when they all jump straight up in the air and you can see daylight under their blue jeans is just so sweet.”
While Ellis may be a frighteningly great scary storyteller, the festival also spotlights those who are scarily adept at spinning a different kind of yarn.
The Texas Storytelling Festival includes a liars contest where judges grade contestants on the originality of their lie and their overall presentation of it. Ellis says she views the contest as a “contemporary descendant of all those who ever sat around the general store or the courthouse and swapped lies.”
“We have people avidly work on their tall tale all year long for the possibility of bragging rights to be able to say they’re the biggest liar in the area; they’re the biggest liar in Texas,” Ellis said, adding that the best lies typically start believable and build to a crescendo where the storyteller’s deception finally becomes clear. “It’s quite competitive and a great deal of fun.”
While the festival calls the liars contest as an amateur competition, one of the featured storytellers from the festival has past championship lying credentials. Bernadette Nelson, the 2017 Biggest Liar in Texas and 2010 Biggest Liar in Houston, is just one of the featured guests at this year’s event. Other highlight attendees include Irish and Scottish folk storyteller Colin Urwin and bilingual storyteller Joe Hayes who’s published more than 25 children’s books.
“We try to bring some people in every year that Texans wouldn’t get to hear otherwise,” Ellis said, explaining that festival organizers believe there are excellent storytellers from every region. “But we think our Texas tellers are as good as you’ll find anyplace, so every year we want to focus on some of our own. They can hold their own with anybody we bring in from out of state or out of the country.”
Nelson, Urwin and Ellis will also be passing along some of their knowledge and abilities through workshops and master classes at the festival. Ellis’ workshop will be based around scary storytelling with the experienced storyteller reciting one of her own tales to serve as a role model for how to effective build suspense and use voice.
“I think it’s great to give people the opportunity to think deeply about how to do a good job of scaring people,” Ellis said.
The festival doesn’t limit its workshops to only experienced or adult storytellers either, regardless of its acclaimed guest list.
“We always have a beginning storytelling workshop because we figured there’ll be some people there who may have never even told a story yet before or people who want to know how they can get started (in storytelling),” Ellis said.
The festival likewise offers storytelling events for children at the Emily Fowler Library on March 10 and 11. The youth activities include story swaps, a children’s storytelling concert and a grades 3-12 workshop all for free.
“That’s kind of like our way of getting those young ones into the fold,” Texas Storytelling Festival Artistic Director Vivian Rutherford said. Rutherford will also be performing herself as part of the children’s storytelling concert during the festival. “You’re starting them young to open up and go, ‘oh wow, this is something I might want to continue doing,’ so we’ll have kids coming from all over Texas and beyond to come and participate.”
Similarly, as a whole, the Denton-based TSA features a Tellers in the Schools program that aims to connect some of the storytellers involved in the association with local schools for different educational events. It’s part of what Ellis details as an overarching outreach effort to assist the neighboring community, whether that be by helping area libraries with celebratory stories based around holidays or by working in church or civic center events.
Those efforts to pass along storytelling feel uniquely appropriate for an organization and festival dedicated to preserving and promoting this age-old artform. A practice that’s survived and thrived thanks to skilled storytellers’ willingness to share their craft with the next generations and help improve their community along the way.
The Texas Storytelling Festival takes place on March 9-12. Ticket prices start at $60 for full weekend passes, $50 for one-day tickets and $10 for single event or workshop tickets for TSA members. Individual membership starts at $35. Non-member weekend passes start at $95, $75 for one-day tickets and $10 for single event or workshop tickets. Prices increase after February 23. Visit https://tejasstorytelling.com/ for additional information. The TSA is also accepting volunteers to help with the festival. Call 940-38-9320 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more volunteer information.