Tens of thousands of story-lovers attended the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, one of the largest events of its kind in the country, this weekend at Thanksgiving Point’s Ashton Gardens. But the festival’s roots are much more humble.
The first Timpanogos Storytelling Festival took place 30 years ago in the backyard of Karen and Alan Ashton. Among the first attendees where Debi Richan and her husband.
Richan said she was hesitant at first about going to the festival — her husband had read about the event in the paper — but when her husband offered to take the day off work to check it out, Richan said she jumped at the chance. While their four children were in school, Richan and her husband sat in the front row that first day. Then they came back the second day, and the third day.
“And we’ve been there ever since,” Richan said.
At the time, Richan’s had four young children: an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old and twin 2-year-olds. Richan described herself at the time as a “mess,” and said she was struggling with feelings of depression. The festival, and one story performed at the festival in particular, changed her life.
The story was about a rabbi who had a dream where he met God, and God asked him why he wasn’t true to himself.
“That was such an eye opener to me,” Richan said. “At the time, my whole focus was mothering with children, mothering with children, and I wasn’t thinking about what I needed as a human being. I needed to be a storyteller and this festival gave me that opening.”
Following the festival, Richan said she approached her oldest daughter’s sixth-grade teacher and said she was a storyteller and would like to tell stories. The teacher invited Richan to come back every Friday morning and share stories about the world.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Richan said. “But a sixth grade audience will teach you how to tell stories.”
Richan told stories every Friday for the rest of the school year. As time went on, she said more and more people would come to the classroom to hear her, and more and more people asked her to come tell stories in their classroom, or at the library, until she was telling stories all over Utah Valley. Richan worked as a storyteller for 25 years, including performing at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival. The only teller who has performed more at the festival more than her, Richan said, is Donald Davis.
Richan retired after her father passed away and she began to care for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s. For now, she said she’s happy to be behind the scenes and working with the other storytellers, who have become like family.
“The festival itself becomes a real family reunion,” Richan said. “We haven’t seen each other for a while, we hug, and they love the audiences here in Utah Valley. They’re so warm, they’re so welcoming.”
One of the tellers, Richan said, described the attitude surrounding the festival and its audience as a “culture of kindness.”
“(Storytelling) is how we think, and when we share our lives, we think it unites us, it brings us close together,” Richan said. “I think that’s the amazing thing about the festival is the community that is created. People will sit down next to strangers, start conversations ... it’s really remarkable to see that happen.”
That connection, and feeling like a part of something bigger, is one of the things festival volunteer Janessa James loves most as well.
At 24 years old, James said the only festival she’s missed in her lifetime is the one when she only a few years old — her birthday is Aug. 29. Before that, James’ mother volunteered at the very first festival and in the years leading up to James’ birth, and since then, James said her whole family has attended every year, even after moving to Virginia when James was a teenager.
“It’s just a really unique experience that I haven’t found anywhere else,” James said. “(It) really makes me feel like I’m part of this big human family.”
James returned to Utah and is now a student at BYU studying sociology and economics. Despite her whole family being heavily involved, James said none of them are tellers.
“I have the worst stage fright ever,” James said.
However, within her family, James said they do tell stories in a way. It’s more about learning to communicate, James said, and it’s also about learning to listen. She said part of the reason she loves to volunteer for the festival is because she feels it does a great service to the people who attend.
“Children all over Utah ... learn how to tell their own stories and learn from other cultures, as well as adults and people who come to the festival every year,” James said. “I think it’s really important to say that people are able to understand and have the ability to tell their own stories.”
After all, James said, that was Karen Ashton’s original vision, that families learn to tell their own stories to be able to pass on to their children. And while she isn’t a teller herself, James said growing up with the storytelling festival has shaped the way she interacts and communicates with people, and she believes it’s made her more empathetic towards others.
“It was interesting to grow up and hear how other people live and how similar we are in our differences,” James said. “It’s really helped me grow as a person and as an individual to recognize the humanity in us all and recognize that everyone has differences but we’re all united in our stories.”
Storyteller Carmen Deedy summed up what’s unique about storytelling and why it creates that connection: “Story is the one discipline that allows you to see yourself in the person telling the story. Even if there is absolutely no other point of reference between you and that person ... we have known for that moment exactly what they felt like.”
Storytelling, Deedy said, offers people passports into worlds they might otherwise have never entered.
“We have all kinds of people, all kinds of tellers, from all walks of life, from all faiths,” Deedy said. “And the thing that binds us all together is the humanity of our stories.”
From the humble beginnings of the Ashton’s backyard, featuring three local tellers, the festival has grown to fill the Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point, and now features dozens of tellers from all over the country, and even the world — but, for Richan and James, it continues to be about finding that common thread of humanity.
“It’s sad, and it’s funny, and it’s heartwarming,” James said. “Listening to stories from different times, and different cultures, and different perspectives, different religions, different family values, it was really, really amazing to grow up and hear ... It’s just a unique experience that I haven’t found anywhere else.”