Colonial Williamsburg's Storytelling Festival

Rex Ellis discusses Colonial Williamsburg’s upcoming storytelling festival and the importance of storytelling to national culture and identity.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Rex Ellis about Colonial Williamsburg’s second storytelling festival, where we’ll feature nationally acclaimed storytellers September 15th through 17th.

Lloyd: What do you do at the festival?

Rex Ellis: I think you bring your family, and you sit, and you listen, and you reminisce and you allow the stories to just move over your psyche so that you realize that their story is your story as well.

Lloyd: You are a storyteller.

Rex: Absolutely.

Lloyd: Did you come up with this idea?

Rex: Well, it was an idea that was shared by the many, many years that I have been a storyteller and have gone to a variety of venues. I think Colonial Williamsburg is a wonderful place to hold a storytelling festival and yes, I was the one who I think convinced, even though it didn’t take a great deal of convincing, everyone to realize that the demographic, the atmosphere, the sheer inspiration of storytelling is something that would work very very well at Colonial Williamsburg.

Lloyd: When I was a boy, rather longer ago than I want to remember, there was, in Virginia, a sort of recognized storytelling -- old kind of stories that drifted up from the South, and boy if your grandma would tell you stories you’d have more fun than a man in the moon. But storytelling seems not to be part of the popular imagination anymore, and that’s kind of a shame.

Rex: Well you know I don’t know that it’s not a part of the popular imagination; I just think it’s gone uptown. I think it’s called film, I think it’s called television, I think it’s called sermons, I think it’s called the variety of ways that we tell our stories. I think politicians tell stories every day.

Lloyd: (Laughs)

Rex: So I think it’s something that is so ensconced in the culture of America until we simply can’t do without it. I listened to a story on NPR this morning, they thought it was a news story, and it probably was, but for me the essence of it is, story, it defines us, it defines who we are, it defines our region, it defines every aspect of our collective identity. So for me, story is essential to every aspect of our lives. Every minute and every hour of every day.

Lloyd: So it’s no longer sort of a regional thing, it’s no longer a Southern thing. It’s kind of an everywhere thing.

Rex: I think you can find storytelling -- and you’re correct about that – I think you can find stories being just as vibrant, and storytelling being just as vibrant in San Diego as it is in Memphis, as it is in Michigan, as it is in Oklahoma, as it is all around. There are storytelling festivals that are happening all across the country. So what we are doing is connecting to something that is happening not just all over the country, but all over the world.

Lloyd: I noticed on the website some storytellers who are coming. They’re from everywhere.

Rex: They are from Philadelphia, they are from California, they are from, as you say, all over. One of the things that I wanted to do here was to bring the depth and breadth of storytelling and the quality, the great, great quality of storytelling that’s out there to Colonial Williamsburg. Traditionally, storytelling has been something that you do in libraries, it’s something that you do for youngsters. Storytelling is so pervasive that now there is storytelling being used for therapy sessions, there’s storytelling being used to train CEOs. There’s storytelling that’s being used in hospices, and hospitals around the country. It has sort of changed its genre, or included a series of other kinds of genre and lifestyles that I think is exciting. For me, it simply cements the importance of the art form itself.There’s a guy by the name of Michael Meade who’s an author and anthropologist and storyteller and musician who said, “When the world is in chaos, and not able to locate its identity, it is the storytellers that bring it back to center. Because storytellers are the keepers of the culture.” And I think what you have are people who will come here who are culture-bearers who will begin to share their culture, their community with the community of Williamsburg in a way that I think is going to be exciting.

Lloyd: I was listening to one lady who is coming – I’ve forgotten her name – but she was talking about “grits” as singular . . .

Rex: Must be Kathryn Windham from Selma, Alabama.

Lloyd: I’d never thought of that, it’s hysterically funny! You can’t say “grits are,” it has to be “grits is.” And she’s got that wonderful accent. I also want to hear, because I have not, the American Indian lady who’s part of the Lakota tribe.

Rex: Dovie Thomason.

Lloyd: I bet some of her stories are fascinating.

Rex: Dovie tells great stories, and makes great, great connections to audiences. You’ll love her. She is a great comic, but she also tells very searching stories that speak of, in many ways, of oppression, that speak in many ways of marginality, but she does it in a very very unique way. I think you’ll enjoy Dovie because of the diversity of her telling as a Lakota. She’s very engaging and she is very inviting in her storytelling.

Lloyd: Are most storytellers sort of at least semi-humorous?

Rex: (Laughs) Yes. As the short answer to your question, yes. I was going to say something curt like, “There are those who think they are funny, who are not.” But I think that yeah, every storyteller tries to be as versatile as they can be and there are a great number of them who use comedy very very well. When you mention comedy, but they all do it in a different kind of way. Dovie has her own way of doing it and so does another young man who’s going to be here by the name of Bill Harley. Bill is an excellent musician as well, guitar player, and much of what he talks about is growing up in middle school and what he remembers about his teachers, and what he remembers about his friends. And all of it begins with some song that he sings. This is a man who can also wax eloquent about some aspect of his life that I think is also very searching. His comedy is sort of the comedy of a mischievous young child when he gets up and talks about himself early. There’s another guy by the name of Ed Stivender who is recognized as the clown prince of storytelling. And one of the reasons for that is everything he does, whether he wants it to or not, is comical. You know how Johnny Carson used to be on stage, and he would look a particular way, or he would stumble, or he would do something that wasn’t meant to be funny, but it was?

Lloyd: Because he did it.

Rex: Because he did it. That’s how Ed is. And he is very shy in real life. But just an excellent, excellent craftsman and a wonderful comic in a very very unique way.

Lloyd: This is slightly off track; how do you attract these people here?

Rex: One of the reasons I mentioned being a storyteller and how important that was to me, is to me, is because it has afforded me an opportunity in the last 15-20 years, to meet all of these storytellers that you will see. The storytellers we had last year were my friends. The storytellers we have this year are my friends. And it ain’t overwith yet. So what you will see are people who I have learned from, people who I have befriended, people who I have commiserated with, and people who I have been on the trek of storytelling with and who understand the power and the majesty and the sheer pleasure of storytelling.

Lloyd: Personal question: how did you get involved? I mean I know you’ve been a drama professor, and I know you have been an actor.

Rex: You really want to know?

Lloyd: Yeah.

Rex: I wish I could tell you that my grandfather, who is from Surry County, was a great storyteller, and we sat on his knee while he smoked his corncob pipe and we listened to him tell stories. Or my dad, when he took us hunting when I was young, we would sit in the woods and when we weren’t seeing any squirrels or any deer or anything he would tell us stories. All that’s true. But it is not where storytelling began for me. And my grandfather did not sit me on his lap and tell me, and my dad might have told me one or two stories when we were out hunting. What brought me to storytelling was Colonial Williamsburg. When I began working here in 1979 part-time, I began with a desire to talk about the untalkable: slavery. And to in some way begin to open up a door that the black community and the white community wanted to remain closed. And that was the story about slavery. I learned very early on that if I wanted to not only get those who didn’t want to talk about it to talk about it, and I wanted to in some way suggest it and present it to the guests who came to Williamsburg, I’d better do it in a way that in some way humanized what history had dehumanized. No better way of humanizing people than in some way letting others know about their story. And so, rather than talking about facts and figures and statistics and all of the rest of it, I try to in some way humanize and provide audiences with an identity that related to people. So I talk to them about Betty Wallace. I talk to them about Sukey Hamilton and London Briggs. I talk to them about the people that we know existed. And I gave them the story of their lives. As much as we could, as much as we knew, the story of their lives. And those stories became so accepted that it was not hard for me to then suggest a program of storytelling that introduced audiences to a variety of colonial characters who were enslaved and who were free. Somebody got wind of that at a place called Jonesboro, Tennessee. And in 1989, I was called by a man who was responsible for the storytelling renewal that took place in the mid seventies by the name of Jimmy Neal Smith. Jimmy Neal Smith called and said, “I hear that you use stories to teach history. Could you come to a conference we’re going to have?” I came to the conference and shared a few stories with them at the conference and talked and did a workshop on storytelling and teaching history, and they invited me to come to the National Storytelling Festival as a featured teller at Jonesboro, Tennessee. That was back in 1989. And from that point to this point, it has been a part of not only my life, not only my work here at Colonial Williamsburg, but I have been, I have gone to a variety of places – New Zealand and Germany and a variety of places to share my stories. And these storytellers that will be here in September are people who’ve been on that journey with me and who are a part of that community that I really respect and love.

Lloyd: This is important to you. You’re intense about this.

Rex: Well, I think it’s hard to hate somebody whose story you know, Lloyd. You can still do it, but it’s hard. And I think if there’s one thing this world needs, it’s to sit and listen to each other. And the one thing I enjoy about storytelling is when I see mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and families gathering together to listen to a storyteller. And what’s great about it for me is not them listening to the teller tell. What’s inspiring for me is to watch them, and to watch the stories that begin to be remembered in their own minds. And then to hear them tell those stories to their kids. Because they were pricked, or their computer was opened by one of the storytellers who sort of reminded them of what they had forgotten for years.

Lloyd: The storytelling festival will be held in Williamsburg September 15th through the 17th. You can find more information about it on our website. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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