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Tales of Clydesdales and braces at Timpanogos Storytelling Festival

Published August 30, 2014 3:50 pm

Arts • Some of U.S.'s best storytellers come to the annual event.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Provo Canyon • Wagner's music was better than it sounded.

So goes one of the great lines from the best storyteller of his time — Mark Twain.

Thirteen of America's best present-day storytellers gathered this week for the 25th annual Timpanogos Storytelling Festival — the second biggest event of its kind in the country.

"Thanks to crooked teeth and Trailways, I was going to escape," recounted Donald Davis to a tent full of listeners Saturday.

Davis grew up in the 1950s in the small town of Waynesville, North Carolina, where "you only got braces if there were discretionary funds in the family," he told his rapt audience at Canyon View Park. "So I knew I was safe."

But on his 13th birthday, he awakened to an awful surprise when his parents proudly announced he would get his smile straightened. Braces were the worst thing that could happen to a kid about to enter high school, like Jimmy Hogue, "who could play "Flight of the Bumblebee" on his braces."

The orthodontist, however, was in the big town of Asheville, so Davis would regularly travel a circuitous bus route to the big town. It was scary at first. But then he realized that he not only got to miss a day of school but could experience unfettered freedom for the first time.

Freedom to roam Sears and Roebuck. Freedom to ride the escalators up and down and up and down. Freedom to eat his favorite lunch — soda and candy bars. Freedom to go to the Cadillac dealership and sit in the fancy cars as though his rich father were on the way to buy one.

"One of the saddest days of my life was when I was 15 years old," he said at the end of the raucous adventure story. "Dr. Tuberville told me I was all done."

When he graduated from high school, his mother grabbed his yearbook, looked up his picture and said with pride, "Look at that straight smile," he recalled. "Now what do you think about those braces?"

Davis said he looked at her and said, "Ma, it was a real education."

He didn't start out to be a professional storyteller, the 70-year-old Davis said in an interview. "It was part of the culture. We didn't even use the word 'story.' We were just visiting."

But one day he told a story at lunchtime and a man asked him if he would tell that story at the local Lions Club. For the past 40 to 50 years, he's been traveling around the country telling stories.

Each time it's different, depending on the audience and the setting and how much time he is allotted. He has about 120 hours of different stories he tells.

"I edit them on the fly," he said of his performances. "There is no script; I'm just playing with the story each time."

Kat!e Larson, 20, of Provo, said she doesn't miss a Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.

"Stories are my favorite thing in the world. They just take you away," she said after listening to Davis. "Storytelling is engaging. You get the participation of the audience and the storyteller connects with you. You get to see them as real people."

She is one of about 35,000 people from Utah and across the country to visit the festival over a week's worth of events. There are about 4,000 people at any one time at the park, said Karen Acerson, president of the Timpanogos Storytelling Institute, founded by Karen Ashton. The park offers five storytelling venues, music and food, among other things.

Kevin Kling was among the storytellers invited back to Timp Fest. "A good story has to be like Cajun cooking," he says. "It hits all parts of the tongue."

Saturday, the last day of the fest, Kling recounted his days in his high school's marching band and a trip to Milwaukee, Wis., where they would play in a big parade. The excitement faded, however, when they were placed behind a beer wagon pulled by 40 Clydesdales.

"The flutes hit something slick and went down. It was like a scene from 'The Patriot,' " he said. "One girl lost her flute and was miming it."

Kling, 57, also works in radio and on stage. But he notes that storytelling, more than other mediums, lives in the moment.

"Sometimes the audience takes over," he explained. "It's as much a conversation as it is a performance. It's about connection. You are conjuring someone's experience through your story."

Storytelling, of course, goes back millenniums. It's something that human beings have always done.

That's why Kristina Norris, of Heber, brings her children to the storytelling festival every year.

"It's an important part of our kids' education," she said. "It inspires them to read books and write. It's so much more real than a video. Each year, they walk away so inspired."

csmart@sltrib.com