Turning a Town onto Storytelling: the Story of the First Annual St. Marys Storytelling Festival

From the sound of Mark Fletcher’s bagpipes, leading the children to the festival grounds on a misty Friday morning, to the last shivery ghost tale told by Mary-Eileen McClear on Saturday night, the first annual St. Marys Storytelling Festival carried an aura of magic.  The magic had begun with an idea in the spring of 2003.  The idea had soon turned into a plan, and in a little over a year we had created a  storytelling festival in our town , found volunteers—most of whom had never heard of a storytelling festival before—and raised the money to pay for it all!

The festival, called “Once Upon a Thames”, was held on September 10 and 11, 2004, at The Flats, a park beside the Thames River and near the center of town.  St. Marys, a pretty Southwestern Ontario town surrounded by farmland, is located between Stratford and London. It is its “own town”, not a suburb, not too large or too small  (pop. 6600), and it has a strong sense of community.  These were some of the criteria my husband Louis and I used when we were looking for the “perfect town” to move to from Toronto in 2001.  It also appears to be an ideal location for a storytelling festival.

Our first festival was indeed a success—given the location, the quality of the storytellers we invited, the vision and hard work of our committee, the support of the community, help and encouragement from other festival organizers, and perfect early-September weather.  It was attended by over 1500 people, most of whom were being introduced to storytelling for the first time.

Here’s how we did it.

Origins and inspirations:

Driving home from the 25th annual Toronto Festival of Storytelling in February 2003, and having heard its founders relate tales of beginnings, Louis and I thought aloud, “Yes, we can do this. We can have a storytelling festival in St. Marys. Let’s do it!”   We had also been to the Illinois Storytelling Festival many times, so we had an experience of a small town “tents in the park” kind of festival.

Twelve people gathered in May of 2003 and agreed on the dates, the location, and the name of our first festival.  We decided to have it on the first Friday and Saturday after school began in the fall (2004), thus being able to involve the schools and to take advantage of late summer weather.  We wanted an outdoor festival that would be central, visible and festive.  It is also more expensive than an indoor festival and much more dependent on weather, but we chose to take those risks.

How did we have 12 people enthusiastic about something only 3 of us had experienced?

(One person had been to the YukonStorytelling Festival.)

For us the answer was Spellbinders (www.spellbinders.org) volunteer storytelling in a classroom setting.

(See Profiles in the March/April 2005 issue of Storytelling Magazine.)  Before moving to St. Marys, I had taken a storytelling class with Marylyn Peringer in Toronto and had worked for two years as an occasional teacher aide in a very multi-cultural school. Opportunities to find and tell stories abounded.  One grade two classroom had students from more than 10 different countries. What richness for story sharing!

When we moved to St. Marys, I had already learned firsthand the satisfaction of hearing and telling stories in the classroom.  Later that same year, when I learned about Spellbinders in the Elders Tent of the Illinois Storytelling Festival, I was intrigued.  Spellbinders is an intergenerational program of volunteer storytelling in schools and other public settings.  The mission of Spellbinders is to “nurture character, community and the spirit of humanity through the art of oral storytelling.”    I thought to myself, “Why should I have all the fun? It’s time to get more people involved!”   In the fall of 2001 Marylyn Peringer came to St. Marys to lead a storytelling workshop, helping us to launch the first Canadian chapter of Spellbinders.

Spellbinders storytelling is not performance telling, but a more intimate kind of telling done in classrooms during regular (usually monthly) visits by neighbours/storytellers who get to know the staff, the students and the curriculum.   I have heard the sentiment from professional storytellers that people should not be telling stories as volunteers. But I would ask, “How does one begin?  How does one become a storyteller if not by telling lots of stories– practicing the art with small audiences, collecting favourite stories, and gaining an appreciation of the power and integrity of traditional folktales?”   Individual classrooms are perfect places for this to happen!  Some of us who are Spellbinders volunteers in St. Marys charge a fee when we are asked to tell stories in another town, but here at home, our stories are “free” and our rewards are many!

Another benefit of the Spellbinders volunteer storytelling is that we are nurturing story listeners. During the 2003-2004 school year, seven volunteers went into eighteen classrooms in four different schools.  More than 400 students heard oral storytelling at least 5 times during that year. Spellbinders volunteers also told stories at the local historical museum and at the seniors’ centre.

By spring 2003, thirty people had taken the Spellbinders Storytelling Workshop. Some had become regular volunteers.  Most had taken the workshop to enhance their roles as teachers, librarians, ministers, or grandparents. Some came out of curiosity.  A monthly community storytelling gathering and a storytellers’ guild have also grown out of this group of enthusiastic tellers and listeners.

Back to the festival:

In May of 2003, we had our first festival meeting, shared our visions, and made some basic decisions.

We were on our way!  The following is a list of what we did in each season leading up to the festival in September of 2004.

Summer 2003:

  1. Applied for nonprofit (but not charitable) status with the Province of Ontario. This meant having officers and a board, but we continued to meet as a festival committee.
  2. Attended two national storytelling conferences (Chicago and Ottawa) to meet with other festival organizers and to hear and meet storytellers.
  3. Reserved the town park where we planned to have the festival.
  4. Began to contact storytellers, inviting them to our first festival (for less than their usual fees).
  5. Investigated tent rental.

Fall 2003:

  1. Made the first sponsorship phone call by opening up the phone book at random and calling a large feed mill company.  The response was enthusiastic.  The person, whom I had never met, was glad to support a new family-oriented cultural event in the community and immediately promised $500.  That brightened my day.
  2. Created a sponsorship drive, determining levels of sponsorship, putting together bright yellow information folders, and finding two or three volunteers who didn’t mind asking for money.
  3. Spoke to the local Rotary club about the festival (they also gave us $500).
  4. Did a preliminary design of what was going to happen at our festival.
  5. Decided who our ten storytellers would be and spoke with each of them.
  6. Consulted with a person who had run the heritage festival in town for many years.
  7. Drafted our first budget.
  8. Met with the town’s new tourism coordinator.
  9. Opened a bank account.
  10. Made initial contact with the town CAO and wrote a letter to the town council regarding our plans and requests.

Winter 2003-2004:

  1. Continued the sponsorship drive (which began at the $100 level)
  2. Struggled with creation of a logo and a mission statement for the festival; made decisions.
  3. Started a membership campaign ($15 to $35)
  4. Began talking with school principals about the festival
  5. Attended school staff meetings and asked for school-festival coordinators
  6. Continued to meet with local organizations (e.g. church groups, Knights of Columbus,

Optimist Club) to tell stories and talk about the festival.

  1. Decided on three storytelling workshops (storytelling in schools, telling family stories, and Biblical storytelling).

Spring 2004:

  1. Had a poster contest with two schools participating (grades 4-8).
  2. Created a marketing brochure.
  3. Learned from other festival organizers how to do contracts for storytellers and musicians.
  4. Continued looking for sponsors and members.
  5. Wrote an article for the local tourism booklet.
  6. Created a website: www.stmarysstorytelling.org.
  7. Contacted a lawyer regarding liability and insurance requirements.
  8. Held an open information meeting at the town hall; found a few new volunteers.
  9. Production team got into full swing with plans for tents, stages, chairs, lighting, sound equipment and operators, porta-potties, picnic tables, signs, parking plans, food vendors, and such. They began to have regular meetings at a local pub.

Summer 2004

  1. Continued raising money.
  2. Revamped our brochure.
  3. Sent out a flyer with the town’s water/sewer bill.
  4. Town’s tourism coordinator sent out a media release to area newspapers and radio stations.
  5. Woke up in the middle of the night and wondered, “ How are we going to pay for all this?”  (Total budget was $15,000 and we had raised about half that amount).
  6. Marketed the workshops–mainly through emails to Ontario storytellers.
  7. Recruited volunteers.
  8. Continued to stay in touch with storytellers; sent out contracts.
  9. Walked around the Flats, imagining where things would be.

September 2004

  1. Articles about the festival were published in the two local papers, and large yellow vinyl banners appeared around town announcing the storytelling festival.
  2. On September 8, two days before the festival began, four big white tents were erected on

The Flats.  (This alone is news in a small town!)   This allowed time for the volunteer electricians and production crew to get the tents ready for the festival.

  1. Around 800 local students walked to the festival on the first Friday of school:  400 in the morning and 400 in the afternoon. Four storytellers visited outlying schools; one storyteller told stories at a retirement home.
  2. A Friday evening concert of storytelling and music was held in the Family Tent.  Admission was by donation. Tent was full (250 people).  A town councilor, who also owns a music store, was the emcee.
  3. Forty people attended three workshops on Saturday morning in two churches.
  4. Saturday afternoon:  around 700 people attended the festival (admission:  $5 for adults and $2 for students).  Storytellers enthralled audiences in the Family tent, Children’s tent, and Adult tent. We also had children’s activities, food vendors, and “ice cream cone” weather.
  5. Evening:  Ghost stories in the Family tent. Tent was overflowing.  (The next day a ten year old told me he had to sleep with his grandfather because of the last ghost story.  I apologized, and he said, “Oh, that’s okay!  I like being scared!”)
  6. Later Saturday evening:  storytellers and the festival committee celebrated in the pub across the street from the park.

When all was tallied up:  We had 48 sponsors and several donors, totaling  $8000, plus the town gave the festival  $1000.  We took in another $6500 during both days of the festival, including: Friday students ($2 each), Friday evening donations, Saturday workshops, afternoon and evening admissions, festival sales tent, and percentage from vendors’ sales. We ended up spending close to $18,000, so we were about $2500 short (about the same amount we owed the souvenir company for all the tee-shirts, etc. that we ordered and did not sell, but maybe can sell this year. A lesson learned!)  We did more fundraising in the winter to get out of debt.

We had 85 volunteers, including the Knights of Columbus who did overnight security for us for four nights, and an audio-visual club from a Stratford high school, who did an outstanding job with the sound.

Hundreds of people in St. Marys are now enthusiastic about storytelling and looking forward to the next festival.  They had thought that storytelling was just for preschoolers in the library.  Now they know!  Word of mouth says our attendance will double this year.


What did we learn?  Lots!  And we still have much more to learn.  Four “keys to success” we can pass along:

  1. THE TELLERS:  We went for quality and invited some of the best storytellers we knew. (And I love playing “the scout”.)  In 2003, when I heard LaRon Williams at the Chicago NSN conference, I invited him on the spot. Same with Jo Kuyvenhoven at the Ottawa conference.  We didn’t invite anyone we hadn’t heard, except for Reed Needles, who lives near St. Marys and who was recommended by Dan Yashinsky.  So, hey! We made an exception to our rule and were glad we did. Our other wonderful tellers were: the ever talented and helpful Jim May, founder of the Illinois Storytelling Festival and NSN Circle of Excellence recipient; the very gracious Louise Profeit-LeBlanc, co-founder of the Yukon Storytelling Festival; and lively storytellers from Ontario: Gail Fricker, Mary-Eileen McClear, Marylyn Peringer, Diane Halpin and Dorothy Bowman.
  2. THE TOWN: We made early connections with the municipality.  Their support was crucial to our success, as we depended on Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Tourism and the blessings and a grant from Town Council. We also learned that foundation grants are not available unless you are a registered charitable organization, which we are not.  We were recently able to receive a $2500 Stratford-Perth County Community Foundation grant to enhance this year’s festival (sending storytellers out to more schools), because we had established a working relationship with the town.  The town receives the grant and gives it to us.
  3. THE SCHOOLS:  Involving the local schools was a major factor in the success of this festival. Principals and teachers liked the idea of a storytelling festival at the beginning of the school year. Students from three schools, grades 1 to 8, plus high school drama classes, came to the festival on Friday, September 10. They loved it, and many brought their parents that evening and/or the next day.   As the students and staff all had to walk to the festival, we had created a back-up plan for uncooperative weather (tellers going to the schools).
  4. THE PHYSICAL DESIGN:  We discovered that we didn’t have enough space between the tents and sound “bleeding” was sometimes a problem, especially from the children’s tent, which can get a bit rowdy.  We are redesigning our whole physical arrangement with a “village common” idea, an expanded circle of tents and food vendors and a central area where people can gather between storytelling performances.

We are working on festival #2 for September 9 and 10, 2005. Check out our website at www.stmarysstorytelling.org.  Some of this year’s storytellers: Dan Yashinsky, Mary-Eileen McClear, Jo Kuyvenhoven, Marylyn Peringer, LaRon Williams  (a warm and playful teller from Ann Arbor, Michigan),  and Antonio Rocha  (who is from Brazil, lives in Maine, and is a storyteller/mime artist; check out his website.)   We hope to see you there, too!  Let us know if you want to help out in some way, or if you have any questions or suggestions for us.

Nancy Vermond, St. Marys Storytelling Festival Coordinator,

(519) 284-2698

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