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  • Writer's pictureLisa Overholser

MO-TELL Member of the Month: Lisa Overholser

Lisa Overholser gives her story & her perspective on the state of the St. Louis Storytelling Festival!

Tell us a little about yourself, growing up did you know about storytelling (folk song?) Your education, living in NY, then coming to St. Louis.

I grew up in Kansas City, and my earliest recollection of storytelling was by a storyteller in elementary school. Denny Dye (not sure of spelling) was his name. I vividly remember his show – he was wearing a green outfit, reddish-brown hair, and he was a lion in the story. So captivating, he had a very physical presence. I don’t remember many specific details from childhood, but I do remember that (so that says


Although I loved reading and writing stories and had childhood friends that loved stories, I never really remember telling them formally. The usual stuff, I suppose – telling stories to friends, and of course, lots and lots of family stories.Lots of happy holiday dinners in my adolescent years, when we’d share tales of past travels, and some hilarious stories. I mean, belly-laughing tales! And I was involved in debate and speech & forensics in high school, which I loved. I mostly did oratory speaking and excelled there, never considered myself “dramatic” – although one time I had to do a dramatic interpretive reading and placed in a competition, and our speech teacher said “Wow, how come you weren’t doing this all along!?”. But I was super shy, and it was super stressful....

It’s ironic that what I really connected with was music (and later dance), which are non-verbal forms of communication. I studied classical piano, and had a life- changing experience with a piano teacher in high school. Transformative enough that in my junior year of high school, I changed my plans to become a mathematician, and decided to go to college for music instead! (I’m sure my parents weren’t thrilled....) I followed that beloved piano teacher to a tiny, tiny private college in Baldwin City, KS, before she got married and moved away in my first year. Then I transferred to UMKC Conservatory of Music and majored in piano performance. From there, I had a long tenure in grad school, finding my way – dual master’s degree from KU in Music History and Piano Performance, then on to Indiana University for a PhD in Folklore/Ethnomusicology (after switching from my initial PhD in Musicology). It’s at the Folklore Institute in Indiana that I discovered all things “folk”. First, I became obsessed with folk dancing – especially Balkan dancing, but also Latin American social dances. I just fell in love with music of Eastern Europe. I also learned about folk narratives, mythology, etc., which seemed overwhelming to me at the time. Little did I know storytelling and narratives would figure so prominently in my future

professional life!

I had a Fulbright Fellowship to work on my dissertation in Hungary, examining staged folk dance performances with the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, and lived there for two years. Although the focus was music and dance performances, narrative structures figured prominently in how I analyzed their work. After that, I mainly worked in public arts administration to make a living while finishing my PhD. I worked for a world-music publicity company in Bloomington, IN, had some internships in NYC, and ultimately got a job at the New York Folklore Society as my first “real” full-time job. But that was in 2008, just as the financial crisis hit, and... after struggling there at a small non-profit for many years, I finally landed the job in St. Louis. And here I am!

What was your biggest surprise in coming to the St. Louis Storytelling Festival, if

any? What was hardest to get use to?

The biggest surprise was just the fact that such a thing as a Storytelling Festival existed! I had no idea professional storytelling was a thing (despite my early love of Denny Dye, and even then, I’m not sure I recognized him as a “professional storyteller”). What I knew of storytelling was influenced by my folklore studies, and very academic understandings & analyses of narrative. I remember wishing I had studied narrative more specifically at Indiana. I discovered such a large community of storytellers and story lovers in St. Louis, and coming in as a relative outsider was a bit challenging. But of course, everybody was more than welcoming.

How did the Festival go using Zoom? Did the Festival reach as many people this year?

In 2020, we had to make the decision very quickly as the pandemic was quickly shutting down life. What should we do? We could have just cancelled everything altogether. That would have been easier. But we shifted and modified to a virtual format instead, and I think on many levels, it was a huge success. Just having a Festival, and being able to maintain SOME sense of normalcy, was a real boost on an emotional and mental level. We also proved that we could do it. We gained some new audience, we had a wider reach, and despite some technical glitches and of course things I would have done differently in hindsight, we had a consistent audience over the 5 weeks of the Festival in 2020. I don’t think we had as many schools formally participate. They were overwhelmed, and it was very difficult to capture who was listening from schools.

In 2021, we collaborated with Educate Today, an educational learning platform through HEC (Higher Education Channel) TV. This was a good decision, and I’d do it again – there were many benefits in being able to provide on-demand videos that were aligned with Learning Standards. But it was also unexpectedly much more difficult to get all the tech stuff prepared ahead of time (videos edited, especially), so I could have used more time to prepare. But as with all things during this pandemic, we live and learn! What I was most happy about in both of these instances was being able to provide work, even on a small scale, to storytellers whose livelihoods were massively affected. Wearing my hat as an MU Extension Community Arts Specialist, one of my responsibilities is to support and provide resources for artists. I take that seriously, and I was happy to be able to do that during a difficult time. I sure wish I could have done more.

What is the future of Storytelling?

Storytelling will always be around. It’s not going anywhere. The formal infrastructure and institutions that support it – the Festivals, the non-profits, etc. – those will come

and go, but storytelling is part of the human experience.

In my opinion, what the professional storytelling community could use is critical self-reflection and critical inquiry, more analysis and research on storytelling’s impact. I would very much love to be part of developing that body of knowledge. In my role as a Community Development Faculty, knowing the kind of impact you are having as a storyteller or storytelling organization is crucial.

And I mean, hard research-driven data that demonstrates impact. Numbers are one thing – how many people did the Festival reach, how many people come to your shows, etc. In a Festival setting, for example, having large audience numbers can support the notion that the Festival is engaging individuals, and it can certainly have an economic impact. Festival audiences come out, they go out to eat beforehand, they drive and get gas to go to the venues, they may stay overnight, etc.

Those things are certainly important. But there are other kinds of impact. To what degree does storytelling increase literacy levels for specific groups? How does it transform communities? How does it help to change attitudes and behaviors? There are so many potential research questions. In community development, there’s something called a “Community Capitals” framework. Basically, these are resources and characteristics identified with successful and sustainable communities.

The framework was first proposed at Iowa State University in 2008 by Community Development workers Jan and Cornelia Flora. They include: Built capital, Natural Capital, Financial Capital, Political Capital, Social Capital, Cultural Capital, and Human Capital. If there were a way to measurably demonstrate that storytelling developed aspects of these capitals, that would be huge!

I think you’re starting to see more of this type of applied research, especially in fields like healthcare and in literacy development. But I think there’s SO MUCH more potential, in fields you would never even think of, like social psychology, interpretation and heritage studies, and so on. I’ve been particularly interested in the last two – interpretation and heritage studies. In Fall 2019, I was asked to participate as an ongoing Faculty Mentor (volunteer only) for a Doctoral level Heritage Leadership Class at University of Missouri-St. Louis. They invited me to participate because of my involvement with storytelling, and I still serve that capacity. People love storytelling, they somehow know that storytelling is valuable, but I discovered that there’s very little research that demonstrates oral storytelling’s impact in a measurable way. People don’t REALLY know what it is and haven’t REALLY taken the time to critically examine it, warts and all. I’m talking peer-reviewed, longitudinal studies over time that can result in proven data. That kind of information would benefit all storytellers and storytelling organizations. In my opinion, that needs to be change, and I would love to be part of that.

What is the future of the St. Louis Festival?

Well, I think I can officially announce that as of July 1, 2021, the St. Louis Storytelling

Festival will now be in the hands of the St. Louis County Library!This was a difficult but necessary decision and will ensure that this 42-year Festival will live on and evolve. The move was initially prompted by the decision of University of Missouri Extension officials to make drastic cuts to their budget and programming – including the Festival – as a direct result of COVID-19. After more than a year of searching for suitable partners, the St. Louis County Library ultimately had the resources, infrastructure, and capacity to produce the St. Louis Storytelling Festival in 2022 and beyond. (And by the way, the 2022 Festival will tentatively take place in October 2022, and be permanently moved to Fall).

I think it’s a wonderful fit in many ways. Libraries have always been important Festival partners, and very supportive of storytelling. And since so many storytellers are also published authors, I think this can only be a good thing. The St. Louis County Library already has built-in programs like author events, readings and discussions, as well as both youth and adult outreach programs. And they have relationships with lots of schools, so that would certainly facilitate communications and audience development.

One exciting thing is that I sense they want to build up local storytellers – especially youth. So I think there could be some terrific potential there. It’s true that there is a certain kind of geographic limitation with it being specifically a St. Louis County system. I’ll still be working with them as a kind of consultant, so hopefully, I can wear my University community development hat to supplement whatever they choose to do in St. Louis County. I also think it could prolong the ever-present challenges of defining storytelling as an ORAL tradition and an ORAL ART form, and not just reading stories to kids from a book. But the Festival has faced so many challenges over the years, these are just the newest bunch of challenges that we have to face.

What do you hope for next years’ Festival?

I hope we don’t lose any of our devoted audiences, and in fact, hope we can build up a community of story lovers and supporters. And I hope we can help develop more local storytellers. This has always been something that the St. Louis Festival has wanted to do, and I think this may provide a wonderful opportunity.

My hope is that there can be an evolution. Sure, things will change. But sometimes things have to change to make way for the things that are needed for the future. More than anything, I hope the Festival can retain its unique community flavor, and remain a place that nationally recognized storytellers want to visit!

You are very active in local, state, and national Storytelling, which I applaud, and your technological knowledge has been helpful to all. How do you keep up?

Ha! I certainly don’t feel like I’ve kept up!...One thing I’ve learned is that storytelling really is a community. And I learned that here, in St. Louis. The National Storytelling Network (NSN) has struggled, and over the past two years, there was real concern it might fold. So happy to hear that this year, they actually ended up in the black! I’ve become more involved with NSN, and that’s partly the result of the wonderful community we have here in St. Louis, as well as over in KC and with local/state organizations like Gateway, MO-TELL, RAPS, Riverwinds, etc.. It also helps that NSN is now based in KC, MO, which is technically part of my territory as a Community Arts Specialist at MU Extension.

My motto is “With Challenge Comes Opportunity”. I’ve learned so many new technical skills (i.e., Canva, Publisher, VSDC Video Editing, etc) out of necessity these past 18 months, and although it has been super-frustrating at times, I now am better skilled because of it, and that will last forever. That’s pretty exciting at the end of the day.

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