The Fate of Festivals...

On a carpet of wildflowers, revival style tents were raised in salute to the ancient art of storytelling.  As tales flowed from the stage you could, with one turn of the head, gaze out onto the mighty Mississippi. The deep drone of barges and the turn of steel tires on the track provided a memorable underscore to this annual event.

The Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival never disappoints. This is my second time being allowed to play a part in this well organized, well attended festival.  Considering it is only in its fourth year, the Cape Girardeau storytelling festival has experienced success that some festivals only dream about. It helps that the staff and volunteers put their heart into it.  Plus, they always offer a diverse and stellar teller lineup. It also helps that it takes place in a quaint town that offers an abundance of history, great shops, and quirky eateries.  But there are many other festivals that can tout the same qualities…without reaping the same attendance.

So what makes Cape Girardeau different?

I think it is the fact that they treat their festival as a business.  They care enough about the art of storytelling to handle it with professional gloves. They reach out to their main demographic using well thought out, professionally crafted marketing tools. They continually strive to pull in new people  by way of print, news, web site, emails, social networking  and radio. Their commitment to good marketing is proven in that they brought in a teller this year just to do PR in local universities and retirement communities. They think outside of the box and are always looking for new ways to reach possible audiences. They work closely with local business’ and merchants – helping them recognize the beauty of storytelling AND what it can do for the local area. They are realistic and patient, knowing it takes time to grow good stuff.
This serves as a good model for other festivals.

In these tough economic times, people have only so much ‘entertainment’ money in their pocket.  When they pull that $20 out and look at it, they have to decide where they will spend it. With this general mindset, festivals are up against a lot of competition to get a seat filled.

As a storyteller and story lover, I try very hard to help festivals and story events not just survive, but thrive. I feel it is my duty as an artist to not just take, take, take but to also give, especially in this economic climate.  If you make a living (part time or full time) as a teller, it is easy to fall into the mode of, I want paid. Where is the pay? How much is the pay? I want paid! mentality. There is nothing wrong with that, we need to survive as well, but we also need to realize that we get back what we put into our business and all festivals, events, and shows are our business. It would be terrible to wake up one day and find out the tank has run dry.

I want to encourage you, as a teller, to try some of the following:
  • Donate 10% or more of your earnings back to the place that hired you.
  • Offer a free workshop while you are there. Just an hour, to the business people in town. Have the event director set it up, they can go through the Chamber or the town. Using story in business is a hot topic and it can be a gift from the festival to the local merchants and non-profits.
  • Offer to come a day early to the event, at no charge, to do PR work. Tell stories for the Lions Club, retirement communities, to educators, etc. Ask that only your expenses are covered…but help them get the word out by telling. It works and in the end we all benefit.
  • Do your part to market the event. It is just as much our responsibility, as it is theirs, to fill the seats. Use your email marketing list and send out an e-blast, put it in your quarterly newsletter, do a Facebook filtered search and send an invite to folks who live in that area, post in your status where you are going and what is happening…believe me, people will come because of this. I had a guy and his wife come all the way from Pittsburgh to a Virginia festival because of a status update. Tickets, lodging, food, and gas helped the local commerce and seats where filled.
  • Mingle. Yes, mingle.  I know that at an event you are tired, nervous, road weary, whatever…but you must mingle. Shake hands, hug the cute old ladies, joke about the weather, whatever. If people feel welcomed by the talent they feel special. When they feel special they come back (with friends) and the event survives which means work for my friends (and hopefully me) in the future.
  • Fuel the grassroots organizations. Become a member of story organizations, donate to local guilds, give them product for giveaway at their events.  I can’t attend the functions of these groups, but I can pay the membership. Most events and festivals are held together by folks at the grassroots level. They are my hero’s. They usually cart my butt around, feed me, set up chairs, take tickets, and make sure I feel like I am at home. $25 bucks a year gives them a new member and helps their cause.

Listen, I’m not some story martyr. I have failed miserably in all of these areas at one time or another. But, no matter your belief system, we reap what we sow. By scattering a few seeds as we travel this lovely road, we leave it better then we found it. Now that’s something I can live with.