(Written by reporter Alexis Eichelberger. Story originally published in The Post, Athens, Ohio, on Sept. 14, 2017)
On the Sunday before Labor Day, Thomas Burnett sat under a small canopy illuminated by lantern light on the shore of Lake Snowden.
It was the second annual Athens Harvest Festival, and a group of children had gathered themselves around him and asked for a story.
He was skeptical at first. Many times when he told stories to children, they grew bored and quickly lost interest, but not this time. He told them one story and when he finished, they asked for another. And another. The pattern continued for more than an hour.
Burnett has been a professional storyteller for several years and with his talents, formed the Appalachian Ohio Storytelling Project. Through the project, he and his companion share their gift of the spoken word with others at festivals, libraries, coffeehouses and more around nearby Appalachian states.
Burnett first took an interest in storytelling after he earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies from Bowling Green State University in 1997 when he was 47 years old. He was searching for graduate programs when he happened upon a national storytelling festival in Tennessee.
There, he learned about a program at Eastern Tennessee State University that could educate him in the art of spoken performance in a three-week intensified study taught each summer. However, life got in the way and unfortunately, Bennett did not earn his master’s despite being only six credit hours away from doing so.
But he was not discouraged.
Burnett went on to create his own specialized study at the University of Findlay, where he earned his Master of Arts in liberal studies with a concentration in storytelling and performance in 2011.
Burnett created the Appalachian Ohio Storytelling Project in 2010 as part of his capstone project. He said through his performance troupe, he hopes to preserve the oral storytelling tradition of Appalachia and promote cultural pride.
“The idea was to minister to the oppressed and the disenfranchised by taking quality storytelling shows and music shows to oppressed areas,” he said. “(To) communities that wouldn’t normally be exposed to cultural events.”
Many of Burnett’s stories are set in Appalachia, in an imaginary town called Deer Hill. The fictitious neighborhood is a colony of stortytellers and musicians who settled into an abandoned coal mining town as a way to return to nature.
One of Burnett’s favorite things about storytelling is the flexibility it has. He uses no script and does not read from books, so each performance allows him to adjust his stories based on his setting and audience.
“It’s very liberating and very creative,” he said. “A story is never told twice in the same way.”
Mike Kubisek, who is Burnett’s partner in the storytelling project, was inspired to take up storytelling after hearing Burnett brag about his own abilities and performances. If he could do it, so could Kubisek.
“but I think we’re all storytellers by nature anyways,” he said.
Kubisek will tell his tales at the annual Pawpaw Festival, which he has made a tradition of visiting. There, he’ll sit in a tent, much like the one he used at the harvest festival, where he can connect with his audience better than he would on a stage.
Weston Lombard, the kids area coordinator for the Pawpaw Festival, has invited Kubisek to participate in the festival for the past several years. He said Kubisek’s gift for storytelling helps connect festival-goers to their cultural roots.
“His well-told stories entertain, but also evoke images of a lifestyle that is becoming more and more foreign to today’s youth,” Lombard said in an email. “Listening to his stories is a cultural act in itself and brings participants back to the days before smartphones and television.”
Kubisek speaks casually about his own storytelling, as if he does it for his personal enjoyment. If others find enjoyment in it too, that’s just fine, he said. He finds the preservation of the spoken word, however, to be imperative in the age of technology.
“I think it’s important to continue the oral tradition,” he said. “We’ve told stories to each other for a long, long time in our cultural history and I think it’s important that we continue doing that.”
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