Most of Denton’s spring festivals had forged ahead with plans to stream their events online. Festival officials said Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that Texas would repeal its mask mandate and give businesses and churches the green light to reopen to 100% capacity came too late for volunteers to pivot back to their traditional formats.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Texas Storytelling Festival spent the past year preparing an online event for this month. The festival was shut down on its second day in 2020, sending hundreds of ticketholders and a small army of storytellers packing after a day and a half of their four-day event.
Jaye McLaughlin, president of the Tejas Storytelling Association, said the leadership moved festival workshops and concerts onto Zoom for the 2021 event, which begins Thursday. The Denton-based association raises money for, organizes and presents the storytelling fest.
“We have 60 storytellers coming, including children,” McLaughlin said. “It’s kind of surprising that, after all this, we have about 32 states represented and about five to seven foreign countries represented. It’s been really fun watching everything come together.”
Nearly 500 people have registered for the streaming festival, and McLaughlin said the group expects more registrations between now and next weekend.
One of the biggest developments the association made was what they call “a COVID rate.” Patrons can register and choose a pay-what-you-can ticket for the event. There’s a suggested $10 donation, but McLaughlin said patrons don’t have to donate that much.
“Our storytellers are used to going to gigs in person, but they’ve been doing a lot of things online since the pandemic,” she said. “There is an abundance of storytellers who are doing online. Some of the associations have been meeting online and presenting storytelling online. We know it’s been a challenge for people, and that’s why we have the COVID rate for people who haven’t been able to get out and do things.”
McLaughlin said the festival has a team of technical people preparing tellers and the audience for a Zoom event. Featured storytellers have recorded their performances, with masters of ceremonies getting ready to introduce audiences live online. Storytelling groups and associations have been producing work online since the pandemic began, McLaughlin said, and it’s given some in the business a whole new operational model.
“A lot of these folks are like me,” she said. “I’m 74, having to learn a lot about this technology. We’ve had to learn all that online. And it changes the way you present everything. Workshops, for the presenters and the emcees — we’re having to welcome them ‘to the spotlight’ instead of welcoming them to the stage. Some people are more acclimated than others.”
Donna Washington, a professional storyteller who will appear as a featured teller in next week’s fest, said transitioning to the virtual stage has been an education.
“My husband is my business manager, and when everything closed down, my husband turned to me and said, ‘We need to pivot,’” said Washington, who lives in Durham, North Carolina. “Within a week, I bought another computer, I bought recording software. I started recording video — I was terrible at it. I have been working these things since March, but now I have transferred my entire body of work into video.”
Washington said virtual performance was hard at first. She realized that the audience was separated into their own onscreen boxes, unable to experience the art in the typical way. She said she learned to tell stories to “the little green dot” on her camera. She performs for children in schools a lot, and virtual learning was disorienting at first.
“Their little bodies are going crazy. Their heads are moving in every different direction,” Washington said. “I noticed that when I introduced participatory content into what I was doing, they started moving in unison.”
Adults aren’t as wiggly as children, but Washington said she tells her stories into the camera and imagines the “perfect audience, the audience that loves everything I do and laughs where I think they will laugh.”
“When I perform virtually, I tell my stories to the whole world,” Washington said.
She expected states to reopen this year, and posted on her website that she will decide whether to resume touring in May. With North Carolina giving vaccinations by age group, Washington said she expects to start touring again in the fall.
“I don’t think the virtual part of this is going away,” she said. “There are costs involved in flying me to, say, Alaska and putting me up someplace,” she said. “I’ve been shocked at the number of groups that have bought my recorded content online. I think it’s given so many smaller groups a way to afford storytellers they couldn’t before.”
Thin Line Fest, a long-running documentary film, music and photography festival in Denton, is entirely online this year. The free five-day festival is scheduled for March 24-28. All films will screen on the festival’s website, though the registration page has not been posted yet. Viewers have to sign up to get access to streaming content.
The Denton Redbud Festival, the city’s Arbor Day celebration, will be online on April 17.
“We actually went ahead and canceled the in-person festival a little while ago,” said Autumn Natalie, the program manager for Keep Denton Beautiful. “So we’re pursuing virtual options, and that includes a self-guided redbud tour for the public. We partnered with [Texas Woman’s University] to put together a campus map for people to walk the campus and see redbuds.”
The festival will probably include educational content online as well. Plans are pending.
Officials with Denton Cinco de Mayo said they are considering postponement this year.
“For the time being and for the safety of our community, I do not feel comfortable with us proceeding with our annual Cinco de Mayo festival,” said Blanca Govea, chair of Denton Cinco de Mayo. “Even though the mask mandate will be lifted, there are still so many people getting sick out there, and I feel that it’s just too soon to host our event. I feel that between now and May, our community as a whole may not all be vaccinated, so I would rather hold off. Depending on how things look between now and September, we will consider pushing our festival to that time.”
In December, the Denton Festival Foundation announced the 2021 Denton Arts & Jazz Festival — which was once called the Spring Fling in an earlier incarnation — will be staged in October.