For most eighth-graders, making up stories gets them in trouble.
For Robert Phillips, it gets him recognition.
Phillips, an eighth-grade student at Lewis & Clark Jr. High in Wood River, won first prize in a storytelling competition in St. Louis in early May. The honor earned him a chance to perform at the National Storytellers’ Convention in Kansas City last month.
It all started six years ago, when Phillips was 7 years old, after his mother brought home a DVD of storytellers performing. His interest was sparked. Phillips would watch the DVD over and over, memorizing the stories or songs, especially those of world-famous storyteller and St. Louis native Bobby Norfolk, who has proven to be an inspiration and mentor for Phillips throughout the years.
The same summer his storytelling hobby took off, Phillips was actually able to meet Norfolk at a library reading program, and spoke with him afterward to recite one of his favorite stories to his favorite storyteller.
After impressing Norfolk at the library, Phillips had to wait until last year for their next encounter. Phillips and his family had their finger on the storytelling updates, and when they saw an article about scary storytelling, with Norfolk being one of the storytellers, they marked their calendars right away.
“I saw that Bobby was presenting, so I of course had to go and see it,” Phillips said. “At the end of the night, Bobby’s wife, Sherry, told everyone that there would be a scary storytelling project called GHOST for high schoolers. Even though I’m not in high school, they let me in on a privilege because I’ve known storytelling for a long time.”
The 2015-2016 GHOST project was its inaugural start, an extension of the University of Missouri arts program, with Sherry Norfolk heading the three workshops and a culminating event, the GHOST slam. The slam was a featured presentation in the 2016 St. Louis Storytelling Festival from May 4-7.
“This program is a series of workshops and performance opportunities pertaining to ghost, horror or scary tales,” Lisa Overholser, director of the St. Louis Storytelling Festival, said. “The idea is that the first thing they do is go to a performance so they see a variety of storytelling styles, and then the three workshops happen, with each being about two to three hours long. Throughout the three workshops, the young adults work with Sherry to learn how to create a story, how to put the story together, and how to translate it from page to performing it. At the end of the project, the participants can choose to participate in the GHOST slam, a friendly competition of each other’s stories.”
Although Phillips missed the first two workshops because of medical reasons, he was able to work with Overholser and the Norfolks create his own stories throughout the process of the GHOST project. His relentless hard work paid off, as he was the first-prize winner of the first GHOST slam.
As if winning his first storytelling competition — at a storytelling festival at that — wasn’t enough, Phillips was invited to attend the National Storytellers’ Convention in Kansas City. But it wasn’t just as a guest that he was invited to the convention.
“As the winner of the GHOST project, he was going to be able to attend the National Storytellers’ Convention in Kansas City, and a few weeks later we were told that there had been 15 minutes blocked out for Phillips to perform, which is the amount of time the presenters get,” Robert Phillips’ father, David, said. “They had blocked out a presenter’s spot for him, even in the schedule book. The whole thing had gone from being able to go to Kansas City to attend and watch the event to Robert being able to present at the event.”
Phillips’ 15-minute spotlight was exciting, but a bit nerve-wracking as well, because his story for the GHOST slam had only been 4 minutes. However, the Norfolks once again worked with Phillips to help him perfect his story.
“When I performed in Kansas City, I had my own room where I told two stories, then had an open floor, and told one last story to end it off,” Phillips said. “I’d say it was a success — people jumped during the scary parts and I got a good amount of applause at the end. They really liked it.”
Phillips was the youngest presenter at the national convention in Kansas City.
While his interest and talent in storytelling have kept him in the hobby for most of his young life, it doesn’t come without hard work.
“I practice daily,” Phillips said. “You have to memorize your story; you have to rehearse it. If you go up there and don’t remember your story or don’t know how to present it, it would be pretty embarrassing. It’s not just memorizing the story, you have to memorize the voices and the movements and everything in order to act it out.”
Though the GHOST project is predominantly scary stories, Phillips can do much more than that. His creativity is rampant, allowing him to produce stories pertaining to just about anything.
Phillips’ love for speaking to a crowd has carried over to his everyday life as well, his mother, Polly, said.
“He was the vice president of student council last year and will be the president this year,” Polly Phillips said. “He’s read the announcements at school, and he’s emceed the talent show. He just really loves public speaking.”
Although Phillips is unsure if he will participate in theater productions in the future or keep solely to his storytelling, he will be well-prepared for whatever he does go into because of the communication skills he has honed through his years of telling stories. Overholser noted we tell stories every day, whether it’s going over what happened during the day or while speaking with a boss — communication is everywhere. Because of storytelling, one’s listening, observation and communication skills are constantly improving, she said.
For anyone who struggles with speaking in front of a crowd, Phillips’ advice is, “Take a deep breath, and just do it and get it over with!”
For more information on the St. Louis Storytelling Festival or the GHOST project, contact Lisa Overholser at (314) 266-4833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.