Cortez high schooler Alexandra York had to pause a few times to compose herself.
York, a sophomore at Southwest Open School, stood on an empty stage Tuesday at the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez. She had 10 minutes to tell her particularly difficult true story about the loss of a friend. She may have been nervous, but on this day, it was only a dress rehearsal.
She wasn’t the only one who took to the stage that day. Three of her classmates also had to stand and tell their stories of comedy and tragedy while also holding on to advice they were given earlier by master storyteller Tom Yoder.
He told them to focus on telling their stories in their own way, rather than saying each word perfectly.
Yoder praised York for being “brave” enough to tell her story.
“The audience is going to be really forgiving,” he said. “This is not like a theatrical performance, where they expect you to be perfect and have your lines all memorized. Just take your time, take a breath.”
The four students will be part of “Talon Tales,” a storytelling event organized by Yoder and Sarah Syverson, producers of the popular Four Corners Raven Narratives events.
Syverson and Yoder have organized about 17 Raven Narratives events in Cortez and Durango since the project started in 2015.
Last year, a pilot performance featuring just students from the Southwest Open School staged. This year, a group of four sophomores from Animas High School will be joining SWOS students.
Their stories will begin tonight (Friday) in Cortez, followed by a performance in Durango on Saturday.
Most of the students were new to Raven Narratives-style storytelling, and a few were new to stage performance in general, but they rarely faltered during rehearsal.
“I kind of like that I can’t really see you guys,” SWOS student Ashley Lopez told Yoder and Syverson, who sat in the audience. “It’s so bright that I just want to look into the lights.”
Before the dress rehearsal, the SWOS students had already participated in several storytelling workshops with their teachers and with Syverson and Yoder, where they learned how to fit a personal story into 10 minutes. The Animas sophomores had staged their tales in the fall at a storytelling performance at Animas City Theatre.
AHS sophomore Ryan Glogowski, who is being joined by classmates Catalina Shirley, Parker Smith and Raimy Sporl, said he was more nervous than excited, but practicing on the Sunflower stage made him feel a little better.
“Going up on stage is definitely the scariest part,” he said, but “it’s real small, so that’s helpful.”
In his allotted 10-minute slot, Glogowski will tell three connected stories. He looks for the lighter side in his stories, which he said helps ease the mood of a show that can get a little emotionally intense.
“I think it’s good to hear other people’s experiences,” he said. “My story’s more funny, but I think the stories that are more sad and personal are definitely going to have more of an effect, and I feel like I’m kind of the comedic relief of it, which is a necessary role.”
Smith, whose story about how his family dealt with a family member’s cancer diagnosis and treatment inspired him to take the stage, said the event is a stretch for him.
“(Going) outside of my comfort zone will be really good for me,” he said. “I thought it would be a great way to put myself out there in the community.”
He said he hopes his story can get audience members to look at the emotional effects of cancer differently.
“I think most people don’t see cancer from a kid’s perspective,” he said. “I think that’s really powerful in a different way.”
The four Cortez students’ tales focus on major events in their lives, whether getting a job in Lopez’s case, or repairing a friendship, like in one light-hearted story from Ryker Lancaster-Milligan.
The students chose their own stories to tell, and some were more emotional than others. Racheal Cox, a junior whose tale is about her experiences after having a child at age 16, said she initially was nervous.
“It’s hard, especially when it’s something so personal,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Should I tell them this?’”
It’s the idea of an audience rooting for the storyteller on stage that separates a staged performance and a storytelling event, Syverson said, adding that people taking the stage alone – without props or costumes – adds a deep human element to the shows.
“We actively ask the audience to participate in holding a warm and welcoming space for the people on stage,” she said. “We’re looking for real people that may shake a little bit while they’re on stage or get nervous and forget their spot – when you are in the audience and that occurs, there literally is this feeling of warmth around that person, and kind of a cheering them on in an inward way.”
Each student tries to wrap up his or her story with a final thought for the audience. York’s was one of the simplest.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” she said.