Talk's Back

The art of storytelling is the anti- Hollywood: no special effects, no technology, minimal props, if any, and all story. That kind of flash-free performance takes talent, which is why folks with the gift for gab like Sheila Phillips can make a living doing what the rest of us do for free every day.

The former zookeeper came across the Houston Storytellers Guild when she organized a story time for kids at the zoo ten years ago. Since then, she has entertained at festivals, women's groups and public schools, where half her fee is paid by the state because she's a member of the Texas Commission on the Arts. As the popularity of Goosebumps and Harry Potter indicates, ghost stories are hot property with kids, especially around Halloween. Alas, fuddy-duddy parents wary of where such book reading might lead have gagged any oral tales that include the word "ghost" or "witch." So Phillips now boasts an impressive repertoire of pumpkin stories.

Phillips is one of five guild members taking part in the Tellabration! concert (along with a three-time winner of the Houston Liar's Contest, insurance agent James Ford). The stories will be more adult than Phillips's pumpkin tales (as in mature, not crude) and will range in subject matter from true first- hand accounts to ancient folktales swapped around campfires in the days of yore. Phillips tends to be fond of tall tales about Amarillo, because the city "lends itself to stretching the truth."

"Stories trigger the listeners' memories of events in their own lives," Phillips says, which is why she feels that storytelling, and swapping, is important for senior citizens, so those stories won't be lost. One of Phillips's relatives was the last man hung in Tarrant County, but her family members familiar with the circumstances refused to talk about it before they died; now Phillips may never know why he was killed. Guess she'll have to invent a story of her own.

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Dylan Otto Krider