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South Jordan Journal

Bingham sophomore living out fairytale spinning stories on national stage

Nov 03, 2022 07:33PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In 2016, Jordan Ridge Elementary students leaned in to learn that on his sixth birthday, master storyteller Donald Davis took his new crayons his Aunt Esther gave him and drew a picture on her living room wall.

“I even drew a frame around the picture of the flower garden,” he said. “Why a flower garden? I wanted to use all 64 colors.”

With that, the students burst into laughter.

He continued telling students story after story, intermixing inspiration for them to share their own tales.

Then third-grader Claire Burnham recalled Davis’ story of his mother not wanting him or his younger brother, Joe, to get too attached to a cat his family had found. While the cat was in their garage, Davis and his younger brother went on an octopus-themed ride at the county fair that spun them until they were dizzy. When they returned home, his younger brother placed the cat in an Easter basket and recreated the ride. His mother took sympathy on the cat and let the family adopt it — as long as the pet was never on another octopus ride.

“I remember the story that he told just because of the way he told it,” Burnham said. “I remember looking – watching him tell the story and listening to the story and just thinking, ‘I want to do something like that.’”

Davis, who tours elementary schools as part of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival since its inception 32 years ago, tells his stories because “everyone has a story,” he said. “I want kids to discover they have stories—stories they can write about and tell. Everything works through story—how we learn history, how we remember and solve math, who we are, who our family is—and from there, kids learn to communicate.”

Opening for Davis at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in September was Burnham, a Bingham High sophomore who was selected as one of 10 national youth storytellers.    

Wearing a bow tie like her inspiration, Burnham told the story, “The Joys of Apples,” that she first wrote in grade school.

“I took the story of Snow White, and I made a twisted fairy tale version out of it,” she said. “I've always liked telling stories from the villain’s perspective. I love the villains; they’re my favorite part of any story if they're done well. I’m always thinking, ‘What story can I give from the villain’s perspective?’ In this story, I retold it where the Evil Queen is really just a very tired stepmother who's trying to deal with her bratty teenager who's convinced that every single thing she did was meant to make her miserable. The story has definitely grown and changed with me. It’s not the same story that it started out as; it’s gotten better with each time I tell it.”

While most students were fourth-graders when Davis spoke at Jordan Ridge, Burnham’s teacher, Cathy Smith, invited her to participate, knowing it might pique her interest. After Davis' visit to the school, students were given a storytelling assignment. The top storytellers from Jordan Ridge were invited to perform at Story Weavers with students from other schools in Jordan School District. Burnham participated all four years she was eligible.

She also was invited and has frequently participated in the Story Crossroads Festival in Murray.

Burnham also was a fortuneteller in August at the Renaissance Festival at Thanksgiving Point.

“People would come, and they would pick certain cards, and I would begin telling a story based on the card. I would improvise a story for them on the spot, so it was different for each person with the cards they drew,” she said. “I love improvising and that really helped me be on the (school) improv team.”

After getting involved in acting at age 5 — “I could no longer just stay at home and play with stuffed animals all day” — Burnham has honed her talents and is one of three sophomore members on the improv team. She also is a pirate in Bingham High’s upcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” which opens Nov. 17.

Not many of her classmates know that Burnham was selected as a National Youth Storyteller after submitting a video audition. As part of being chosen, she and other youth storytellers performed in local libraries and recorded their stories for “The Apple Seed,” Brigham Young University’s radio program.

“At this point, my story is pretty much ingrained on my soul. I've given it so many times and it's such a big part of what I do. When I first wrote it, I wrote down a very basic outline of what I wanted and then I would tell it,” Burnham said, adding that she reworked it to be “more pleasing to the ear. I never wrote down any of the dialogue. I want to feel more like actual speaking.”

Eventually, she’d like to publish it as a children’s book.

“I'm an author, as well as a storyteller and actor, so putting it all together on stage at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival was a big deal for me,” Burnham said.

Before going on stage in front of her idol, she had the same questions she did when she first performed back in elementary school.

“Will the audience like my story? Will they laugh at all the right parts?” Burnham asked herself. “But they very clearly enjoyed my story. I especially loved performing in front of larger crowds, because the larger the crowd, the bigger the laughter. The bigger the laughter, the more energy you get from it. The more energy you have, the better the story is, and then people laugh even more. When I see an audience respond to the story I’m telling, I can see the impact I’ve had in that person’s life today. They may not remember the story in a week, but today I have done something to change or entertain them and that’s rewarding.”

As she exited the stage, Davis told her she did an amazing job.

“I told him, ‘You came to my school and told us stories; you inspired me to start storytelling. You’re the thing that started me on this path. And that’s one of the reasons I'm here right now,’ Burnham said. “I don't think he really understood the impact that he had on me.”