This edition of the Storytellers Channel’s newsletter I’m going to regale you with highlights from the most recent National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN and the first Stories at the Center of the Universe.
The Storytellers Channel
Every year for the last 46 the first full weekend in October sees thousands descend upon the sleepy little town of Jonesborough, TN. Why? It’s the National Storytelling Festival. This is the storytelling world’s Mecca. This year folks from as far away as Egypt, and England, and New Zealand came to hear their favorites and to discover new talent.
There are several events, workshops and concerts, leading up to the festival the week before Friday morning’s opening. Commencing at 10:00 am on that first Friday in five tents, spread out within a two-block walk of each other, thousands of folks settle in to listen to tellers from all over the globe transport them to other times and places. Whether they’re sharing folk tales or fairy tales, personal stories or stories from literature or history you can hear a pin drop until the audiences gasp or laugh or sigh. These are a sample of the best tellers in the English-speaking world. No patron leaves without having their heart moved.
My wife, Marie McGranahan-Turner, and I only heard 22 different tellers this year. We were also entertained by five others as MCs, plus we ran into numerous tellers in the streets we knew from other festivals. Every year the festival feels like a cross between an old-time tent revival and a southern family reunion where all the prodigal sons and daughters come home with stories of adventures in foreign lands.
The days are broken up into hour long performances and half-hour breaks allowing time to respond to nature’s call, hustle over to another tent or grab a snack, after all listening works up a powerful appetite. The printed schedule lets you see who’s performing what time and in what tent. The tents each seat anywhere from 750 to upwards of 1,500 folks. The sound systems are masterfully staffed by engineers who sit out among the audience. I’ve never had a hard time hearing in the last five years. Plus the front three rows are reserved for the hearing and visually impaired. Also there’s an area right next to the stage for wheel chair parking.
As a teller myself, I vacillate between being sucked right into the stories and marveling at the tellers’ mastery. Listening to Diane Ferlatte’s explanation of Bugs Bunny as the forebear of Brer Rabbit and then watching her amazingly animated performance punctuated by Erik Pearson’s guitar resurrected the 10-year-old in the heart of everyone within range of her voice. Tim Lowry, Ambassador of The House Wine of the South aka Sweet Tea, told of his love for Clara Barton and blew his audience away recounting how she, rightly so, became known as the Angel of the Battlefield. John McCutcheon, who is as accomplished a musician as he is a storyteller, if not more so, had his audience on their feet gustily singing along with We Shall Overcome as he sent us off to bed Saturday night.
Andy Hedges recited a narrative poem of the cow that got away. And Anne Rutherford regaled us with the exploits of Clementine and One-Eyed Bob.
Nationally recognized storytelling stars Andy Offutt Irwin and Geraldine Buckley and Elizabeth Ellis all of whom have performed here in Virginia served as MCs this year and charmed us with their wit and brevity as they kept the shows moving along.
Something came up and Antonio Rocha was unable to join us this year, but Bobby Norfolk jumped in and kept us entranced. Bobby’s coming to Richmond soon, we just have to work out the date.
The Virginia Storytelling Alliance (VASA), Virginia’s Storytellers’ state trade association, was well represented on and off the stage at the festival. Past Presidents Kim Weitkamp and Megan Hicks along with former Vice-President Sheila Arnold were all featured tellers. Jessica Piscitelli Robinson, founder of Better Said Than Done, was honored as an Exchange Place Teller.
Denise Bennett won 2nd Place in Story Slam. Sighted on the grounds were current Vice-President Norris Spencer and Current Treasurer, Helen Cubain, as well as, members Linda Goodman, David Joe Miller, Victoria Phelps, Lynn Ruehlmann and Darci Tucker. MyLinda Butterworth, Marie and I volunteered as tent hosts and so VASA was Loudly and Proudly represented at the festival.
Bill Wight, Board Chair, National Storytelling Network (NSN), his wife, Pat, storyteller Jim Gregory and Kiran Singh Sirah, President, International Storytelling Center (ISC) all dropped by the ISC courtyard and chewed the fat for awhile on Saturday morning before things started hoppin’. Bill has a vision for how NSN can better serve its members, the art form and the nation. Reach out to him and find out how you can help this true servant leader strengthen NSN and American Storytelling.
In the passage leading to the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre’s Stage Door right on Main Street the actors had set up a bake sale raising money for the theatre and offering one of the best deals of the festival: A bottomless cup of coffee refillable all three days. Marie and I were happy to support the theatre company and even happier to have a ready caffeine fix all weekend long.
A special shout out to the Jonesborough Police, especially Officer Tammy, for their low-key, comforting presence. And thanks to Stephen Callahan of Tennessee Hills Distillery for driving folks around in his golf cart, those hills are steep.
The last thing I’ll share in this missive about the 2018 festival was Bil Lepp’s telling of his story, The King of Little Things. It’s one of the most enchanting and endearing storytelling experiences I’ve had since I was a child. I cannot recommend it enough.
Want to Volunteer Next Year at The National Storytelling Festival?
If you’d like to volunteer at the festival, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with NSF Volunteer Info Request in the Subject Line and I’ll be happy to explain the process for applying to serve.
Stories at The Center of the Universe
The Center of the Universe, that’s how the folks in Ashland, VA refer to their little town. Situated right on the railroad tracks that run through the center of town where VA state Rt 54 intersects the tracks sits Ashland Coffee & Tea. This past Friday, October 12 from 6:30-7:30 saw the inaugural Second Fridays Storytellers Channel hosts Stories at The Center of the Universe.
Dr. Jim Lavender, Danita Rountree Green, Gayle Turner and Denise Bennet entertained the audience and set the tone for Getting Weir’d, a Grateful Dead cover band. Future Second Fridays will start at 7:00 pm and go til 9:00. There will be an Open Mic opportunity for those folks who wish to try their hand at telling a tale. We expect to stream the show.
Until next time, remember
You Matter. Your Stories Matter. So Tell Them Well.