By Larry Woody
Some 10,000 listeners will pull up a chair and settle back for three days of yarn-spinning fun at the 40th annual National Storytelling Festival, Oct. 4-6, 2013, in historic Jonesborough, Tennessee.
“The festival showcases a wide range of storytellers with diverse repertories,” says Susan O’Connor, the festival’s director of programs. “There’s sure to be something for everybody.”
The Storytelling Festival’s First Chapter
The event started in 1973 with five storytellers and an audience of perhaps 60. The inaugural festival featured Grand Ole Opry comedian Jerry Clower, whose rib-splitting stories were the inspiration for the event.
Clower told his stories in a local gymnasium. The second day of the festival featured five storytellers telling tales from the back of a hay wagon parked in front of the courthouse, and that became the prototype for today’s event.
Today, the festival is held in large, circus-like tents spread through the town of Jonesborough, and is produced by the International Storytelling Center (ISC). ISC’s facility includes the 14,000-square-foot Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, 200-year-old Chester Inn, retail shop, welcome/information area and surrounding 3-acre park. The center is believed to be the only facility devoted exclusively to the tradition, art and power of storytelling. The center hosts more than two-dozen Tellers-in-Residence from May to October, with a variety of storytelling events and workshops held throughout the year.
It all started when high school journalism teacher Jimmy Neil Smith heard Clower’s famous “coon hunting” tale on the radio and decided to hold a storytelling festival in Smith’s hometown of Jonesborough. He thought it would be fun and would also have a positive economic impact. The event was an instant success, attracting media attention across the country and sparking a national storytelling renaissance.
“The appeal is simple: People enjoy listening to a good story,” O’Connor says. “The stories can be funny, sad, poignant or historical – the possibilities are endless. Our festival lineup is very diverse, featuring lots of different styles.”
What to Expect From Storytellers
Most of the festival’s early storytelling revolved around Appalachian themes, but O’Connor says nowadays “they range from cowboy stories to folk tales and personal accounts.”
Twenty-five professional storytellers will be featured. Story lengths vary from 10 minutes to one hour, and tellers are scheduled for appearances on multiple stages. There are no prizes or awards.
“Our festival is not a competition but a showcase for excellence in storytelling,” O’Connor says. “It is also an opportunity for storytelling producers to see a wide array of talent.”
There is a Swappin’ Ground tent reserved for amateur storytellers, where listeners squat on hay bales – a throwback to the original event.
The Storytelling Festival is promoted as a family affair, and O’Connor says all of the prime-time material is family friendly, though there are a couple of “Midnight Cabarets” billed as adults only. A “Sacred Telling” is also held on Sunday morning.
How to Tell a Great Story
What makes a good storyteller? “It’s hard to figure out,” says storyteller Donald Davis, a festival favorite. “When I was growing up in the North Carolina mountains, I had an uncle who was a great storyteller. Everybody wanted to listen to him. Maybe I have his gift or talent or whatever it is. When I grew up, folks wanted me to tell stories and so I started doing it. It was either that or hide out.”
While there are a variety of approaches to his trade, Davis does elaborate on the first rule of successful storytelling. “The key to a good story is a surprise ending,” he says. “No matter what the story is about, it needs something unexpected to happen at the end. Some stories are humorous and some take a serious turn. There is no set formula.”
Another acclaimed storyteller, Kim Weitkamp, mines material from conversations with her folks.
“I call my parents on a regular basis and interview them,” she says. “I could spend hours gathering stories about my relatives.”
As for her key to success, Weitkamp says, “Be prepared, with good, well-crafted stories. Have a good stage presence and have a give-and-take with your audience.”
Old-fashioned storytelling might seem antiquated in this era of digital, high-definition entertainment, but O’Connor says its appeal is enduring.
“It’s important to preserve our oral tradition of storytelling,” she says. “Whether it’s at our festival or sitting around the family dinner table, we all should share our personal stories. It’s a way to preserve our heritage, our family, our culture, our community. It’s a way to pass all of that on to our children.”
Weitkamp agrees: “Humans can surround themselves with all sorts of gadgets, but the state of the art will never replace the state of the heart.”
“When I tell a story I want to touch people’s own memories,” says Davis, whose stories are based on personal experiences. “We all have an interesting character in our family or know about something interesting that has happened. Everybody has a story to tell.”
If You Go …
40th Annual National Storytelling Festival
What: Professional and amateur storytellers from around the nation converge to tell tales and spin yarns before audiences
When: Oct. 3-5, 2014
Admission: Prices vary according to combo or single-day
Additional info: (800) 952-8392, www.storytellingcenter.net