• Olivia Preshong

Where Stories Live On: Jonesborough's International Storytelling Center

Jonesborough, Tennessee's oldest town, is home to the International Storytelling Center, a beautiful window-covered building right in the heart of quaint downtown.


The International Storytelling Center is a non-profit that encourages performances of many kinds, preservation of oral traditions and cultural heritages, and practicing the concepts and issues addressed in stories. The center tries to look through the lens of everything that storytelling is, believing that storytelling can be used as a tool for healing and understanding. 


Angela White, Communications Associate for the International Storytelling Center, described what the non-profit center does, saying, "We focus on education, arts, and culture, all around this idea that the world is better through the power of storytelling." 


Nearly half a century ago, in October of 1973, Jonesborough hosted the very first National Storytelling Festival, an event staged by local teacher, Jimmy Neil Smith, on a farm wagon for about 60 listeners.


The Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

This event set a precedent for what festivals and the International Storytelling Center would look like in the upcoming years. 


White explained the purpose of festivals, saying, "We go into the traditions of storytelling, specifically for our region and Appalachia, the folklore, and the preservation of the art of storytelling." 


The Center encompasses a lot of different organizations and mindsets by its status as a Smithsonian affiliate and by working with the National Endowment for the Arts and with the National Endowment for the Humanities' programming with storytelling.


The 2021 Storytelling Festival, the second festival to be virtual because of COVID-19, ran October 1-2.


“Us going virtual was a really tough decision because of the economic impact on the town of Jonesborough,” White said, but the switch has not been completely negative.


"The virtual side of things makes it wonderful for us as an organization to really expand our reach, and that’s something that we’ve noticed in our registration numbers," White explained. "We normally have almost every single state represented when we’re in person, but through the virtual storytelling, we’re able to reach a larger audience, which is very exciting."


Virtuality allows more first-time viewers to gain access to the power of storytelling, providing an attendance opportunity for people unable to travel or concerned with safety.


"We've learned this year: a lot of our performers are not as seasoned as they once were," White said. "It’s been difficult for them recording to a camera — they’re used to performing! It’s not just storytelling. We do storytelling and lots of music, lots of singing, lots of instruments. We have one guy who’s a dancer!"

Performers have been required to adjust themselves and their styles to the shifted experience, as well. 


"For some of them, it’s been very difficult — because they just haven’t been performing — to just get them to record and to help them with the technical aspect and then making sure that they’re comfortable. We’ve had a couple people who are more local come to the storytelling center to record, and they’ll record their set — an hour-long set or so — for three people who are watching and do it live, so now we’re going to have thousands of people watch them online. You’re used to waiting for the crowd to respond; or sometimes they get tongue-tied because they just haven’t done it in so long," White said.


Several of this year's storytellers have been storytelling for decades, veteran performers that can easily "pull things out of their pocket" by naturally and easily telling stories in spite of their very limited recording audience. The list of long-timers includes Connie Regan-Blake, a Southern-born storyteller who grew up listening to stories and has performed at every single festival since the festival's beginning.


Alongside Regan-Blake was Bil Lepp, a storyteller from Appalachia. Lepp's repertoire of storytelling experiences now includes the experience of hosting the HISTORY Channel's show titled "Man vs. History," in which he tries his hand at historical feats like shooting targets with an Olympian, hanging upside down 30 feet above the ground in a straitjacket, and nearly falling off a horse named Lacey. 


Another 2021 performer, Elizabeth Ellis, grew up in the Appalachians with a family of storytellers. Stories from her Irish immigrant grandmother and circuit-riding grandfather delighted Ellis from an early age, and she has woven stories throughout the years, performing at the International Storytelling Festival after an inspiring 1978 festival visit. 


The festival's expansive inclusion of great storytellers from far and wide bleeds into their activities outside of the festival. 


"We do programing throughout the year that touches on a variety of age groups and then also specific programs on ethnicities, so we have a program called “Freedom Stories” and it looks into specifically African American lives in Appalachia, so we really have tried to make sure that everyone has a seat at our table, you know, that everyone is included," White said. 


While focusing on the far and wide, the International Storytelling Center also prioritizes the storytelling heritage’s legacy and continues to give the community an opportunity to experience its rich Appalachian culture.


"There’s the performers, the actual storytellers that we try to help and promote. We also go into the traditions of storytelling — specifically with Appalachian stories and Appalachian storytelling, there’s folklore, but there’s more to our community than just the general history that people know," said White, "and that is something that we’ve really prided ourselves on. And also, keeping that story alive, making sure that we’re passing down those stories, and that the younger generation in our community is aware and educated and knowledgeable on our folklore and our history."


Next year is the International Storytelling Festival’s fiftieth anniversary, and the center is planning on hosting the event in person once again.


“Fingers crossed; it’s going to happen in person! We’re really looking forward to gathering in person again to celebrate,” White said.


As the International Storytelling Center's website says, "The first event of its kind anywhere in the world, the festival ignited a renaissance. People around the world have since rediscovered the power of a story well told." Ever since that momentous first, the International Storytelling Festival and its spirit of powerfully-building storytelling power lives on.


For more information about the International Storytelling Center or a list of upcoming events, visit https://www.storytellingcenter.net.

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