- Storytelling Live!
Each year, between June and October, the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, hosts a series of solo performances, bringing a diverse collection of nationally and internationally renowned storytellers to this small Appalachian town. The "Storytelling Live!" series is an outgrowth of the National Storytelling Festival, a weekend event held each October that attracts tourists (approximately ten thousand) and northeast Tennessee natives alike. What began as locals telling stories from the back of a hay wagon has evolved into an expansive operation that overwhelms Jonesborough with a sea of white tents housing simple platform stages and hundreds of folding chairs for listening audiences. Since opening in 2002, the center has established a permanent presence on Main Street, contributing to Jonesborough's quiet mountain tourism that touts Appalachian culture through sales of handmade quilts, jams and jellies, and local bluegrass albums.
To attend the center's storytelling performances, therefore, is to participate in the local cultural economy. Since the early 1970s, when town councilman (later mayor) Jimmy Neil Smith launched the festival to boost fall tourism, Jonesborough proclaimed itself a Mecca for storytelling—an Appalachian outpost dedicated to preserving oral narratives and a dying breed of bards and balladeers whose embodied performances sustain this indigenous mountain culture. Growing up in neighboring Johnson City, I occasionally attended the festival, and during my most recent visit, I caught two "Storytelling Live!" performances at the center's new Krispy Kreme Storytelling Theater. (The center functions as a nonprofit organization, funding its endeavors through a combination of corporate support from local businesses like Krispy Kreme as well as grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission.) On 13 and 17 June, respectively, I saw Dovie Thomason, a Pennsylvania-based storyteller with Lakota and Plains Apache heritage, and Dolores Hydock, a self-professed Northerner adjusting to life in Alabama. Both had been featured tellers at previous festival events; indeed, the series helps the center build relationships with an international ensemble of oral-narrative performers. The diverse range of storytellers, exemplified by the series' inclusion of performers with Irish, Cuban, Australian, Native American, and US Northern and Southern regional traditions, indicates the center's dedication to preserving storytelling by recognizing how it connects Appalachia to a global network of local cultures that share the impulse to keep their indigenous artistry from disappearing in the wake of relentlessly advancing postmodern technologies and consumer landscapes (Krispy Kreme franchises exempt, of course!).
The "Storytelling Live!" performers spend week-long residencies at the center, offering hour-long daily matinees to an intergenerational audience as well as the occasional children's or adult-oriented evening concert. Unlike the festival's enormous white tents, the Krispy Kreme Theater is an intimate space seating just under a hundred spectators; the small wooden stage is set merely with a microphone stand and a tall, antique Shaker-style chair. Storytellers pull from their repertoire for each matinee, performing a range of material so audiences can return the next day and encounter a new set of stories.
Thomason's show opened with two Native American folktales featuring animal characters (e.g., foxes, buffalos, and bears), and concluded with a Lakota creation myth about the spirit Wohpe and the four brothers of the North, South, East, and West winds. Thomason linked the myths with personal narratives about gardening, twenty-first-century [End Page 326]"buffalo-hunting" (obtaining meat via FedEx express shipping), and learning the art of storytelling from her grandmother and the Lakota community. She engaged the audience with her theatrical style, conveying the animals through exaggerated vocal patterns, gestures, and facial expressions (the bear growled and spoke gruffly, while the chipmunk wiggled and watched in wide-eyed wonder). During the moments of personal narrative, Thomason spoke in a warm, inviting tone and made direct eye-contact with spectators. Soft lighting throughout the stage and auditorium aided the intimate exchange, encouraging a feeling of shared space. Although the minimal staging approximates the spare aesthetic and direct address of many stand-up comics and solo performance artists, storytellers at...