Arts & Culture

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1973 - 2014

National Storytelling Festival 

1973-Present
Festival tents in Historic Jonesborough, Tennessee
Storyteller Kevin Locke at the National Storytelling Festival

The National Storytelling Festival, produced by the International Storytelling Center, is the largest and most prestigious storytelling event in the world, and one that ignited the modern-day storytelling revival in America.

In our age of fast-moving technology, it seems unlikely that thousands of audience members could spend a weekend mesmerized by the voices of storytellers. But that’s exactly what happens in Jonesborough, Tennessee, every year during the first weekend in October.

“The trance came over the crowd without anyone being aware. A man’s iPod ear buds dangled, unused, around his neck. Potato chip bags lay untouched in teenagers’ laps. Two thousand people sat in folding chairs under a huge white tent, utterly still, listening.” 

—The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Ray Hicks at the first National Storytelling Festival
Storyteller Jay O’Callahan, 2007

The National Storytelling Festival began in 1973 when 60 people came to hear a few Appalachian tales from the back of a hay wagon parked beside the town courthouse. In the decades since, those 60 people have grown to more than 10,000, and the hay wagon has been replaced by large, circus-like tents raised throughout the town. Those first mountain tales are now juxtaposed with an array of traditional, personal and contemporary stories from around the globe, spiked with the flair of poetry, blues, and ballads. The Festival encompasses a wealth of cultures, traditions and styles – a world of stories within one, historic town.

“From inside these tents, some of the world’s most gifted storytellers paint—with words and music— portraits of comic anecdotes and tragic occurrences.  They share with their audiences stories from personal experiences, as well as tales relayed to them through multiple generations.”

—Cooking with Paula Deen

Storyteller Joseph Bruchac
Storyteller Carmen Deedy
Storyteller Charlie Chin

In venues ranging from an intimate theater setting to tents that seat 1500, festival attendees are treated to compelling performances from over 30 world-class tellers. These audience members include people from all walks of life, from all over the world.

As people the world over have rediscovered the simplicity and basic truth of a well-told tale, the Festival has become the flagship of a national movement that celebrates the rich history of American storytelling and the talebearers who share their stories. Its impact on storytelling as a major art form is acknowledged worldwide. And its impact on a small, rural town – now known as the storytelling capital of the world – is equally significant. 

The town of Jonesborough is tucked away near the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. Tennessee’s oldest town offers historic charm and small-town hospitality – a storybook setting for three days of storytelling festivities. This picturesque place is where the storytelling revival began, and where thousands return each year for the time-honored tradition of hearing – and sharing – stories at the National Storytelling Festival.

”Storytelling is…like a giant secret being whispered faster and faster…And eventually, say people who’ve discovered the secret, you come to Jonesborough. What New Orleans is to jazz. . . Jonesborough is to storytelling.”

—The Los Angeles Times

Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki
Storyteller Brother Blue

“Some stories seem to be made out of whole cloth. Others are like the Tennessee quilts on sale in Jonesborough’s many craft shops. They weave together past, present, fact and fiction in a tight design both dazzling and unforgettable.”

—Smithsonian

Storytellers' Quilt created in 2012 to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the National Storytelling Festival.

A letter from Festival founder Jimmy Neil Smith to storyteller Connie Regan in 1973, extending an invitation to share a story.  

From the Collection of Storyteller Connie Regan-Blake, Library of Congress.

Ghosts and gnomes and creepy things fill two nights of fright at the National Storytelling Festival’s popular Ghost Story concerts, held on Friday and Saturday nights of the annual festival.

“As night fell, many people put on sweaters against the evening nip and set up blankets beside a glowing park gazebo to hear renowned tellers share ghost stories. The park was lit with tiki torches. A drooping willow tree cast spindly shadows. A creek gurgled nearby. I dare you to design a better ghost story venue.”

–Chicago Tribune (2013)

In the early years of the National Storytelling Festival, the Ghost Stories were told in the Jonesborough cemetery where Kathryn Windham’s stories, featuring her family’s personal ghost, Jeffrey, were a favorite.

The International Storytelling Center, producer of the National Storytelling Festival, brings storytelling to Jonesborough in other ways, too. The May through October “Storytelling Live!” series presents a different storyteller every week for Tuesday–Saturday matinee performances and special workshops, children’s shows, and evening concerts. The Storytelling Theater (above), in Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall (right) on Main Street, provides an intimate setting,  for both Storytelling Live and Festival theater performances.

The National Storytelling Festival is the International Storytelling Center’s signature program, but ISC is also active on the global stage, fulfilling its mission to enrich the lives of people around the world through the arts of storytelling. The Center’s goal is to inspire and empower people everywhere to capture and tell their stories, listen to the stories of others, and use storytelling to produce positive change.

Visit the International Storytelling Center via Google Street View

Telling Stories That Matter

As a partner with the Washington, D.C. organization, Alliance for Peacebuilding, the International Storytelling Center reinforces the importance of sharing stories to build peace among peoples and nations. In this Shindig “Peace Call,” ISC director Kiran Singh Sirah and AfP director Melanie Greenberg share stories of peacebuilding and highlight this important partnership.

Storytelling and Deeper Understanding

Ubuntu in collaboration with the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation-USA

In March 2014 the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation-USA launched a special web series that explores the ways in which storytelling can be used to promote world peace. The multimedia project features a variety of performances and perspectives collected from master storytellers participating in the ISC’s teller-in-residence program. Rebecca Popham, managing editor, Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation-USA and director of the project, tells us that sharing oral traditions from all over the world illustrates how the art of storytelling promotes diversity and deepens understanding across cultures in the quest for peace across the globe. The project promotes the spirit of Ubuntu, a philosophy of human connectedness espoused by Desmond Tutu.

Partnership with Jet Propulsion Lab

For more than a decade, ISC has worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) on high-profile space exploration projects. Focusing on education, ISC helped develop special programming for the general public (through storytelling performance), for schoolteachers (through regional workshops), and for JPL itself (by working with its scientists). 

In 2004, NASA invited Syd Lieberman into the control room to witness the first Mars rover landing. Jointly commissioned by ISC and NASA, Lieberman later shared the story of that historic event with audiences in Jonesborough and beyond—the first in what would become a series of groundbreaking collaborations between prominent storytellers and NASA.

The Comoros Project

In a project funded by the US Department of State, ISC has been working with the National Museum of Comoros, in the African city of Moroni, since 2012. Together, the institutions are developing a community-based program that uses story collecting and storytelling to promote positive social change across the nation of Comoros. 

The ISC staff, as well as ISC President Emeritus Jimmy Neil Smith, are working to establish the museum as a center for Comorian culture and a hub for storytelling and community conversation. Exhibits at the museum, as well as school-based curricula, will help teach indigenous history, traditions, and culture.

Confronting Contention: Deploying Culture in Conflict Resolution

ISC is partnering with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage for a special workshop on cross-cultural empathy. The 2014 event will bring together cultural heritage professionals, peace-building professionals, educators, and programming specialists to explore best practices in cross-cultural documentary processes, public programming and interdisciplinary exchange. 

While art and other cultural works are often viewed as a byproduct of peace-building activities, this workshop will support museums and other cultural organizations in using art and other culture work as a primary tool in resolving conflict.

A listening station at the International Storytelling Center

National Storytelling Festival Digital Archive Development

In recognition of the national importance of ISC’s rich storytelling treasury, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and East Tennessee State University have partnered with ISC to digitize its extensive collection of National Storytelling Festival archival recordings. This ambitious project will make decades’ worth of performances from the Festival widely available for education and entertainment. Learners of all ages will have access to the archival performances as well as customized teaching materials that reinforce learning.

Storytelling & Veterans’ Voices

Since 2005, ISC has helped U.S. veterans heal and share their stories. In partnership with the Library of Congress, ISC produced a theatrical piece and a workshop as part of the Veterans History Project. ISC also mounted a special exhibit in partnership with the Smithsonian that local veterans attended. In 2008, ISC hosted a special performance by the internationally acclaimed director Armand Volkas, as well as a series of drama therapy workshops. These projects recognize and validate veterans’ experiences and help audiences better understand those experiences through storytelling.

ISC: Smithsonian Affiliate

ISC is one of fewer than 200 nationwide affiliates of the Smithsonian Institution. Through this partnership, the Center shares Smithsonian artifacts for display in Jonesborough and collaborates on Smithsonian’s programs to advance the cause of storytelling.

Using Storytelling in nonprofit leadership

Following a successful regional workshop, ISC launched a national leadership training initiative for the United Way of America in 2008. Leading a series of workshops at the Center in Jonesborough and in venues across the country, ISC trained United Way leaders in how to use storytelling to enhance the organization’s communications efforts, fundraising events, internal management, and impact on communities. The collaboration marked ISC’s first opportunity to use storytelling as a training tool within a national organization.

Storytelling and Healthcare: Stories for the Soul

In 2002, ISC brought storytelling to a special new audience: hospital patients. In partnership with the Mountain States Health Alliance, a network of 14 hospitals in East Tennessee, ISC produced a series of performances by master storytellers that were broadcast on a dedicated channel on hospital TVs. Built on research that showed a strong link between stories and healing, the programming was a comforting alternative to patients who were tired of watching reruns and afternoon talk shows. Stories for the Soul, as the program became known, eventually expanded to include recorded concerts for pediatric patients.

Storytelling in Business

In 1998, ISC hosted the first in a series of forums on organizational storytelling. Attracting representatives from organizations like the World Bank, Walt Disney, Capital One, and Harvard to Jonesborough, this pioneering work ignited the explosion of public interest in storytelling in business. Building on this effort, in 2004 ISC commissioned a comprehensive study on storytelling in business, education, and peacemaking conducted by Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Connecting with China’s Story

In 1997, ISC’s leadership made its first foray into international outreach by leading a delegation of 60 American storytellers (and story listeners) to China for a series of cultural exchanges. In addition to stops in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the group traveled to the village of Gengcun, a tiny farming community in Central China with an extraordinary population of storytellers (134 in a population of just 1,100). After forming a bond with the villagers, who organized special storytelling concerts in their own homes, the American delegation raised funds to help the village build a new school and refurbish its public storytelling hall. In 2001, the International Storytelling Center asked Nancy Wang and Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo of Eth-Noh-Tec to continue the advancement of this ongoing international storytelling inter-cultural exchange.

Storytelling and Diplomacy

Vice President Al Gore was a special guest of the National Storytelling Festival in 1995, where he helped launch the fundraising effort that would build the organization’s downtown campus. Christening Jonesborough “the epicenter of American storytelling” in a speech he gave on the grounds of the Festival, Gore talked about his experience using personal stories as a peace-building tool in international relations. The Vice President enjoyed his time in Jonesborough so much that he invited ISC and a delegation of storytellers to his home in Washington, D.C. to recreate a miniature storytelling festival—replete with tents!—for a diplomatic event.

A Storytelling Competition for Peace

The International Storytelling Center joined with MasterPeace, a grass-roots peace movement based in the Netherlands, to launch a global storytelling competition, offering all storytellers around the world a platform to share their personal experience about what inspired them to work for peace. The winning story will be presented at the United Nations headquarters on September 19, 2014, the International Day of Peace. 

“The power of storytelling is unquestionable. By listening and telling our stories we can unite as one creative global human family and then together contribute to building a better world. We are delighted to be partnering with the international award-winning MasterPeace organization on this exciting project to celebrate UN International day of Peace.”

—Kiran Singh Sirah, Executive Director, International Storytelling Center

Generations and Genre

From folk and family, literature and theater, music and poetry, the Festival’s tellers have a rich tapestry of backgrounds and genres to share. The 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Champion, Anita Norman, a Tennessee resident, and one of a new generation of storytellers, will perform at the 2014 National Storytelling Festival. Norman's participation is sponsored by the Tennessee Arts Commission, National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.

Since the National Storytelling Festival began 42 years ago, people the world over are rediscovering the simplicity and basic truth of a well-told tale. The Festival has become the flagship of a national movement that celebrates the rich history of American storytelling and the talebearers who share their stories.

Come to the Center of the Story

Find your story at the 2015 National Storytelling Festival, October 2–4, 2015 in Historic Jonesborough, Tennessee. Visit www.storytellingcenter.net now for information and tickets.

“The festival gives ample evidence that the spoken word has not yet succumbed to the abbreviated argot of tweets, instant messaging, acronyms, and emoticons.  In Jonesborough, the world’s oldest art form is flourishing.”

—Harold Closter, Director, Smithsonian Affiliations (2011)

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