Featured Year of the Rural Arts Event: National Storytelling Festival

© Jay Huron - caseSensitive Photos
Courthouse Tent and the Old Courthouse © Jay Huron 2014- caseSensitive Photos

By Savannah Barrett

The National Storytelling Festival
Jonesborough, TN

The National Storytelling Festival celebrated their 42nd consecutive event this past month. Organized by the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, the Festival put “Tennessee’s oldest town” on the map as the “storytelling capital of the world”.

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Yarnspinners Party on the ISC Courtyard © Jay Huron 2014-caseSensitive Photos

The tradition began in 1973 when a high school journalism teacher and a group of area students heard Grand Ole Opry’s Jerry Clower tell a story about coon hunting in Mississippi. That October, the same teacher brought in hay bales and wagons to historic Jonesborough so that he and about 60 attendees could launch the first formal storytelling festival in the nation. Thousands of stories later, the event is ranked on the Top 100 Events in North America and sustains the International Storytelling Center and their mission to improve people’s lives around the world through the power of storytelling. Now featuring two dozen internationally acclaimed storytellers, the National Storytelling Festival attracts more than 11,000 people from all 50 states and several continents into the Appalachian town of 6,000.

The National Storytelling Festival is comprised of main stage performances alongside educational programming, a Story Slam, a showcase for new talent, and a stage for anyone to tell a story. This year’s featured tellers included NPR personality Kevin Kling, mythologist Megan Wells, Japanese traditionalist Kuniko Yamamoto, and First Nations teller Dovie Thomason. These public performances are accompanied by popular special events including concerts, ghost stories, and midnight cabarets. Storytelling Studios are offered throughout the week and provide an intimate setting to engage with featured tellers. The Festival also offers college credit for participating students through East Tennessee State University, and new this year, live streamed its K12 educational programming to reach an estimated 3000-5000 students from across the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe.

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Swappin’ Ground © Jay Huron 2014- caseSensitive Photos

The town of Jonesborough has built storytelling into the fabric of their community year round, as is evidenced by their tagline of the “Storytelling Capital of the World”. Yet, these community programs provide more than a gathering space for a traditional artform. The Jonesborough Storytelling Guild performs publicly each Tuesday and features local talent and a weekly teller. Additionally, the International Storytelling Center hosts a “Teller in Residence” program, which offers twenty-six storyteller residencies in which each resident spends a week telling stories publicly during daily matinees and special concerts.

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Downtown Jonesborough © Jay Huron 2014-caseSensitive Photos

The process by which this small Tennessee town came to recognize itself as a storytelling Mecca and leverage themselves as both an artist and tourist destination is an interesting one. In consideration with the emergent creative placemaking trend, the National Storytelling Festival and the community of Jonesborough’s adoption of the storytelling theme as their regional theme presents an interesting long term case study, as the story of the festival and its evolution over the past four decades offer significant experience-based knowledge to the field.

The International Storytelling Center filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after mounting considerable debt and completing a mammoth capital project for a three-acre facility in downtown Jonesborough in 2002. This Center became the first facility anywhere in the world devoted solely to the tradition of storytelling, but struggled with the support and capacity necessary to sustain itself. These days, the Festival and its corresponding Center are not only sustained and contributing more than 7 million dollars in economic impact to the East Tennessee region, but is growing and engaging new audiences in the performance and practice of storytelling. How they maneuvered the turnaround, and what their story lends to the field of creative placemaking in a rural context, is valuable for all of us.

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The Healing Force Sonji Anderson and Karim Anderson © Jay Huron 2014 caseSensitive Photos

The International Storytelling Center’s new Executive Director has leveraged significant national and international partnerships to address capacity, relevance, and access in the field. They launched a digital partnership with Google’s Cultural Institute [which reached around 8 millon viewers through social media access], as a way to highlight the impact of ISC’s work- highlighting old, renewed and newly established partnerships and collaborations with the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, NASA, the United Way, the United Nations, East Tennessee State University, and Harvard University. Many of these collaborations and more are detailed in the Google exhibit itself, which showcases ISC’s milestone achievements since the first National Storytelling Festival was held in 1973.

This fall, the Center partnered with Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort as a part of a commitment to maintaining and building new multigenerational storytelling traditions in East Tennessee, which assisted hundreds of school children in attending the 2014 National Storytelling Festival. Their relationships with partners and stakeholders seem to have reignited the sustainability of the National Storytelling Festival, and by so doing, the public celebration of storytelling in this country.

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Ghost Stories in Mill Park © Jay Huron 2014 caseSensitive Photos

For more information about the National Storytelling Festival and Jonesborough, TN please visit: www.storytellingcenter.net. Please mark your calendars for this fantastic event, check out the National Storytelling Festival story on the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture, and report back to us at Art of the Rural to tell us about your experience! Please use the social media hash tag #ruralarts in any social media posts from the event.

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THE YEAR OF THE RURAL ARTS is a biennial program of events, conversations, and online features celebrating the diverse, vital ways in which rural arts and culture contribute to American life. The Year is coordinated by Art of the Rural and organized by a collective of individuals, organizations, and communities from rural and urban locales across the nation.

 The inaugural Year is a collaborative, grassroots effort designed to build steam over the course of 2014. To present a more equitable representation and a more comprehensive narrative of rural arts in culture, all online features will be freely shared across websites and social media. For more information on the Year of the Rural Arts, visit: www.artoftherural.org.

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