By MARINA WATERS
For the first time in decades, storytelling weekend in Jonesborough won’t be filled with folks walking down the brick sidewalks in Tennessee’s oldest town heading toward another giant white tent. Instead, the magic of storytelling will be hosted online throughout the country and across international waters.
“It’s unfortunate we can’t have the festival in person,” International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah said, “but we’re kind of taking an opportunity out of a crisis and seeing the beauty and an opportunity we’ve always wanted, which was to really take an opportunity to tell the world that we exist.”
This year, the festival will not only offer veteran storytellers such as Donald Davis, Sheila Arnold, Carmen Deedy and Kevin Kling, but it will also offer new features through recorded and live sessions and the availability for listeners to go back and listen until Oct. 10.
“We are ultimately doing two stages,” Sirah said. “(Storytellers) will go on simultaneously and you will have a choice of where you want to go and who you want to watch. If you missed something, you can also go back and watch it again. In a way, you’ve got the option of seeing the entire thing, which you wouldn’t have if you were in person. You can’t be in two places at the same time, but here you can.
One of the features specific to this year’s festival involves a session with special guest Fred Haise, who was an astronaut on Apollo 13, and will also include Susan O’Halloran as the storyteller emcee.
“That’s kind of our signature. We do interviews that are also with the storytellers because they understand how to ask questions,” Sirah said. “Some of that is prerecorded, but he’s also going to be available live so that people can ask questions. When do you get the opportunity to ask a question to one of the Apollo 13 astronauts?”
Another new aspect are the pre-festival workshops that will be offered with a separate ticket. Those interactive sessions, Sirah said, will give would-be storytellers a way to consider telling their own stories.
“More and more people are coming to Jonesborough — virtually or in person — to experience how to tell their own story,” Sirah said. “Every year we get people, even from the state department from the Pentagon, or we have teachers or activists or humanitarians, and they all ask the question, ‘How can we harness our own stories to build a better world?’
“What we’re doing is we’re designing a series of workshops during pre-festival, Tuesday and Wednesday, where you can interact with storytellers, but learn the skills of collecting your own family story, or if you own a business, how to tell your own impact story, or stories for educators and teachers to understand emotional intelligence, particularly because we know they are working with young kids.”
The festival will also include stories from the Underground Railroad, over 30 different new and returning tellers and the return of Ghost Stories, which is included in this year’s $50 festival ticket.
“You can get with your family and get on your pumpkin head and tune in with ghost stories on Saturday,” Sirah said. “We’ve done some pre-recorded stuff with ghost stories as well as an emcee and there are special surprises as a part of that.”
Though the festival won’t include in-person guests perusing Downtown Jonesborough, the festival will be expanded. For the first time ever, listeners from Africa will be included, which will now take the virtual festival to every continent.
“This year, we actually have audiences coming from Nigeria and different parts of Africa,” Sirah said. “The First Freedom Stories session we had reached 300,000 people. People in Australia, Nigeria, India, the Czech Republic, they get to see the beauty of our region and what we’re able to offer. In a way, we’re kind of capturing that and utilizing this powerful medium to be able to deliver something that is important and beautiful.”
Sirah also hopes this year’s festival gives families a chance to have their own sort of mini festival at their homes where they can gather around and listen to stories unfold as they would in Jonesborough.
“You can attach it to your smart TV, you can have viewing parties,” Sirah said. “One of my friends is going to watch it in the backyard with her family. There are multiple ways you can do it. And you have access to watch it over a seven-day period because we know that not everybody is going to want to watch the whole thing in one go. Some of the diehard fans will, but it gives people the option to watch it at their leisure.”
Though this year’s festival is unlike any other, Sirah mostly hopes that same storytelling magic is found through pre-recorded and livestreamed storytelling sessions — and gives people some comfort during an unsettling time.
“I want people to realize we live in a magical part of the world,” Sirah said. “We live in a place that honors tradition and honors the tradition of story as part of our cultural heritage. Storytelling belongs to all of us and it exists everywhere, but in a world that is moving so fast, it’s really important to almost slow down. What storytelling does is it allows you to be very present and connect to the past and tradition. I want people to take away that magic and apply that to our own lives and our societies.
“It helps us to heal, the laughter, the connection.”
Tickets to this year’s festival are still available at www.storytellingcenter.net/festival. For more information call (423) 753-2171.