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Storytelling Festival canceled, moving to digital for fall 2020



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The 48th anniversary of the National Storytelling Festival has been postponed.

“It’s not happening in October,” said International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah Tuesday. “It’s the first time in the history of the festival that we are moving to a virtual event.”

While this year’s format may be virtual, however, he stressed, “it’s not in the place of the festival.” 

“We’re still committed,” Sirah said. “The real festival is an in-person, live event.”

The annual National Storytelling Festival has been a Jonesborough mainstay since 1973, when it began as a gathering of audiences and tellers around bales of hay and hay wagons. Since that time, the festival has grown to become a premier fall event drawing visitors from all over the world. 

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, ISC began to review its original plans for the 2020 season.

“Since the pandemic, we had to put our safety first,” Sirah said. Staff worked from home for a time, though most, he said, have since returned to the office. And while the work of promoting storytelling and its benefits to the region and the world never ceased, the October festival was never far away from everyone’s thoughts and discussions.

In the end, while it wasn’t an easy decision, Sirah said, they knew postponing the festival was the right one.

“We made sure that we could come together as a team and as a board,” he said. “We’ve also been monitoring nationally and statewide. It’s been a lot of conversations.

“Ultimately, what makes our program so unique is we’re not out in some field . .. It’s embedded in our community and it really is a people’s festival.”

That meant that 500-plus volunteers, visitors from all over the world, tellers and the community would all be in too close quarters.

“Primarily it was the safety concern,” he said. 

Now, it’s time to start planning the future.

“We want to make sure we use this year to create new formatting and create new programing, but really our aim is to get people back in 2021,” Sirah said. “We’re really seeing it as an opportunity to grow new audience.” 

Sirah recommended visiting the ISC website at as well as signing up for their newsletter to watch as plans unfold.

He also reminded readers that Jonesborough is still the Storytelling Capital of the World, and that the stories will go on.

“This is the flagship festival not just for the world but for our nation,” he said.  “We have stayed true to our core, that storytelling should be something experienced live and in person.”

And while current events may be a struggle, he remains excited about the future.

“We want to make sure we are growing audience for the next 50 years,” Kiran said. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re working through this. And we thank the community for its support.”