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Homecoming for storytelling: Festival ignites 45th year this weekend

Jessica Fuller • Sep 30, 2017 at 11:51 PM

Storytelling will have its homecoming this weekend as the annual National Storytelling Festival kicks off with a roster of tellers mixing new and familiar faces.

Thousands of guests from across the country will congregate in Jonesborough Oct. 6-8 for the festival’s 45th season.

While the festival will welcome back some crowd favorites, several new faces have been added to the event, including Anne Shimojima, who tells Asian folktales in addition to a more somber story about her Japanese American family’s experience in an incarceration camp during World War II.

Another new voice this year is Oba William King, a poetic storyteller who focuses his stories on celebrating diversity with the occasional song or drum performance thrown in.

Diversity in performers is something that International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah said has been a goal for festival organizers for the past several years. In addition, organizers have planned several events surrounding the festival weekend to stretch the event into almost a week-long event, including the popular Midnight Cabaret and Ghost Stories.

Sirah said things kick off for him on Monday when Donald Davis, a crowd favorite, comes into town. Davis will perform as teller-in-residence Wednesday, and Jeanne Robertson, another popular teller at the festival, will give a special performance on Thursday night before the festival. Organizers have also built on the workshops they offer as pre-festival events to help attendants hone their own flavor of storytelling.

“We’re encouraging more and more people to come earlier to experience the town and be part of the lead-in,” Sirah said. “You can feel the buzz as people come into town, and then the festival officially kicks off on Friday.”

For the past couple of years, the storytelling center has live-streamed parts of the festival through Google, and Sirah said that viewership has grown immensely. Last year’s analytics revealed that people from 33 countries tuned into the live stream, and Sirah said he’s excited to see where the numbers jump to this year.

That means people can get an idea of what the festival is like, and may encourage some to take a trip to Jonesborough to check it out. In addition, it could spark the storytelling bug in someone new.

“More people start coming because they know what to expect,” he said. “It means that kids, if you’re a kid in a classroom in another part of the country, it could inspire you to be a storyteller and maybe you’ll find yourself on one of those stages.”

Sirah said that he also does his best to encourage guests who come for the festival to hang around and check out the region.

Between restaurants, hotels and retailers drumming up business for the weekend, the festival contributes an estimated $7.6 million impact on the local economy. In addition, profits from the festival go to aiding with different charities throughout the year to help in the community.

“This just shows you the value of the arts to build community,” he said.

Tickets for this year’s festival and other events throughout the week and weekend are available at www.storytellingcenter.net.

Email Jessica Fuller at jfuller@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.

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