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National Storytelling Festival 2002 Review

"The National Storytelling Festival was fabulous!" I gush to anyone who will listen. "You must plan to go next year."

A veteran story writer, story "user," and group facilitator (but not a performance teller as such), I’d heard for years that the quality of the Jonesborough event was topnotch, and had been trying to get there for at least two of the festival’s three decades of existence. Life just hadn’t accommodated that intention. This year even back-to-back Gulf Coast storms couldn’t stop us. My husband Ron and I finally made it Friday night Oct. 4, 2002, (a day late) after making sure that our home in Pensacola and our families in Louisiana were all safe from hurricane Lili.

Lili’s aftermath pursued us through drenched highways all the way from the soggy Gulf Coast into the damp far Northeast corner of Tennessee, where a stranger met in a Greenville Applebee’s promised, "There won’t be rain by 9 o’clock tomorrow." He was, we learned, a Jonesborough tobacco farmer who had to know these things. Sure ’nuff, skies were magically clear for the next two days. (Granted that crucial respite, we could hardly complain that rain and fog covered our subsequent week’s explorations in Northwestern North Carolina.)

Weather does matter at this festival, the epicenter of storytelling in America. The events happen in giant tents scattered throughout the rolling green hills of Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town. It’s a charming, beautifully preserved historic community dotted with appealing churches, hotels and other architecture, arts and crafts and other retail shops and (too few) restaurants.

Lodging is also at a premium. Woe to those folks, like us, who prefer not to plan travel far in advance. With the help of the thoughtful folks at the National Storytelling offices, we were able at the last minute to book a room in the home of a nice young couple, Jennifer and Brett Craig and their two children. We arrived just in time to hop in their SUV and grab a "Midnight Cabaret," popular nightly programs (available for an extra fee) from 10:30 pm-12am. Lanky Willy Claflin got us off to a great start, wide-awake and chuckling at his (and his trusty moose Maynard’s) recollections of a free spirit’s life in backwoods Northern Maine, circa 1972.

Good stories well told have the power to transport us through time and space, to bring other eras and places and cultures and individuals to life, to nudge our own nostalgia and to link us emotionally, viscerally, with others, both similar to and different from us. During this terrific festival we laughed a lot, shuddered a bit, even shed a tear or two at touching tales. My husband, a more technical engineering type who was not "into" stories as I am and went more for my benefit, truly loved the whole experience just as much as I did. Everyone we met seemed similarly captivated. People who haven’t tried this festival should!

Stories ranged from about 10-minutes to 45-minutes long, from comedy to tragedy to thriller and everything in between. Some were rather straightforward records of reality, as with Susan Klein’s moving portrayals of the New Jersey floods. At the other extreme, master liar Bill Lepp’s tale tales swung wildly from imagination’s rafters. A few tellers used music and props supplementally or substantially, some bodies were major players, other tellers relied on pure words and vocal control. They drew from various roots, regional and cultural experiences, each bringing a distinctive manner, style, and voice. The variety was invigorating.

Tents were often packed and overflowing, with hundreds (up to 1500, we heard) squeezed onto metal folding chairs or molded plastic. It’s not the most comfortable venue in the world for middle age and beyond, but worth it. Forewarned, we brought pillows, definitely helpful to bad backs and butts during days of sitting.

With three days of near-constant programs from 10 am to midnight (4 pm on Sunday) and simultaneously in at least five or six places, choosing is a real challenge. We missed, among other things, both 8 pm Ghost Story Concerts, which many attending seem to relish. It’s impossible to see all presenters, though the sampler sessions do help broaden exposure. Return trips are self-evident.

If Ron and I had to pick our personal favorites of those heard here, we choose Donald Davis and Jay O’Callahan, both acclaimed veterans who make it all look easy. Each brings his personal experiences, relatives, and friends to life, using sharp memory, vivid language, masterful pacing and modulation, and (presumably) some creative embellishment.

The only way I’d be likely to take a mule ride down into the Grand Canyon is through Don Davis’ shared adventure, and believe me, he took us there, gasping and laughing our heads off every steep, scary step (and misstep).

Actually, we laughed longer and harder at the Storytelling Festival than at most current comedians. Somehow, these storytellers manage to be hysterical with neither profanity nor meanness, the twin crutches of many of today’s comics. Without being saccharine, self righteous, or preachy, they tend to project open mindedness, positive values, and a "good spirit,". They can pull you into their culture and help you appreciate your own, make you "know" and love their Aunt Laurie and fondly remember your own Aunt Lou.

Life itself feels heightened by these stories, humanity revealed and humanity enriched. In this intimate feelings-dense environment, casual chatting and warm discourse with strangers come easy.

A benefit of the frustratingly long line at a buffet restaurant was befriending a delightful couple from Marked Tree, Arkansas, Mike and Laurel Everett. She’s a computer specialist and he a small town attorney and retiring state senator. Over one spontaneous evening, we bonded more freely than often happens over months or years of superficial chitchat. Story sharing is both contagious and powerful.

At a storytelling and business networking session in the lovely new International Storytelling Center on Main Street, a fellow participant, storyteller Marianne Frederick, handed out a bright lime green pin that says, "Enjoy life. This is NOT a dress rehearsal!!"

The 30th Annual National Storytelling Festival entertained and enthralled a wonderful mix of people, all fully enjoying life, participating in an ancient form of communication that seems to attract, appeal to, and inspire the very best in human beings.

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