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Storytelling to again be big part of Umoja

Jennifer Sprouse • Aug 7, 2013 at 9:23 AM

Whether you just want to sit and listen, or actually get on stage to tell your own tale, the East Tennessee State University Gazebo Storytelling Stage at this year’s 17th annual Umoja Festival has a little something for everyone.

Dr. Joseph Sobol, program coordinator of the ETSU storytelling graduate program, said the storytelling stage has been an established part of the festival since 2005.

“Storytelling is all about ... unity and diversity, so it’s a theme that we feel very happy to work with and get behind,” Sobol said. “We’ve always had some very influential and well-known storytellers as part of the institute and the Umoja Festival programming every year. In the past, we’ve often had an institute or a storytelling class around one topic or another that has been tied together with the festival. This time we’re just running the storytelling performance stage there at the gazebo, which we’ve done since ... the festival moved downtown.”

The storytelling stage this year will host the International Storytelling Center’s Teller-in-Residence, Jeff Gere.

According to an ETSU news release, Gere, from Hawaii, is a multi-talented storyteller, who fuses his skills as a painter, puppeteer, mime, teacher and director, along with his multiple voices, faces and characterizations, while performing.

Sobol said Gere will perform at the gazebo at 6 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday.

He said this year the stage will welcome festival-goers to get on stage and participate in the Re-Generation Story Slam, an open mic opportunity for the public to get up and tell a personal story.

“That’s a whole other storytelling movement that’s going on around the country,” Sobol said.

He said the slam will be held at 5 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday. Sobol said on Friday, the theme for the slam will be diversity and on Saturday, the theme will be unity.

Sobol said he and colleagues from the ETSU graduate program will kick off activity on the gazebo stage each day at 4 p.m. with stories and songs.

“The new director of the ISC, Kiran Singh Sirah, is a slam poet, quite an accomplished one, and he’s going to make his Johnson City debut at the Umoja Festival on our stage and also over at the Young Adult Stage. He’s very excited about performing at the festival,” Sobol said.

He said the free festival gives participating storytellers the ability to reach a more diverse audience, versus a festival that charges admission.

“What’s particularly nice about it is the community-based aspect of this festival,” Sobol said. “It’s open to anybody in the community. The story slams are open to anyone in the community that wants to tell a story. We believe in both the fine art aspect of storytelling, but also it’s sort of democratic roots. It’s an art of the people, by the people (and) for the people.

“We just hope that as many people as possible come out to the festival and stop by the storytelling stage and enjoy themselves. We hope to have some interesting stories pop out of the audience as well during the story slam,” he said.

For more information, visit the Umoja Festival website at www.umojajc.org.

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