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There’s always a story to tell: National Storytelling Festival begins today

October 6th, 2011 11:09 pm by Doug Janz

It’s been a trying financial year for the International Storytelling Center, but the organization has never stopped pursuing its main mission — storytelling.
And there’s no better place to be for storytelling than in Jonesborough this weekend as the 39th annual National Storytelling takes place. Tents are up throughout downtown and some of the best tellers in the business are here for the three-day event, which opens today at 10 a.m. with performances on several stages and continues through Sunday afternoon.
The ISC has spent much of the last year going through financial pains — bankruptcy, reorganization, searching for sponsors — and attention has often been diverted from the mission to promote the art of storytelling, a cultural phenomenon that’s important worldwide but especially in the mountains of Appalachia.
The ISC has never stopped its programming, continuing the popular Storytelling Live! teller-in-residence series and other events. The big one, though, is the festival, considered the finest event of its kind in the world, and also a major source of fundraising for the ISC.
“There’s always a buildup to the festival,” said Susan O’Connor, director of programs for the ISC. “It’s exciting to work on this, to have it to look forward to, to have a premier event that we’re still able to produce.
“Sure, there’s been some uncertainty about if the festival will change or be diminished in any way, so it’s important for things to go well. But it’s always important for an event of this caliber to go well.
“And we have a very loyal audience, and the teller community has been very supportive.”
O’Connor said ticket sales have been good, considering the economy and all the center has been through. Organizers view 2009 as a similar year as far as the economy goes, so they’re using 2009 registration numbers as a guideline, “and things have fallen right on target with that. I don’t think we’ll have any problem meeting budget. I think we’ll have good walk-in attendance, and it looks like we’re going to have beautiful weather, which impacts that.”
Average attendance for the festival is about 10,000, the ISC reports.
Tickets are still available at various prices and in different combinations for the whole festival or single days, and for adults, kids and seniors, running from $10 for the separate-ticket Ghost Story Concert to $105 for a Saturday adult pass to $525 for a family pass for the full weekend.
Most attendees have already bought ticket packages. People wanting to buy same-day tickets can do so at the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center, which is also where pre-registered ticketholders report for their tickets. Plenty of parking is available at the Jonesborough Middle School and Elementary School, with a shuttle to the Visitors’ Center.
The storyteller lineup includes a mix of old favorites and some relatively new names. Fans will recognize Donald Davis and Willy Claflin, Bill Harley, Bil Lepp and David Holt, but missing is the great Kathryn Windham, who passed away earlier this year at age 93.
Known for her ghost stories and her Southern accent, she was a regular in Jonesborough. In fact, appearing at the festival here helped make her a national name in the storytelling world.
“It’s a huge loss for us,” O’Connor said. “Kathryn has been a part of this festival since 1974. She was certainly considered the matriarch of the storytelling community and was absolutely beloved by tellers and by everyone.”
Windham loved and was amused by bottle trees and was known for the all-blue bottle tree she had in her yard. The festival has erected one in her honor in the lobby of the International Storytelling Center.
“She used to tell a story about a bottle tree, a centuries’ old tradition,” O’Connor said. “The legend was that it will repel evil spirits. So we have put up a blue bottle tree and have invited people to leave messages and stories about her, and we’re going to give that to her family.”
There’s also a documentary on Windham that will be shown each day in the theater, free of charge, and storyteller Davis will do two storytelling events about his experiences with Kathryn.
For more information, visit or call 800-952-8392.

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