Johnson City Press: Alton Chung to tell stories as teller in residence
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Alton Chung to tell stories as teller in residence

Contributed To The Press • Oct 10, 2015 at 5:41 PM

Alton Chung works with many kinds of stories.

Some are fact and some are fiction. Some are personal and some belong to someone else. Some are legends that have been handed down through generations. Others are tall tales he wrote last year.

Each of these stories — true or false, and regardless of who, precisely, it originally belonged to -- comes together to give his audience what he calls “snapshots or little windows.”

Old stories he heard as a kid mingle with anecdotes from his vacations as an adult, as well as stories from his people’s collective history. Taken together, they form a life.

“The Aboriginal Australians have a saying that stories are in search of a teller,” Chung says. “My meter as to whether or not I should tell a story is whether I feel a personal connection.

“All of the sudden I get a tickle in the back of my head saying, ‘hey, pay attention.’ The reason they’re resonating is that they’re pointing to something in my experience that I need to look at.”

Chung will share a wide variety of Asian folktales, Hawaiian legends, personal tales, historical pieces, and ghost stories during his stint as Jonesborough’s next storyteller in residence.

One of Chung’s specialties is creating factually accurate stories out of painstaking personal interviews and archived oral histories.

One set of stories focuses on the last queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, and what her familiars must have felt like watching her be disparaged as “queen of the cannibals” in the national newspapers.

Another shares the experiences of Japanese-American soldiers who fought in World War II. And yet another project takes a close look at Hawaii’s plantations, where many people (including Chung’s parents) worked around World War II.

“Part of it is bringing it down to one person’s story,” he says. “You have to bring these momentous events down to the personal level. When you sit there and lecture about history, people’s eyes just glaze over and roll into the back of their heads. So you have to explain what an individual was thinking and feeling.”

Another of Chung’s specialties is tall tales. His most recent one is about kids who make rocket fuel from the stuffing of Oreo cookies.

“The science is real, but the story is not,” he says. “I recently told it at a festival and it was reported as a true story in the local paper the next day.

“I fear I may now be on some Homeland Security watchlist,” he continues, half joking. “I guess that’s one of the perils of being a storyteller.”

Chung’s residency will be his first since 2011, and he’s looking forward to his imminent return.

“It’s a fun theater to be in,” he says. “I love fall -- all the autumn leaves changing and the coolness in the air. It’s a great honor to be asked back. I’m just tickled to have the opportunity to do it again.”

Chung’s residency will run, Oct. 13-17, Tuesday through Saturday, in ISC’s Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall.

All matinees begin at 2 p.m., and all ticket holders will save 10 percent on same-day dining at The Dining Room, Jonesborough General Store and Eatery or Main Street Café.

Tickets for all performances are $12 for adults and $11 for seniors, students and children under 18.

Walk-in seating is often available, but advance reservations are recommended since tickets are first-come, first-served.

Chung is the latest performer in the International Storytelling Center’s Storytelling Live! series, a program that brings a different performer downtown each week through the end of October.

Information about this season’s performers, as well as a detailed schedule, is available at www.storytellingcenter.net.

Storytelling Live! is supported by program sponsors CrestPoint Health and Eastman Credit Union, and media sponsors News 5-WCYB, FOX Tri-Cities, Tri-Cities CW, Johnson City Press, Kingsport Times-News, Herald & Tribune, Cumulus Media and Foster Signs.

Additional funding comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Niswonger Foundation and the Arts Fund of East Tennessee Foundation.

The International Storytelling Center is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

For more information about Storytelling Live! or to make a group reservation, call 800-952-8392, ext. 222, or 423-913-1276.

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