International Storytelling Center gearing up for 47th festival

Jonathan Roberts • Sep 19, 2019 at 9:30 PM

In 1973, Jonesborough hosted its first Storytelling Festival.

Now, 47 years later, International Storytelling Center Director Kiran Singh Sirah feels the country needs storytelling now more than ever.

“The Storytelling Festival means a lot to our region, but also to our nation,” Singh Sirah said. “It’s such a big part of identity — it’s not only preserving a rich cultural tradition, it’s a way to express our identities to understand one another.”

And while he (and the region) realize the importance of the festival for economic reasons — about $8 million in economic impact — it’s deeper than that for Singh Sirah, who sees storytelling as a tool to bridge the divisiveness so many are seeing in the United States.

“It’s good for our community — really good for our community — but at the same time, it’s also good for peace building, community building, cross-cultural dialogue, because the festival brings people from every political spectrum, from every cultural background,” Singh Sirah said. “It’s all-inclusive.”

Among this year’s performers is Bil Lepp, a longtime favorite of attendees from across the world. And though he was the ISC’s storyteller in residence earlier this month, don’t expect him to share the same stories at the festival.

“I'm a featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival a few weeks after my residency, but I don't want to repeat myself too much,” Lepp said prior to his week-long residency in September. “I’m still deciding which stories to tell at the Festival and as Teller in Residence. I like to keep it fresh for the audience.”

This year’s festival will also feature the first of several talks centered on the history of African-Americans — or “Affrilachians” — in the greater Appalachian region. The project will hold one discussion in 2019, with the remaining 11 set to take place in 2020-21.

“This is a project I’ve been wanting to do, but really this is a project that’s emerged from this community,” Singh Sirah told the Press in August. “You look and unpack the histories of what’s important locally, and then you go and create programs that can have a national or international resonance.”

All in all, the festival will feature numerous tellers over its three-day run Oct. 4, 5 and 6, with more tellers and events set to be announced Friday on the festival’s website at www.storytellingcenter.net.

Storytelling “brings us to a space of shared identity, and it’s in that space that we (start) peace building,” Singh Sirah said. “Storytelling leads to connection, connection leads to understanding, understanding leads to peace.”

For more information on the festival, its history or to buy tickets, visit www.storytellingcenter.net/festival/ or call (423) 753-2171.

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