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Teller Sheila Arnold tears down walls, blends past and present in craft

Contributed • Oct 8, 2018 at 9:28 PM

Who: Acclaimed storyteller Sheila Arnold 

What: The final Storytelling Live! concert of the season 

Where: The International Storytelling Center, 100 W. Main St., Jonesborough

When: Tuesday through Saturday at 2 p.m.

How much: $12 for adults, $11 for seniors, students and anyone under 18

Arnold on stage: 

An acclaimed storyteller featured at the National Storytelling Festival, Shelia Arnold is known for her ability to tear down walls—between different kinds of people, between herself and her audience, and between genres.

She also blends the line between the past and the present, sometimes telling stories in character as a person from a bygone era.

These talents will be on display during Arnold’s weeklong residency at the International Storytelling Center, where she’ll offer a series of matinee storytelling concerts. Her shows are among a handful of remaining opportunities to catch a live storytelling show in Jonesborough before the end of 2018.

For one of the shows, Arnold plans to perform in costume as Oney Judge, a slave who was First Lady Martha Washington’s personal maid.

Arnold first learned about Judge during a tour of George Washington’s Virginia home, where the accomplished maid was mentioned only in passing. When Arnold looked for more materials, the only resources were children’s books and a single historical novel. In the years since, as historians and writers have become more interested in uncovering women and especially African-American women’s stories, more material has become available, including a biography of Judge that was published just last year.

In seeking out Judge’s story, Arnold uncovered a rich tale of triumph and pain. Judge fled Virginia to find freedom, but was never able to return to Virginia to visit her mother, brother, and sister for fear of being enslaved again.

To develop a character like Judge—she has around a dozen others, from various points in history—Arnold reads a lot of period pieces and materials like newspapers to understand what people sounded like in conversation at that point in history. (She also reads a lot of poetry to help refine the rhythm of her words.) “I never know what a character is going to sound like until I open my mouth,” Arnold says. “But once I do—that voice never changes. It’s like her flavor.”

A personal touch:

In addition to her character-driven pieces, the storyteller recently developed a special series of tales centered on faith and justice, a calling she felt after the 2015 shooting in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Arnold is also known for her personal stories and folk tales, which she blends to emphasize the lessons that different kinds of stories can offer. Her family members often appear in these light, humorous pieces. While there’s been some playful disagreement about how certain events are remembered, “They’re okay with it,” Arnold says with a laugh. “It’s open season, and they know that.”

Her limited-time appearance in Jonesborough will run Tuesday through Saturday. Shows begin daily at 2 p.m., with advance purchase recommended, but not required.

“I’m really excited,” says Arnold. “I love Storytelling Live!. There’s no wall. I never let there be a wall between me and the audience.”

All of Arnold’s matinee shows are $12 for adults, and $11 for seniors, students, and anyone under 18. All ticketholders can present their ticket stubs for a 10 percent discount on same-day dining at Main Street Café (lunch only); Medley Vegan Vegetarian; Olde Towne Pancake House; and The Corner Cup. Boone Street Market is offering 10 percent off prepared meals and 5 percent off any other purchase.

The International Storytelling Center is open 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 913-1276.

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