I am in Jonesborough for a week this May as part of my honors project for my self-designed "Storytelling" major at W&M. William and Mary doesn't have a Storytelling program, but ETSU in Johnson City, TN does, so I came to Tennessee to check it out and get some advice from tellers in Jonesborough, "the storytelling capital of the world."
As far as I can tell, it deserves the title. It is home to the International Storytelling Center, an organization dedicated to preserving and developing the ancient art form of storytelling. They have tellers performing all week every summer (this week is the talented Elizabeth Ellis) and a festival in October, and they promote and fund tellers year-round. I came to Jonesborough ("the oldest town in Tennessee"!) in hopes that I could get some advice on my project from these master tellers.
I drove from Williamsburg to Johnson City on Sunday the 17th in my NEW CAR :D. It's a little over 400 miles and took about 6 hours. I drove north of Richmond to I-81 and then down the mountains from there--an absolutely gorgeous drive. I would have taken pictures of all the mountain chains and amazing overlooks, but I was driving, so I just took them with my eyes and remembered them. You can't see them.
Here I am stopping at the Tennessee border to buy Cheez-Its at a rest stop. Did you know Tennessee is "The Volunteer State"? I didn't. Makes sense, though, because everyone is so nice.
If you've ever been to Breezewood, PA, Johnson City is like that but bigger. It appears to be built of chain restaurants that grew over and on top of each other and spawned more mini-chains. I think the spores get sucked up in the clouds and roll down the mountains to the valley that Johnson City is sprawled at the bottom of and they just take root in the shade under the overpasses and grow into mega-version of every store you can think of. I did manage to find this cool little restaurant called Babylon near my hotel where I got some tasty schawarma that really hit the spot.
I'm staying in the Red Roof Inn in Johnson City like a real adult. I don't know if the TV works. Just checked--it does. I am living large right now. The desk is tiny and doesn't fit all my books but other than that this place is great. It has a shower and everything.
The next day, I set out from the hotel to find Jonesborough and get the lay of the land before my first meeting at the International Storytelling Center. Jonesborough is only about 15 minutes from JC, and the historic district is really only one street. I parked at the public library and headed to the visitor's center to learn about the town. There was a little museum there, so I poked my head in there and then headed out on the town.
I then learned that everything is closed on Monday (Sunday and Monday are the shopkeeper's days off), so I mostly just walked around and peered into dark windows. I did meet a very nice man named Steve who runs a lot of the public music events in Jonesborough and owns the art gallery I was poking around in, and he invited me to the public concert on Friday night. Pretty much everyone in Jonesborough is unreasonably nice.
I took a little walking tour and visited all of the notable landmarks. It didn't take all that long, because Jonesborough is a very small town. I forgot to take pictures, though. I kind of fall apart when Sarah isn't around. But I will revist some of the locations (the little general store and sweet shop are cool, and so is Sister's Row) and take pictures later in the week.
Then I made my way to the International Storytelling Center (right in the middle of downtown Jonesborough) for my meeting with Kiran Singh Sirah, the president of the ISC. He is an artist and peace-builder who believes that storytelling can bridge social divides and help people relate to and understand each other, and can form the foundations of meaningful relationships and partnerships. We had a nice long talk about how collaborative storytelling can be a meaningful way of building community and how I could structure my project to encourage a certain kind of storytelling that would equally involve everyone and make sure everyone is involved in the creative process.
After my meeting, I visited the local farmer's market to buy a loaf of fresh-baked bread and some honey. They were out of little jars of honey and only had the quart size, though, so I passed on the honey (until later in the week when the nice bearded yoked man said that they would get more little jars) and got some chocolate milk instead. It was the best chocolate milk I ever had. I finished it while I organized my notes from my meeting and sat in the Jonesborough Public Library Garden. When it started raining, I went inside the library.
The Jonesborough Public Library has a huge collection of books about storytelling and folklore (pictured is around a fifth of it), so I perused the shelves and did some research on the history of the storytelling movement and some basic narrative construction stuff for a few hours before I went back to the hotel.
The next day, Tuesday (today), started a little earlier. After breakfast, I popped into the Books-A-Million to see if they had a collection of books about storytelling, too. I hadn't come close to reading everything I wanted to at the JPL, but I wanted to see if there was anything I could take home with me.
I didn't find any special books on storytelling or folklore, but I did find that in Tennessee, magazines about science are filed under "New Age", so that's pretty funny.
My meeting today was with Dr. Joseph Sobol at ETSU. He is the director of the Storytelling program there and has been working on the program since 2000. His special interest is in performance (he is also a musician) but he had a lot to say about the history of storytelling in general and recommended me a lot of reading (classic professor). He also quoted Yeats a lot and said that storytelling was a form of magic. I strongly suspect him of being a wizard.
He also knew a lot about tabletop role-playing games, and even had a master's student that did a fair amount of her graduate work studying them as a form of storytelling, so we talked about that and he pointed me toward even more resources. This is exactly the sort of thing I came to Tennessee to find!
I headed to the ETSU library to check out their collection of books on folklore, which was a little bit bigger than JPL's and way bigger than Swem's. I skimmed a lot of the books that Dr. Sobol recommended, but didn't get a chance to read many of them in depth (even though I was there for a while--a few hours at least. they have a lot of books.) before the library closed for the evening. I resolved to come back later in the week to finish my reading.
ETSU has a very pretty campus, and the students were happy to point me back toward the parking garage. Like I said, everyone in Tennessee is nice.
They also love their sports. I don't know if you can tell from the picture, but that thing is well over 100 ft tall. It's probably 1.5 times the size of Kaplan. There were a large number of outlying baseball and football fields, too.
The last thing on my schedule for today was attending the Storyteller's Guild performance in the ISC. Every week, the guild chooses three of its members to perform at the theater there. This week, they were joined by the current ISC Teller-in-Residence, Elizabeth Ellis, for a total of 4 tellers, all of whom were great. I think Ellis was my favorite, but all of the tellers (including the man who had never shared as a guild member before!) were very good. The dedication of these people to their craft is inspiring. I talked to most of them after the show and collected some business cards, and I hope to follow up with meetings later in the week.
So far, this trip has been a success. I especially found my conversation with Dr. Sobol and the books he recommended helpful, and I will have to keep reading at the ETSU library and when I get back to W&M. I worked on some Act-II storyboards today at dinner and I think I am about done with those, so my first edition is close to being done. I'm looking forward to the rest of the performances and meetings I have lined up for this week, but I miss everyone at home. Hope everyone is well.