Storytelling predates writing. You could even call it the oldest form of magic. And yet, despite its incredible power, it’s just one performer using tools they were born with — their voice, face, hands, and one amazing memory. With these seemingly simple tools, they transfix their audiences, taking them on a journey that requires not a single step. The award-winning talent who will tell their own stories at this year’s Charleston Tells festival hail from all over, but they share common reasons for learning and loving their craft.
Dovie Thomason, a Native American teller of Lakota, Kiowa, and Apache tales, says her grandmother was a font of tribal wisdom. “Stories were always around, both family stories and folktales. Each one had a teaching. If I was being impatient with my little brother, there would be a related story of a fox lacking patience with a rabbit,” Thomason says. “Now as I tell, I see kids’ faces light up, whether they are in kindergarten or high school. Many of the kids I’m telling to didn’t have a grandmother to tell them stories for hours. It’s wonderful that my work means doing something so close to my heart.”
Storyteller Donald Davis, who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, says he didn’t realize that his family members’ regular conversation style was, in fact, artful storytelling. While they were recalling what happened since the last visit, or what was happening to absent family members, townfolk, and friends, they didn’t just report the facts. They peppered their stories with personality, sharing something of themselves as they talked about something or someone else. Davis stumbled across their magic while sharing these stories outside his family — he realized they had a tendency to go verbally viral. Listeners were blown away by his narrative talents and couldn’t resist sharing his stories in their own circles. It didn’t take long for appearance requests to pour in, and a new career was born.
Linda Stout is a South Carolina teacher turned storyteller. She discovered sharing a classic folktale could simultaneously calm and entertain her students. “I learned what a powerful medium this ancient art form is, which led me to find more ways to incorporate storytelling into my work,” she says. “Children learn by story and so do adults. I’ve been telling stories in libraries, schools, and festivals for more than 20 years.”
While storytelling festivals are held all over the world, no two events are alike. Storytellers come to an event with a rough outline of what stories they will share, but they remain open to where the day may lead them. The weather, local news, and the stories their peers tell all impact the stories they choose. Davis says that the most fun is watching people recognize themselves in the stories. Storytelling tends to have a multiplying effect, he says. “I watch people come out and tell stories that they would not have thought to tell had they not come out to hear mine.”
How a lost art was revived
One afternoon in the early 1970s, Tennessee high school teacher Jimmy Neil Smith was driving his journalism students to the printer. He turned on the radio to make the roadtrip a little less unbearable. It was playing Southern humorist Jerry Clower, who was recalling his misadventures hunting raccoons in Mississippi. The car was silent. Everyone in the car listened with rapt attention as if Clower was right there with them. Smith remarked how incredible it would be if someone like Clower would perform in their little old town of Jonesborough. The moment passed and life went on, but the idea stuck in his mind, needling him like a bur that could not be brushed off.
Pulling together limited resources, Smith held America’s first National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough in 1973. Stages were hay bales and wagons, and the crowd was a meager 60 tellers and listeners combined, but this little-festival-that-could started a movement. It spawned the creation of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, which has since evolved into two organizations: the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Network, which connects thousands of storytellers in seven regions.
Over the last three decades, the Jonesborough festival has grown into a showcase of nationally and internationally acclaimed storytellers, hosting 10,000 attendees over three days. It also includes the National Youth Storytelling Showcase whose storytellers, all between the ages of five and 18, are winners of a national contest. Today, storytelling festivals and organizations can be found in every state.
Charleston’s festival has its origins in 2011, when Charleston County Public Library’s deputy director Cynthia Bledsoe realized that storytelling as an art form was underrepresented locally. Piccolo Spoleto had storytelling among its mosaic of offerings, but there was no exclusive storytelling event. So she partnered with others in the library leadership to start one. “Storytelling is pleasurable, but spoken word activity also enriches literacy skills,” Bledsoe says. “Listening to stories builds comprehension, and exposes its listeners to a different vocabulary and culture.”
More than 1,700 people attended the first Charleston Tells festival last March, which featured more than 40 performances. To boot, 600 local students got a special visit from nationally recognized storytellers.
While Charleston Tells showcases masters of the craft, its Story Swap is aimed at novice storytellers by allowing beginners to share their stories or tales with other novices. “The Story Swap encourages people to try this craft themselves,” Bledsoe says. “We want people to know there’s at least one story within all of us.”
See the full festival schedule and buy tickets at ccpl.org/charlestontells.