The art of storytelling is flourishing in Chattanooga.
Shivers, shocks, and spine-tingles.
The ghost stories that produce these reactions are popular at this time of year, but the people who flock to ghost story-tellings often do not realize that live telling of stories without ghosts can offer experiences as vivid and strong—and often more believable and engaging.
At the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee a few weeks ago, Donald Davis engaged the audience of over a thousand listeners, drawing them into his story of attending school for the first time. His story reminded us of ourselves, and evoked feelings of anticipation and dread that we had long ago forgotten, but that Davis now helped us experience together.
In the Chattanooga area, you can have similar experiences at the Camp House, at Charles & Myrtle’s Coffee House, in area libraries and at various festivals and celebrations.
Chattanooga storyteller Vincent Ivan Phipps promises and delivers “fright and delight” to his ghost-tour audience in his stories that he calls “fresh, frightening and freakishly fun.” Phipps also tells his moving story of how his father was the first black person to buy a ticket and enter the Tivoli Theatre as a patron. Chattanooga storyteller and playwright Jim Pfitzer creates and performs stories that inspire empathy and personal insight as well as delight. Cleveland storyteller Judy Baker provides listening moments of surprise and revelation as well as pleasant entertainment
Storytelling at its best gives us experiences we cannot get from television or even from books, because a living human being speaks and gestures, relating directly to us.
Janice Brooks-Headrick of the Smokey Mountain Storytellers remembers how Janette Stevens involved the audience so thoroughly in her story that they could not applaud when she finished. They were totally engaged in the story of a family struggling to get to their relatives in bad weather on Christmas Day, and failing. Brooks-Headrick says that everyone in the audience experienced the story vividly on their own terms. They were mesmerized by the teller and their own memories to the point of “applause paralysis.” Finally after a minute of introspective silence, the audience applauded wildly.
Brooks-Headrick says, “Shared laughter brings the audience together. Other feelings do too. For me, it’s the connectedness that makes storytelling fascinating.”
When Jim Pfitzer took the Camp House stage at River City Sessions, he adjusted the microphone. He let his audience settle. With emotional intensity, Pfitzer began his original story, “On Chestnut Ridge”: “I was in shock—complete disbelief.”
Kemmer Anderson, retired McCallie School teacher, responded to this story in which a majestic American chestnut tree plays a central role. Anderson’s engagement deepened as Pfitzer blended in the love story of the couple who came to live next to the great tree, only to find that it had died. Anderson says Pfitzer conveyed the grief and tragedy of the loss when he said that only a few years before, the people in the mountains had been certain that “a family can’t starve on the Ridge” because the chestnut trees would always provide ample food.
Anderson concludes that the story powerfully conveys the larger metaphor of global climate change that he compares to the blight that wiped out nearly all American chestnut trees in the early 20th century. “We are the blight and we don’t know it,” he said. “Jim Pfitzer nailed it. It needs to be heard.”
For Judy Baker of the Cleveland Storytelling Guild, the magic of storytelling happens when she tells the story of Jack going to work.
Jack, having been told that he must keep his pay in his pocket, comes home with wet and greasy pockets—because he had been paid with milk. Baker hears a little giggle from the audience, their brows go up, and some lean back as if to say, “I’m with you and I am enjoying the story,” or “Now that I hear how absurd it is, I can enjoy it as pure entertainment.” When the telling is going well, Baker says, it is as though she can sense the the audience feeling and saying “We are with you and here we go on this ride together.” Then audience and teller share a warm feeling of story enjoyment. The teller relaxes and performs with greater intimacy and intensity.
Ginnie Sams, prominent arts advocate, poet and storyteller, cited without prompting my performance at the Carter Presidential Library. I hesitated to include her remarks, but I overcame my false modesty. In my story about immigrating to America at age 11, I am leaving the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. when I find a penny. I recognize Lincoln on the penny, then I put it in my pocket where I have been carrying a krone coin with King Christian X on it all the way from Denmark.
Ginnie reports that goosebumps popped up when I concluded the story: “In my pocket, President Lincoln clinked together with King Christian the Tenth of Denmark,” because it expressed powerfully the precise moment when I connected America and Denmark.
Recently on a trip to Alaska with the Road Scholar program, I told the Inuit story, “The Eagle’s Gift” to a group of eager listeners at the Denali Education Center.
Before I started, I scanned the group arranged in a semicircle, making eye contact with many of them. When all were silent, I intoned slowly and ritualistically, “A long, long time ago…” The audience leaned forward in an atmosphere of magical anticipation.
Propelled by their attentive support, I told the ancient story of animals and humans from the North Slope of Alaska, adding a mythical dimension to our study of Alaska.
All over the world from the origin of the human race, storytellers have woven their magic for themselves and their audiences. Do yourself a favor: Leave the television. Seek out one of these events. Participate in the ancient, shared and universally human experience of storytelling.
You can experience that magic in the Chattanooga area by attending one of the following storytelling events:
Nov. 1 and 2, 1-3 p.m. at Cloudland Canyon State Park, Cloudland Canyon Arts and Crafts Festival.
Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m. (and monthly) at the Camp House. Mike Gray presents and tells stories as part of River City Sessions.
Nov. 15, 7 p.m. The Cleveland Storytelling Guild will produce its Tellabration at the First Presbyterian Church in Cleveland (Tellabration is celebrated by many storytelling organizations in November.)
Dec. 21, 6 p.m. The Joseph Campbell Roundtable will celebrate the winter solstice with storytelling at Grace Episcopal Church.
Feb. 6, 2015, 7-9 p.m. The Cleveland Storytelling Guild will present Ocoee StoryFest featuring Kim Weitkamp at the Museum Center at Five Points.
Mar. 10, 2015, 7 p.m. The Chattanooga Writers Guild will present a special program on storytelling at the Public Library.
Apr. 18, 2015 Storytelling will be a part of Little Owl Festival at Audobon Acres.
Now that Barking Legs Theater has re-opened, look for programs there that include storytelling.
Daily ghost tours with storytelling continue in Chattanooga, starting at 7:30 p.m. at the corner of Market and Second streets.
Finn Bille’s Scheduled Performances in November 2014
Nov. 1 and 2, 1 p.m. at the Cloudland Canyon Arts and Crafts Festival
Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m., poetry reading at the River City Sessions at the Camp House
Nov. 15, 7 p.m., First Presbyterian Church in Cleveland for Cleveland Storytelling Guild Tellabration