The art of storytelling Charleston fest to celebrate all sorts of tales

National storyteller Donna Washington

When was the first yarn spun, the first story told to teach a moral or spread news or simply enthrall those on hand? Long before written history, certainly.

Beyond that, nobody really knows. And perhaps therein lies the great mystique of storytelling, that ancient means of teaching and entertaining the masses.

Now, a modern movement of live storytelling is coming to town. The inaugural Charleston Tells, a festival featuring national and local storytellers, will be held Friday and Saturday in historic downtown Charleston’s Wragg Square and adjacent Second Presbyterian Church.

“A lot of people think storytelling is for little children, but it is really the oldest form of communication,” said Donna Washington, a nationally known teller who will perform at the festival. “Storytelling is such a basic part of how we navigate the world. Stories take that little bit of us and share it with a community.”

From ghost stories that spook adults to humorous personal narratives, folklore and history, Charleston Tells will bring some of the nation’s top storytellers to town to join local and regional talent.

Produced by the Charleston County Public Library, organizers hope the festival will become an annual event that enriches Charleston’s already vibrant arts and literary communities.

“People have been telling stories from the beginning. It’s always been part of what it is to be human and to share things with each other,” said Cynthia Bledsoe, the library system’s deputy director.

Much of the modern storytelling movement comes out of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., an outdoor event that draws more than 10,000 people to its tents in the Appalachian Mountain hills. Bledsoe used to live in Nashville and attended the national festival a dozen times or more.

“I saw such an array of talented people,” Bledsoe said. She figured few communities could appreciate the art form quite like the Lowcountry, with its historic Gullah storytellers and many well-nourished literary roots.

“We are rich in so many arts here, but this is an under-represented form,” Bledsoe said. “This festival is something we have wanted to do for a while.”

Jamie Thomas, the library’s spokeswoman, realized the power of live storytelling at a Utah festival.

“The whole audience one moment was dead silent and then might have tears going down their faces and then burst out laughing,” Thomas said. “They take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride.”

Thomas describes storytelling as radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” meets comedian Chris Rock meets ghost stories told around a campfire.

So, when the stars aligned with grant money, interested library staff and support from the city of Charleston and the larger community, library officials decided to launch Charleston Tells.

Better news couldn’t have reached Minerva King, a librarian at St. John’s High School on Johns Island and a longtime local storyteller.

“This festival has a lot of potential,” King said. “Charleston is such a perfect place for it.”

She should know. King grew up during one of the Holy City’s most dramatic times in history, back when black residents were forced to use separate bathrooms and sit in the backs of buses. Her father, civil rights leader J. Arthur Brown, was head of the Charleston and state NAACPs, and she was a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit that led to desegregating local schools.

Through the ordeal, she gained a love of history and came to savor the value of escaping into stories.

She became a children’s librarian to share her passions. Storytelling grew from there as she discovered a talent for connecting with her audiences, often through multicultural stories.

“It is so personal,” King said. “It’s much more personal than watching TV or listening to radio. Before even the written word was the spoken word.”

At Charleston Tells, she will join such nationally known tellers as Washington, a self-described Army brat who traveled the world with her family’s seven children. Washington describes them as “a traveling troupe of characters.”

She went to Northwestern University to study law but quickly switched to theater. In one play, she was cast as a storyteller.

Suffice it to say, she embraced the character. One professor was so impressed, he suggested she go into storytelling rather than theater and took her under his guidance.

“It’s much more about connecting with an audience and using stories to make that connection,” Washington said. “As a storyteller, you are a funnel, a medium. Storytelling has to come through you.”

Washington has been a professional teller for 20 years (as well as a recording artist and author, primarily of children’s books).

Her stories lean toward folktales and personal narratives, although she admits to liking eerie ghost tales and a bit of racy humor with mature audiences.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” Washington said. “It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.”

Charleston Tells also will feature other national storytellers:

Syd Lieberman relates humorous personal stories and is known for his spooky nods to Edgar Allan Poe and his telling of Jewish tales. He also has taught storytelling at the Kennedy Center and Disney World. Today, he is creating stories for the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center and teaching their 180 docents and volunteers how to tell stories.

Philadelphia native and former teacher Ed Stivender has been called “a Catholic Garrison Keillor.” His website describes him as, among other things, a Shakespearean actor, banjo player, theologian, dreamer, juggler and raconteur.

An Oklahoma teacher-librarian by day, Barbara McBride-Smith travels the country as an entertainer, comedian, historian and storyteller. She also is a seminary professor and author.

Regional and local storytellers also will perform, including Sharon Cooper-Murray (known as the “Gullah Lady”), Julian Gooding (storyteller, documentary filmmaker and percussionist who uses drumming and oral traditions of West Africa), Hawk Hurst (a master craftsman who uses Native American-style flutes and drums), Tim Lowry (folktales and Lowcountry stories) and Becky’s Box of Puppets.

“These are some of the top-notch people in the country,” Bledsoe said. “Charleston has such a strong arts scene that people are accustomed to seeing the best.”

Over the past year, the library system has held various “pre-events” designed to introduce the community to storytelling, namely what exactly it is. And what it isn’t.

It is not story time, as in someone reads a Dr. Seuss book to a group of children. The library is promoting Charleston Tells for “adults of all ages,” although one tent will be geared toward families.

Some stories may not be appropriate for young children, including the ghost stories on Saturday evening.

“These people have honed their talent,” Thomas said. “They take you in and sit you on the end of your chair, breathless.”

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