By Lora Scripps
The weather is crisp and The Square is decorated in fall finery — which can only mean one thing — storytelling masters are already making their way to Athens for a weekend focused on the oldest form of entertainment.
The seventh annual Athens Storytelling Festival starts Tuesday. The event is meant to offer residents, and visitors alike, the opportunity to hear stories, glimpse into the past and live the imaginary as they listen to yarns woven by some of the nation’s renowned master storytellers.
This year’s storytelling lineup includes:
• The Dill Pickers, who began as a group of individual musicians brought together by their mutual casting in a local Birmingham company’s performance of the off-Broadway musical “Snow on the Mountain.” The group gained state-wide recognition for their yearly performances and grew into a band of storytelling, instrument wielding performers whose popularity transcended the Birmingham stage to bring about the touring and talented group of tale-tellers they are today.
• Minton Sparks, who is a lean and literate livewire in a flower print church dress spinning tales of blatant honesty through song, gesture and spoken word. Her performances pierce the heart and soul as effortlessly as she balances her prop pocketbook on her slender wrist. Sparks has been called the lovechild of Flannery O’Connor and Hank Williams. She is a speaker-songwriter at its finest.
• Bobby Norfolk, who has an innate ability to read and connect with audiences of all ages makes him one of America’s premier storytellers. Using dynamic movement and vocal effects, Norfolk creates vibrant characters who come to life through imaginative, creative story, living history programs that highlight the African-American experience, and toe-tapping musical shows that feature song and live musicians. His stories promote character education traits (such as respect and responsibility), cultural diversity, and literacy. A role model and mentor, he inspires and motivates kids, telling stories it has been said, “to see the happiness and joy that can be shared through the oral tradition. No fancy electronics, just teller and listener.”
• Carmen Deedy, who has entertained thousands of children and adults alike in her ultra-energetic and charming style. Deedy has recounted her tales of growing up Cuban in Decatur, Ga., for more than a decade. Her performances of the humorous and poignant of familial living ring a familiar tone in the ear while retaining a unique quality of her individual upbringing.
• Donald Davis, who was born in a Southern Appalachian mountain world rich in stories. “I didn't learn stories, I just absorbed them,” he says as he recounts tales and more tales learned from a family of traditional storytellers who have lived on the same western North Carolina land since 1781. Davis grew up hearing gentle fairy tales, simple and silly Jack tales, scary mountain lore, ancient Welsh and Scottish folktales, and — most importantly — nourishing true-to-life stories of his own neighbors and kin.
• Bil Lepp, who tells original, hilarious tales that will bring a smile to the face of even the most ill-humored person around. He is the author of three books of tales, and four audio collections, and has had stories published in several national magazines. Lepp has been a featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival several times, and at The Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Locals spin yarns
Local storytellers will also have the opportunity to be a part of the action during an added local storytelling competition at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Local tellers are Frank Travis, Sheriff Mike Blakely, State Rep. Dan Williams, Attorney Shane Black, retired AHS basketball coach Jerry Todd, and Charlie Hughes.
Tickets are $5 for adults and $2.50 for children under 12 and are available at the Athens Shop of Athens State’s Center for Lifelong Learning at 121 N. Marion St.
Stories will be told in the big tent on Marion Street, between Market and Washington streets, within close proximity to an eclectic mix of downtown restaurants and shops offering a wide variety of antiques, gifts, gourmet foods, clothing and hardware.
Under the big tent
The main event starts Friday with tall tales starting at 10 a.m. and coming to a close at 9:30 p.m.
Saturday’s stories start at 9 a.m. and run until 9 p.m. There are lunch and dinner breaks both days, but attendees are encouraged to come and go at their leisure.
On Thursday evening at 7:15 p.m., there will be a storytelling olio where storytellers plan to whet the appetite in an event some have said you don’t want to miss.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the tent will be open to participating city and county schools, so the art of storytelling can be experienced by the next generation of great tellers.
Storytelling is considered traditional, creative, educational, cultural, personal, and therapeutic. The stories told will seem spontaneous, but not without hours of coaching and practice. The storytellers will work to captivate their audience by using eye contact, their voices, movement, and expressions to bring their stories to life in the listeners’ minds and hearts.
In addition to traditional day and weekend tickets, half-day tickets and children’s tickets are available.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.athensstorytellingfestival.com or at the Athens Shop in the Center for Lifelong Learning at 121 S. Marion St, on the east side of the Limestone County Courthouse Square.
— Guy McClure of Athens State University contributed to this article.