The Big Tent
Updated: Oct 10, 2022
The first word that comes to mind is “watermelons.” Then “powerful mamas,” “sprigs of mint,” “sophisticated haircuts,” and “women warriors.” That should cover the range of stories and styles that were represented at the Exchange Place in Jonesborough this weekend.
I was pretty anxious as I made the trip across the country with my wife, Irma. I kept telling myself, “Think of the story you are going to tell, not the venue or the fantastic other tellers that will be there.” My story was an old, familiar one. And it comforted me to just focus on that. I was going not only with my wife, but also a trusted companion, my story about the old man in the jungle. I was able to talk myself into eating and resting like a normal person as we made our way pretty much across the entire country. Now, if I were going back, I would do it differently. I would have a new way to calm my nerves.
I would first of all think of Sheila Arnold. She was probably the reason that I was even there as she truly is emerging as my mentor and guiding light. She gives the advice that I seem to need when I need it, and she really is starting to make me believe in myself. What was amazing this weekend was to see that she has a unique relationship with every one of the tellers in the Exchange Place this year, and I’ll bet all of them consider her their mentor. So, if I were going across the country again, I would think of her and the warm, enveloping hugs she gives. I would think of how she looks at me and the other tellers. She sees right through the jitters and stumbles to the tellers that we are becoming; she sees our potential. I noticed when she smiled at me, I would stand taller and straighter, and my heart rate would fall. I would begin to believe that I can do this.
But now, I would also think of MJ, Mo, Sufian, Darci, and Carol. We are a cohort… and we bonded in a way that can only happen when you are sitting beside the stage together, huddled around Sheila Arnold, as the audience pours into the College St. Tent in droves… droves!
The next two hours were like a dream. Sheila’s introductions were done with such precision and care and reverence that they were a performance in themselves. She shared general details about each teller, but also something about them that could only be gotten from an intimate interaction, cuing the audience as to what would be unique about their telling.
Carol Moore was the first fellow teller I met, and she was the first teller on the program. The minute I met Carol, I started to stop the incessant rehearsing of my story, and begin to take in the incredible experience that was unfolding. She and I shared our nervousness, and I was already feeling a strong friendship beginning. Her story kicked the whole thing off, and she rocked the audience, getting them to cheer and laugh and sigh with her story about learning martial arts as a very young girl and then daring to challenge her mother. I have heard about martial arts being based on various animals – white cranes, monkeys, praying mantis – I wonder if any are based on mother bears? Carol was about to find out that no martial art is a match for a mother anything…
Darci Tucker, in full costume, played an amazing historical character. She researched the life of a young woman who fought in the Revolutionary War against England. She dressed as a young man, and though the other soldiers wondered why “he” never needed to shave, “he” passed and fought valiantly. He was wounded, and, rather than be discovered as a woman, dug the musket ball out of his own leg with a large knife.
I was next. I remember starting my story, and then faltering for a moment. I hadn’t been in front of a live, in-person audience for a while because of Covid, and so, to jump up in front of 1,700 people was a big leap back into in-person shows. But Sheila was there, my new cohort was there, and the audience was all smiles. It was all love, and it cut through the fog that had flooded my mind. My steady companion – my story about the old man – was ready to meet my new friends, and out it came. I have found that telling an older story like this is more rewarding when I am reworking parts of it, making the story new again, sharper… I am learning to get to the story faster. I know that initially I seem meek and rather unsure of myself, which makes the explosive, faster pace really crackle when I get to it, but I want to get to it sooner. So, that’s what I was doing with this version of the story – getting right to the old man in the forest.
One of my favorite moments was when I turned to the side to dramatize how I told the man, “Hello, I love you,” as a way of saying goodbye to him. It happens in the part of the story where I leave the jungle to head to Jakarta because I wasn’t getting any letters from my girlfriend. This was the part of the story where the line “Hello, I love you” begins to take on more meaning to me… it is no longer an incomprehensible mishmash of words said by an inscrutable man in the forest. It is starting to resonate with its literal meaning… it is starting to convey something about a deep love between people who share hardship and loneliness together. And… as I said, “Hello, I love you,” there, in my line of sight was Alton Chung.
As I saw Alton’s face beaming back at me, I realized that I have another mentor. For the past year, he has been there for me, truly comforting me when my mother-in-law passed away, truly sympathetic to my life as a full time teacher trying to take on storytelling as well, and truly appreciative of how complicated the storytelling world, especially NSN, can be. It was like all the advice he had given me suddenly ticked off in my head at that moment, and, when I saw that he was not only enjoying the story but also seemed to be proud of me, there was a second rush of confidence. I have been zooming with Alton every week since January to plan NSN’s “Haunted” event, and to work on content for the new e-Publication, The Story Beast, which Alton is editing along with Rachel Hedman, Vel Weiss, and Asia Star. We haven’t really talked about performing directly, but I suddenly realized that he has been slowly instilling bits of wisdom here and there. I haven’t really delved into the body of work that Alton has produced… but that afternoon, just prior to the show, I had gone to the Marketplace where my books were put on sale, and next to my books was an entire section devoted to Alton and the work he has done. I have been zooming every week with one of the Jonesborough legends, and now he was smiling proudly at me on the stage. This was a moment I won’t ever forget.
Now, the watermelons. If I could choose any of the cohort to be closest to me in the Bay Area, it would be MJ Kang, who resides in Los Angeles. She was the glue for our group, and I think everyone probably wishes she were living close to them. There is a powerful joy that radiates from her, and I think MJ and her stories may be the closest thing to a cure for depression. She managed to make going to the supermarket to buy watermelons into a heroic quest in which everything was put on the line. Her humor was radiant and bright, and, most of all, uplifting. Her joy was as powerful as the force it takes to hold five watermelons at once – two in her backpack, one in each hand, and one squeezed between her legs. As Sheila said after the story, that is an image we should all keep in our minds.
Sheila had changed the order of the tellers, but then was told she had to leave it the way the program listed it. Somehow the order seemed perfect. Morgen “Mo” Reynold was next, and her fusion story, “Sleeping Beauty” blended with a personal tale of doubts about marriage, was a great way to bring the audience to the climax of performance energy. Mo popped back and forth between herself and a rather saucy rendition of a princess who pricks her finger. She brings reality to Sleeping Beauty (bad breath after a long nap), and fantasy to reality (the mundane quality of life’s petty pace (toasters and jobs) can be an enchanted thornbush at which the best of us keep hacking away. This was truly one of the best uses of blending stories together so that one story illuminates the other, so that the fairy tale adds insight to life, and life provides a new reading of the fairy tale. I was pretty speechless when Mo finished. Truly masterful.
Sufian Zhemukhov was next, and he was the perfect landing for the set. His even delivery and consistent tone contrasted beautifully with the raucous laughter that he produced in the audience. So many of Sufian’s pithy observations deserve to be on bumper stickers (“the oppressive silence that settles in when extroverts quit speaking”) and his use of understatement and diminuendo (“Margarita is successful, creative, and has a sophisticated haircut”) and the genuine, playful curiosity about America, which led him to enter a gun store and buy a turkey whistle, made the audience root for him from the get go and share in the power of his message about Ukrainians and Russians uniting in love, and Conservatives and Liberals being civil to one another.
I didn’t want the evening to end. It was magic. Our pumpkin carriage arrived… a train of golf carts… and, sent off by Bil Lepp and Antonio Rocha, we were driven to the dining hall where we received an ovation from the Jonesborough greats – Andy Irwin, Donald Davis, Ed Stivender, Elizabeth Ellis, and many more. What a dream.
The next morning at breakfast, I started sawing through my biscuits and gravy like I was hacking through a thornbush. I was coming down from the high of the evening before. But then, there was a hand on my shoulder, and it was Alton. We ate together, and Alton came into focus as the mentor has been all along. He had advice, encouragement, insight… but mostly assurance that storytelling was happening in my life. As we chatted, Sufian appeared (already wrapped in an immaculate blue suit), and began a series of observations about the biscuits and gravy that were as hilarious as his description of picking blueberries with Margarita. And then Carol came in… with her mother! And then, there was MJ. We weren’t eating hard biscuits with greasy gravy anymore; we were all standing and smiling with one another as if we each held a watermelon in one hand and were squeezing one between our legs. No… the Exchange Place was far from over… it has just begun.
It is my hope that the next big event I am headed to, when those nerves and butterflies begin to take away my appetite and start to cause that relentless suffering of performance anxiety, I won’t only have my story to reassure me. I hope that it will be one of my five fast friends – Carol, MJ, Darci, Mo, and Sufian – joining me at the event, and with that thought, rather than dreading my performance, I will be counting the minutes before I get to be reunited with them on the stage.
Exchange Place at College Street Tent on Friday, October 7, 2022. 50 Years National Storytelling Festival, Jonesborough, Tennessee. October 7-9, 2022