By Becky Ball/Special to The Oak Ridger
Posted Jun 5, 2018 at 8:26 PM
Would you believe that while the three Oak Ridge Rotary Clubs were pumping up Flatwater Tales — their first storytelling festival — we learned that quite recently, “storytelling” had persisted perhaps for many thousands of years, and thus became a critical part of archaeology. Recent digs discovered ancient civilizations that had encountered massive floods. Stories of the floods passed on by the few survivors have long been considered as myths.
Once upon a Sunday night (though not dark and stormy) at the Oak Ridge Playhouse, three internationally acclaimed storytellers picked up from their afternoon gigs and put on quite another show. They proved beyond any hesitation that storytelling is not a lost art. So, already the shape of water — Flatwater that is — is alive and well.
On hand Sunday night was Kiran Singh Sirah, president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn. He got a rise from the audience with his biscuit commercial and pep talk. From his remarks, we learned that attendance at the Jonesborough storytelling festivals average around 30,000 people. Side bar: Flatwater Tales was my introduction to this style of fine art, and I am more than ready to join the cheerleading team.
Reynold Price tells us that the need to tell and hear stories is “essential, second only to nourishment.” This late celebrated author and long-time Duke University English professor believed that “millions may survive without love or home, but almost none in silence, because the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative.”
This whiff of information leads us to Tim Lowry’s multi-layered opening narrative, which was a perfect example of the three commandments of storytelling: Thou shalt start with a setup, then follow with a confrontation, and finally end with a good resolution.
Lowry, speaking in many weird Charleston dialects, was a hoot, juggling the dialects with amazing speed and skill. While he spilled his “find-thyself” yarns, we were noticing his self-confident demeanor, somewhat like the smooth actor in the National Car Rental commercial. And if you ever meet Lowry, ask him about Shakespeare and his Mom. It wasn’t for nothing that Lowry got to play King Herod at age 6 because he showed his Sunday School teacher that he could look really mean.
Minton Sparks is a “wildly original poet performance artist, novelist, teacher and essayist.” Her acts mixed comedy with something a little more poignant and dark. Our laughter at times would slowly turn into tears, not so much for the content as for the sheer artistry of the performers. Sparks has a musical accompanist named John Jackson, and he is magnificent with the guitar and banjo. His brilliant improvisations were just right for Sparks’ poetic utterances, all pitched and timed beautifully. We heard exclamation points, especially on the obituary that “got it all wrong,” but we also heard nostalgia in their songs too. Sparks used her body and feet very well — a little shuffle here, a bigger shuffle there, and a bit of soft percussion everywhere. Her voice of many colors and Jackson’s understated accompaniment were meant for each other.
What can we say about the unsurpassed Bill Lepp? Well for starters, he won West Virginia’s Liars Contest five times, and he is a favorite among people who like to laugh a lot. His body language and posture make us laugh before he opens his mouth. Do not ever ask this man to tell you a shaggy dog joke unless you want to die laughing, as his story literally picks up steam and grows and grows and grows. Women be advised not to wear eye makeup because at some point you are surely going to laugh until you cry.
It took a village of hardworking Rotarians to make this first annual Flatwater Tales such a success. Emily Jernigan, chairwoman of the event, thanked everybody under the sun except herself for a job well done. Bravo to all! See you next year.
Becky Ball is a reviewer for The Oak Ridger.