The first time Suzi Whaples sat under the giant tents at the National Storytelling Festival, it did not occur to her that she would one day take the stage herself.
Then a librarian, the future storyteller soaked up the stories of some of the world’s most prestigious talebearers.
“I had gone to Jonesborough for years and years and years before I ever dreamed of being a storyteller,” she says. “When I joined the library world, we went to Jonesborough to see the storytellers at the storytelling festival. And I was just wowed by the whole thing. It was amazing to me. I just fell in love with so many of the storytellers. I never dreamed that someday I would be in on that stage.”
As the next teller in residence for the International Storytelling Center’s Storytelling Live! concert series, Whaples will perform a week’s worth of matinee performances Oct. 11-15. All shows begin at 2 p.m. in the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, an intimate theater in the heart of the ISC in Jonesborough.
Whaples began to dip into story as a librarian who shared local lore with the children during special summertime programming.
“We were really trying to promote our state,” she explains. “West Virginia gets so many slams. People oftentimes make fun of us, saying we’re hillbillies and all that. And I wanted the children to know we have a wonderful history. Our ancestors were so smart, such intelligent people that they could survive in the woods without anything. They learned to build homes and raise families and even take care of their health issues just using plants and berries and whatever nature provided.”
“I wanted to instill some kind of pride in them that they were from Appalachia,” she continues. “And that’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a wonderful thing.”
A roaring success with the kids, Whaples began to tour the South with a few fellow mountain women part-time on the weekends.
“One time we were at an elementary school in Florida where they had 2,500 students and they spoke 37 different languages,” she says. “I said, ‘What in the world are we doing here? We don’t hardly speak English, much less what all these kids speak. They won’t understand mountain talk.’”
As it turned out, her worries were misplaced and the performance was a hit.
That success is what gave Whaples the courage to pursue storytelling full time when she developed a mold allergy that tore her away from her beloved job at the library. As a one-woman act, her focus turned inward, and she began to share personal stories about her family sprinkled with the Appalachian lore she loved so much.
“I got a call to appear at Jonesborough,” she says, a hint of wonder in her voice. “When the Lord opens a door, he doesn’t half-open one. He just throws it open. I went right into being a featured teller as a new voice.
“I got a standing ovation,” she continues. “Me! By myself! It was overwhelming. I was standing on that stage and I had to fight back tears because I was like, that’s where I watched Kathryn Windham. This is where I watched Jackie Torrence. This is where I watched Donald Davis and all the wonderful storytellers that I’ve heard down through the years. I sat there where they were sitting and I admired them.
“To think that someone may feel that way about me? Oh my. It’s just wonderful.”
Tickets for her performances are $12 for adults and $11 for seniors, students and children under 18. Availability is limited, and reservations are highly recommended. Ticket stubs will save audience members 10 percent on same-day dining at Bistro 105, The Cranberry Thistle, The Dining Room or Main Street Café.
The International Storytelling Center is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Storytelling Live! is sponsored by Mountain States Health Alliance and Phil Bachman Toyota Scion. Media sponsors are News 5-WCYB, FOX Tri-Cities, Tri-Cities CW4, Johnson City Press, Kingsport Times-News and Citadel Broadcasting.
A detailed schedule of the remaining 2011 Storytelling Live! season is available at storytellingcenter.net.
For more information about Storytelling Live! or to make a group reservation, call (800) 952-8392 ext. 222 or (423) 913-1276.