(Picture: Storyteller Sheila Arnold, Photo: Rob Craighurst)
When was the last time you heard a good story? Not as a solitary encounter with a good book or a Netflix binge, but directly from the mouth of another human being? Was it a one-on-one encounter, or were you in the company of others? Did it transport you into the teller’s world, their perspective, their worldview? Did it connect you with a community of people beyond yourself, or help you understand the world in a new way, or imagine a different future?
Storytelling is an art common to every culture, and every culture has its own stories that shape reality, teach lessons, and help us understand who we are and our place in the universe. Celebration of Tales, a fiscally sponsored joint plan of work partner with Virginia Organizing, is a once-annual storytelling festival in Charlottesville that showcases tellers and tales that do that work of imagination. It had its first event in the summer of 2023. The festival gives audiences an opportunity to hear stories from across cultures and learn how to spin a good yarn themselves.
Long-time Virginia Organizing supporter, John Alexander, started the festival with the aim of creating a more diverse, inclusive stage, where tellers who have been historically marginalized from white dominated arts spaces can have an opportunity to be heard. According to one participant, the 2023 event was the most diverse festival they’d ever been part of, both in the slate of tellers and audience.
“I believe that humans are naturally storytelling and story demanding,” Alexander says. “I don’t imagine a future when that will not be true, or a day when a community that appreciates powerful storytelling will not be hungry for a storyteller’s gifts and a demand for the fantastically engaging ways that storytellers teach us how to tell our own stories with ever greater impact.”
While stories often are “fantastical,” Alexander points out that a good story is also specific and grounded in real-life. As an example, he relates a story about Wovoka, the Paiute prophet who originated the Ghost Dance, a story he learned in written form through We Survived the End of the World, by Steven Charleston. Years after the Wounded Knee Massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and supposedly broke the back of Native American resistance to colonization, Wovoka, the story says, surreptitiously slipped a chunk of red ochre into the pocket of an actor starring in a new Western, whispering, “I will never die.” It is a story about a simple act of resistance to erasure. Passed down from teller to teller, it dramatizes the ways Native American movements of rejuvenation persist to this day.
In 2023, the event featured six headline storytellers, workshops, stories for children, and an open mic where amateur storytellers could practice their voice. Even as a once-annual event, the festival is a year-round endeavor requiring hard, intentional effort to achieve its goals and to keep the flywheel turning to propel it from one year to the next.
“I will feel that my mission is accomplished when a storytelling festival is so actively supported in Charlottesville that it seems to organize itself, and the community that supports it enjoys the day and anxiously anticipates the next year’s offering,” Alexander says.
The first event was sustained by over fifty donors, the energy of over two dozen volunteers, and an audience that exceeded 100 people throughout the day. If you want to be part of the fun in 2024, the next festival will take place on July 13. You can find more information and purchase tickets here. We hope to see you there!