By LISA WHALEY
Libby Shelton Tipton knows how to tell a story.
“I grew up with deaf parents,” Tipton explained. “So my career has been as a sign language interpreter.”
A Unicoi County native and current resident of Flag Pond, she recognized early on the power of the communicated word.
More importantly, she said, she understood that her Appalachian story was one that needed to be told.
“There was this whole little community that was just plopped down in the middle of the mountains that was so unique,” Tipton said of her childhood home. “I had to be the one to tell my story about my family and that culture of deaf people within Flag Pond.”
Tipton has been a practicing storyteller since 2004, sharing stories not only of her Appalachian home, but also folk tales, fairy tales and historical tales, as well as a special series on domestic violence.
She is also the president of the Jonesborough Storytellers Guild, a regional collection of storytellers that will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
“We consider ourselves the best kept secret in Jonesborough,” Tipton said with a smile.
Often overshadowed by its bigger, flashier cousin – the International Storytelling Center, with whom, Tipton stressed, they have an amazing collaborative relationship — JSG has been quietly fostering the art of storytelling since 1994.
Formed originally as a way of guaranteeing weekly storytelling performances in Jonesborough throughout the year, the guild has grown from seven to 62 members and has also broadened its impact, all the while maintaining its weekly Tuesday night storytelling performance offerings for the community.
According to founding member Linda Poland, the guild now currently does everything from mentoring to outreach.
“We have so many outreach programs,” Poland said. “ At Franklin Woods. The Crumley House.”
The guild also supports upcoming tellers through grant programs and various mentorships.
That doesn’t mean it has always been easy, said Poland, who first came to storytelling by following her photographer father into the Everglades to listen to stories from the Miccosukee Indians.
“We’ve had our bumps, I’m telling you,” she said of the guild. “There have been four different times that the guild was in such a lull.”
But new blood has continued to keep the guild going, she said — that and its ongoing purpose to bring storytelling to the community.
That’s why the guild is so proud to be celebrating 25 years, members say.
“One of the things we’re doing for the 25th celebration is have tellers come back who have been a part of our guild at some point, but life took them somewhere else,” said Rebecca Alexander, a JSG member, inspirational storyteller and the chair for the 25th anniversary celebration. These performances will be scattered throughout the year, as will the entire celebration.
But members are especially excited about the event planned for May 7. Set on the day of their regularly scheduled Tuesday performances, the day will feature a dinner planned for 5 p.m. at the Historic Eureka Inn for JSG members, both current and former, prior to the 7 p.m. show,
After dinner, Alexander said, everyone will cross the street to the ISC for a special performance by Joseph Sobol, storyteller, music-maker, folklorist and author, who will be back from Wales to share his tales.
Cost for the performance this and every Tuesday is still just $5 for adults and $3 for students.
This week, May 5-11, has also been proclaimed by the Town of Jonesborough as JSG week.
Other upcoming events as part of the 25th anniversary celebration include:
• JSG’s participation in the Jonesborough Days 4th of July Parade
• An anniversary Tellabration on Sunday, Nov. 17, from 2-4 at the McKinney Center.
Of course for Alexander, Poland and Tipton, the greatest part of the celebration is continuing to be able share stories and to encourage others to recognize the value of their own stories.
For Tipton, this rings true every morning as she looks in the mirror.
“I was interpreting for a class in the summer institute with Elizabeth Ellis,” said Tipton, who refers to Ellis as “the grandmother of storytelling.”
“She has lots of words of wisdom and guidance for up-and-coming storytellers,” Tipton explained.
Tipton, who was alternating with another interpreter at the event, was sitting in the back of the room when Ellis began to share the tale of a “Tom,” who would get up each morning, look in the mirror and say “I am a musician. What do I want to do about it?”
The story, Tipton said, “was about that confirmation within yourself about what you want to be in your life.”
Ellis then went on to share that she too gets up every morning, looks in the mirror and says, “I am a storyteller. What am I going to do about it?”
“Cold chills just ran all over my body because I realized, yeah, there are lots of amazing storytellers and everyone has a story to tell even if they are not trained. We all have stories and we tell them every day,” Tipton said. “It was then that I realized that people could not tell my story.”
It was, she said, life changing.
“Now when I doubt,” Tipton said, “I look in the mirror and say, ‘I am a storyteller. . .”
For more information about the Jonesborough Storytellers Guild’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, call (423) 956-7868.