UPDATED: COVID-19 forces 2020 Storytelling Festival to go virtual

The 2020 National Storytelling Festival will not take place in the streets of downtown Jonesborough this year, but it will still be held — virtually, of course.

“We’re not canceling anything, we’re actually just creating new formats,” said International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah. “We’re seeing it as an opportunity to continue our work, so we can have the bigger event when we invite people back.”

The decision to move to a virtual festival was made after months of discussions about how to hold the festival safely, before they ultimately decided that would not be possible during a pandemic.

“It really came down to the essential part of this, and that’s that it’s just not safe,” Singh Sirah said, explaining why they decided to not hold the festival in-person this year. “That is the reason why.”

“It essentially came down to, eventually, it’s the safety of our public, our staff, our community, storytellers and visitors — and that’s our No. 1 priority from the beginning,” he continued. “The primary decision was based on that.”

The annual festival, which brings thousands to Jonesborough, accounts for 80% of the ISC’s funding, and about $8 million in local economic impact. Singh Sirah said that the center itself has been smart and spent sensibly over the past few years, but said it will need to be careful going forward.

Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest called the decision “disappointing,” but said he understood.

“I’m sure the uncertain future and necessity of advance planning led to that tough decision, but with the risks in travel and more vulnerable attendees, I do understand.”

In response to the festival’s move online, the Jonesborough Barrel House announced on Facebook that it will host its own “Fall Fling Festival” on Oct. 3.

Singh Sirah said he and the center leadership have had discussions almost daily as they worked to figure out how, or if, a 2020 National Storytelling Festival could be held, sending out surveys to regular attendees and asking performers how they’d feel about traveling to the festival. Ultimately, with the tellers saying they wouldn’t be comfortable traveling or being around large groups, the decision was made to change the format.

“We asked storytellers if they would feel safe traveling, and many said no,” Singh Sirah said. “We had to put all these things into question while thinking about what we can do.”

And while Singh Sirah knows a virtual festival won’t come close to replacing the intimate experience of the traditional festival, he hopes to use this year as a way to share the festival with more people, and hopefully have an even larger event in 2021.

“This has kind of forced us into an opportunity to create virtual programming, and go do it well, and do it the best we can,” Singh Sirah said. “And not do it as a replacement for the real event — the real event will always be an in-person festival, that is a sacred component of storytelling — but let’s use the digital (festival) to invite the world, grow awareness and use it almost like marketing and tell the world that we exist, and then invite them back in 2021.

“It’s not going to replace the festival, but we’re still imagining — it’s new for us, so it’s a story in progress,” he later added.

Singh Sirah said they haven’t quite worked out all the details of how they’ll host the festival virtually, and they’re “still working through the process of what that’s going to look like,” with the idea to “help tell the story of what we do normally” in a new way.

“Now we can sort of expand (our of) our region, and help tell the story of our region to the world,” Singh Sirah said.

More details about the virtual festival will be released later this summer, as will registration information. The ISC has also set up a frequently asked questions page, which can be accessed at https://www.storytellingcenter.net/festival/festival-ticket-reimbursement-faqs/.

“While this situation is unique in our 48-year history, it’s helpful to consider it in the context of storytelling as an ancient tradition that has adapted and evolved through all our world’s most wild and traumatic events. In the spirit of that long history, we are hopeful, optimistic, and excited to push the boundaries of how we can share this art form digitally,” Singh Sirah said in a statement.

“We see this unusual opportunity to expand the Festival’s reach to all sorts of new eyes and ears this autumn.”

Previously reported: The 2020 National Storytelling Festival has been canceled. 

“As an organization paying close attention to the rapidly changing health guidelines around COVID-19, (International Storytelling Center’s) leadership has had many discussions about how to safely produce an event that brings together so many people from around the world in one place,” a statement read. “Ultimately, the conclusion is that the risks are not tenable.”

The event will move to a digital form, with some storytelling sessions beginning in July.

“While this situation is unique in our 48-year history,” ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah said in a statement. “It’s helpful to consider it in the context of storytelling as an ancient tradition that has adapted and evolved through all our world’s most wild and traumatic events. In the spirit of that long history, we are hopeful, optimistic, and excited to push the boundaries of how we can share this art form digitally. We see this unusual opportunity to expand the Festival’s reach to all sorts of new eyes and ears this autumn.”

More details about the digital format will be available later this summer, as will information on how to register. The event will still take place the first week in October.