The ISC’s Gamble

Art of Storytelling

The bankruptcy of the International Storytelling Center is a sad affair and a concern to all citizens of Jonesborough, who recognize the great cultural and economic contributions that the Center and its programming bring to the town. For storytellers and storytelling proponents around the country and the world, however, it is a tragedy in the ancient sense, a drama in which the protagonists have pushed to an avoidable yet seemingly inevitable crisis. As a citizen of Jonesborough, a chronicler of the history of the storytelling movement, a past board member of the National Storytelling Network (NSN), and longtime supporter of both ISC and the National Festival, I would like to recount a version of this story which may help to fill some gaps in the narrative framed so far for the local press and public. In storytelling, point of view is all-important, and the tale is heard quite differently beyond the watershed of Little Limestone Creek.

For the first twenty years of its existence, the Storytelling Festival was produced by a hard-working partnership of storytellers from around the country who made up the Board of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS), then the name of the single national storytelling organization, and the local staff. These bonds of affection, collaboration, and mutual respect among town leaders, citizens, and the storytellers who flocked here to showcase their art, have constituted the beating heart of the event, and the characteristic that made it not simply a local affair but genuinely a “National Storytelling Festival.”

By the early ‘90s, the storytellers had gradually ceded production responsibilities to the staff, but not before setting the event’s enduring standards of content and form, which staff had by this time learned to faithfully reproduce. Then, in 1998, as the priorities of staff remained consistently focused on local economic development, all parties determined that it would be advantageous to separate into two semi-autonomous organizations. The tasks of serving the broader interests of storytellers around the nation were assumed by the National Storytelling Network, while the job of producing the National Storytelling Festival and of building it a permanent base was the principal focus of the Center. As the organizational body of the storytellers who had laid the foundations of the Festival, however, NSN members retained co-ownership, in effect a co-authorship stake, embodied in a royalty of 18% of gross festival revenues.

ISC’s current position is that NSN has done nothing since the split to earn and justify this royalty payment. There are three important points to consider in this regard:

First, this argument is equivalent to a publisher who reprints and markets a co-author’s book, and who asserts after a decade or so that the partner has done nothing further to justify their rights, so the publisher should now assume all benefits of authorship. This is not the norm in intellectual property law, and only the emergency circumstances of the bankruptcy proceeding allow ISC to even suggest it.

Second, while the storytellers and staff who make up NSN may have offered a great many contributions to keeping the festival fresh and responsive to the changing worlds of contemporary storytelling, these would-be contributions have been largely ignored by the Center. The broad experience of NSN membership at the grassroots frontiers of storytelling nationwide remains a huge untapped creative potential for the event.

Third, according to ISC’s own public filings the Festival itself is still a lucrative enterprise even in lean years. It is not, however, profitable enough to support the enormous debt-load assumed by the Center on behalf of its building. The NSN agreement is the gnat that ISC publicly strains against while swallowing its real estate camel.

The residue of loyalty and affection on the part of storytellers around the country towards the town and the festival is deep but not bottomless, and has been drained by the ongoing campaign of hostilities carried on by ISC in court and in the press. If ISC had come to NSN as a partner under duress, shared its difficult financial situation and asked in good faith for relief and re-negotiation of the Festival contract, I am confident that NSN would have responded with good will. It will be tough, however, for that good will to survive the sense of injury engendered by the unilateral actions of the Center, and by the insults added by Town attorneys’ claims that Jonesborough alone is fit to run the Festival in contrast to the artists who designed it and directed it for two decades. How can a National Storytelling Festival that demonstrates this level of disregard toward its storytellers and toward its own history also hope to retain the integrity of its brand? And what profit the Festival if it gains its entire gross and in the bargain loses its soul?

To the storytelling world beyond Little Limestone, ISC may appear like a poker player going for all the chips, without consideration of hands already played nor those yet to come. Now that NSN has officially folded its opposition to vacating its contracts with ISC, I fear that any short-term victory achieved this way may finally be enough to turn ISC’s support beyond this local game into a house of cards. That would be a hollow victory indeed for ISC, for Jonesborough, and for Storytelling. Are there any cooler heads around who might know when to shuffle the deck and deal for a better hand for all concerned?

Joseph Sobol is the author of The Storytellers’ Journey: AN AMERICAN REVIVAL, a history of the National Storytelling Festival and the contemporary storytelling movement.

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The facts in this article have been vetted by Eric Wolf as accurate. We welcome other perspectives that hold true to the facts. In particular we welcome anyone who wishes to represent the perspectives of the those who support the current actions of the ISC.

4 Comments

  • By Sara Armstrong, June 14, 2011 @ 12:53 am

    Thank you, Joseph, for stating the case so clearly. And thank you, Eric, for sharing the story.

  • By Rafe Martin, June 16, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    Thanks guys! (Joseph and Eric.) Tough situation. Lots of sadness. Good clarifications. One hopes for the best — before it’s too late.

  • By Gwenda LedBetter, July 13, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    This is clear and good info to pass on to those (there are a lot) who do not understand what’s going on.Thanks Joseph.

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