Storytelling Is a Sacred Space 

by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah


You may have heard me say that storytelling, as a format and a practice, is always evolving. I think back to the early years of the National Storytelling Festival, when almost all of our performances took place in living rooms, on front porches, and in other small, intimate gatherings across Jonesborough. Our audience has grown exponentially since then, but the Festival has maintained that warm, intimate atmosphere under its big-top tents. There is incredible power in the act of thousands of people coming together to simply listen.

Over the last two years, as ISC has expanded our digital platform in response to the pandemic, we have found ourselves in the interesting and unexpected position of coming full circle and being invited back into people’s living rooms (albeit via screens).

It’s an interesting paradox to consider this intimacy in our era of “Zoom burnout.” We often think of digital experiences as distanced or removed from real life. But there is also, undeniably, a certain intimacy that comes from being invited into someone’s home—and in meeting people where they are. When you’re wearing a blazer over pajama pants to the team meeting or trying to give a presentation with your kids in the next room, these unusual contexts may help you see things in a different light.

I’ve been reflecting on this idea more as we’ve been unwinding from the excitement of the 49thannual Festival: how, at ISC, we think of our digital experiences as different from (not lesser than) the in-person performances we host.

Professional storytellers often talk about how each performance has an element of collaboration with the audience. As audience members, we don’t just passively receive a story, as though we’re watching a movie; we participate in its creation as we imagine other worlds. Much of our work at ISC over the last couple of years has involved reimagining the logistics of how we come together to perform these acts of imagination.

I often describe storytelling as a sacred act because it has real power to bring people together. At ISC, we’ve been giving a lot of thought to what “together” really means as we consider the future of our digital tools in the post-pandemic world. How can we maintain and grow our sacred partnership with our audience when we’re not necessarily meeting in person, face to face?

Certainly, we’re looking forward to the opportunity to meet in person again in 2022 for the 50th anniversary of the Festival. But we’re also thinking about how to build and strengthen new connections with people who can’t necessarily come to see us in person, and how to leverage the different kind of intimacy that comes from being invited into someone’s living room.

It may be that different formats have different gifts to offer. With our digital platform, the emphasis is on our tellers, who are themselves often performing in their living rooms. Everyone in the audience has an equally good “seat.” A person watching in Jonesborough can see the performer’s facial expressions just as clearly as someone who’s abroad. That puts the artist, the craft, and the tradition of storytelling itself in focus, which inspires a different form of paying attention than the quiet communal atmosphere of sitting under a tent in Jonesborough. Both experiences are valid—and both are valuable.

I’m excited by the idea of reclaiming a bit of digital space for storytelling. In so many ways, the Internet has stifled stories. Real people’s struggles and hopes and dreams rarely fit into 280 characters. Headlines convey information at the expense of the details that help us understand someone else’s life. Scrolling down or swiping right are forms of escape that can make us feel alienated and isolated from the people with whom we’re closest.

At ISC, we believe that the real meaning of “engagement” isn’t about getting clicks. It’s about authentic insights that resonate in our everyday lives.  We believe that when we use the Internet to transcend borders, time, and space, it should always be in the service of enriching our lives.

Our days are filled with upsetting news and difficult decisions, which create a lot of mental “noise.” In this environment, it can be difficult to carve out any opportunity and space for reflection and respite.

But stories give us exactly that.

One of the beautiful things about storytelling is how it can spark different ideas in different people. For one person listening, a story might be a sweet reminder of someone they knew long ago. For another person, it may describe a lifestyle they never would have imagined. A story can introduce you to a new idea or it can reaffirm who you are and what you believe in. It can provide comfort, foster healing, or find forgiveness. And perhaps above all, a story can be a reminder on dark days that a better time is soon to come.

From our front porch to yours (literally and metaphorically), ISC is always looking for new ways to connect people who inspire one another. We each see the world from a different vantage, and all of them are necessary to build a better world.