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Volume 24, Number 10 — November 2017

Yarn Exchange tells tales live & on radio


"I am Home" was the impetus for the formation of the Yarn Exchange.

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | September 26, 2017

The Yarn Exchange in Jonesborough, Tennessee, at six years old, is a relative newcomer to the local storytelling scene. It began in 2011, as an offshoot of the community performance play, "I Am Home."

"In 2011, the International Storytelling Center, along with the Town of Jonesborough and a generous donation from Jim Martin and Sonia King, produced the community performance play, "I Am Home.' The intention of this theatrical production was to bring people together through their shared stories and create a stronger bond in the community. The large cast of nearly 80 actors of all ages, performed in what is now the McKinney Center for the Arts, before the renovation, and offered a glimpse of what might be possible for that building," says Jules Corriere, founding member.

"The play also gave a glimpse of what might be possible if community members, young and old, from different backgrounds and cultural experiences, came together to tell their stories — the result being the creation of a diverse, intentional community, dedicated to telling and understanding their stories in order to preserve heritage, share history and come together as one. This group became the Jonesborough Yarn Exchange."

After the play ended, the group decided they wanted to stay together. So they held a series of conversations to discover a way to stay together. They agreed to try a version of a monthly "old-time radio show," so only one or two rehearsals would be necessary, as cast members would perform from a script.

"This scripted, one-hour radio show, somewhat in the format of "Prairie Home Companion,' utilizes real stories from real places in the region. Six years later, the cast has grown exponentially. We have sold out nearly all of our performances in 2017 at the International Storytelling Center, and for four years now have been broadcast on WETS 89.5 FM on the last Wednesday of each month at 8 p.m. The program also streams at the same time on wets.org on HD channel 1.

"This group became a real community. What holds a community together is a common understanding and respect for each participant. This understanding and respect has come from knowing one another through their shared stories and having the opportunity to stand in someone else's shoes, and tell the stories of someone else, perhaps someone very different from themselves. This has a powerful impact on participants. They are given the unique gift of seeing through someone else's eyes. It develops empathy for others and deepens the level of understanding between cast members. That is powerful and difficult to walk away from. It also makes it appealing to others who want to join.

"We are the stories we tell. We know who we are, what we believe in, and where we come from, by the stories we tell. Much more than an entertaining way to spend the night, gathered around the fire under the stars — our stories contain within them our cultural beliefs and taboos and define our social contract. Our stories share what we value, what we fight for, what we live for. They are important to us, because without our stories, we would not know ourselves as part of a community — whether it be a cultural community, geographic community, national community, religious community, etc. We humans depend on the community structure for survival, and the architectural keystone is story. A community is made of people who share a common story," Corriere says.

The sense of community and the power of stories reach back to his childhood.

"When I was growing up, my father, a military man, was also an historian and archaeologist. Wherever we were stationed, he'd participate in excavations at historical sites, and he'd often bring me with him on his digs. I remember the excitement as artifacts would be discovered, and how, with every little piece of something that was found, there was a story behind it.

"As I grew older, I started doing similar work, but instead of digging in mud and clay for stories about our history and culture, I mined this information from living people. I met and began working with Jo Carson and Richard Owen Geer, a playwright and a director who were doing community performance projects that dealt with oral stories. This would become my life's work, because I realized the power it had in building and shaping communities, as people came to know each other more deeply by performing and listening to their shared stories. The wisdom, history, heritage and culture of these communities are handed down in these stories that get presented on stage. They are still alive, and with each story that is performed, I feel the same excitement as I did when a pottery shard or a piece of a carved bone comb was pulled from the hard earth. With each story, I know something more about where I come from," he says.

Corriere collects oral stories from people — or in most cases, memories or bits and pieces of memories. Most of the time, these interviews do not come to him as a cohesive story, but a recollection of thoughts that may be somewhat related. His job is to weave those disjointed thoughts into a compelling story or theatrical piece for the radio or stage.

What he enjoys most about this is the chance to write or tell someone's personal experience, and bring awareness to someone's situation, or to celebrate incredible achievement.

"I often stand at the edge of the audience and watch, if someone whose story I gathered is there, just to see the reaction of having their story witnessed by others. I wrote a play using a story from a survivor of Auschwitz. He'd not told of his experience before, not even to his family. But, as a story collector, he told me. I think he chose me, because he saw me as a step removed from his social circle. There was a certain safety for him, in telling me, where he had not been able to tell his own family. Protecting his family from hurt and pain was very important to him, as it was something that was taken away from him at a young age, when both of his parents were murdered at the camps. As his story was told, I saw something on his face — it wasn't sadness, it was something else. There were tears, but there was something I'd describe, perhaps, as a recognition and release.

"I asked him about it after the show, and he said this performance let him finally be outside of his own story. It allowed him to realize that it was important for him to tell it and for others to hear. The performance showed him that there were so many people who wanted to know about his experience, and that education, above all else, would be a reason to tell his story more. He went on to tell his story in person to schoolchildren and to adult organizations around his home of Newport News, Virginia, in order to educate them about history. He found empowerment through listening to his own story on stage, and that moment provided a big lesson to me on the importance of story."

Anyone is welcome to join. Corriere suggests coming to one of their performances, to get a sense of the cast and community and the work they do. Give a cast member your contact information, and you will be contacted about participating. Because the shows are monthly, there are ongoing opportunities to participate. Members do not need to be in every show, and the schedule is flexible.

The Yarn Exchange Radio Show, is performed at the International Storytelling Center the fourth Monday of each month at 7 p.m.

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Topics: Storytelling