By Mary Ann Anderson, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
9:06 AM EST, February 6, 2012
LAGRANGE, Ga. — Once upon a time in a village called LaGrange in a kingdom called Georgia, there was a storytelling festival named after a beautiful flower called an azalea. From all across the land, men and women would gather, often bringing their little ones, to hear stories kindled by humor, nostalgia, a commitment to preserving history, and perhaps best of all the imagination.
And that just what the Azalea Storytelling Festival is all about. Held in the western Georgia town of LaGrange, about an hour's drive southwest of Atlanta, the festival is now in its 16th year. Named as one of the Southeast Tourism Society's Top Twenty Events, the festival, to be held March 2-4 at the Callaway Auditorium on the campus of LaGrange College, pays homage to a craft that is as old as the hills.
Drawing an audience from across the United States, the festival features appearances by nationally known storytellers as Andy Orfitt Irwin, Bil Lepp, Syd Liberman, Kevin Kling, and Barbara McBride Smith.
The festival is diverse, with comedy, drama, ghost stories, poetry and more, but it is also as much about Southern hospitality as it is the storytelling, says Laura Jennings, LaGrange-Troup County tourism director.
"We treasure the Azalea Storytelling Festival for its tourism impact," says Jennings.
She says the Georgia Council for the Arts honored the festival this year with a grant in recognition of this grassroots event, which has become a key player on the national storytelling scene.
But is a storytelling festival for everyone?
Jennings has an answer for that, too. "If somebody isn't sure they will like storytelling, I encourage them to try it out on Sunday when the program is free. Plenty are hooked that way."
And it's an event that you can enjoy no matter what Mother Nature has in store. "What I especially love about the Azalea Storytelling Festival is that it is weatherproof," adds Jennings.
LaGrange and Troup County — named for the estate of French and American hero Gen. Marquis de Lafayette and Gov. George Troup — is home to 67,000 residents. The community is home to the nearly 26,000-acre West Point Lake for water sports, boating and fishing, as well as a Kia plant that plays a major economic role in the entire area. (If you attend the festival, be sure to schedule a visit to the fascinating Kia plant. I felt like a little kid, watching open-mouthed, as the assembly line seamlessly churned out new Sorrentos.)
For more storytelling, check out the Storytelling Museum in Colquitt in southwest Georgia. The community-based museum showcases Georgia culture and offers storytelling venues throughout the year, including Georgia's official play of Swamp Gravy.
And the Wren's Nest, the preserved home of Joel Chandler Harris — he wrote the Uncle Remus stories — in Atlanta offers storytelling each week.
The Roswell Folk & Heritage Bureau of Roswell, just north of Atlanta, also offers myriad opportunities throughout the year including holiday storytelling in December, the Tellabration in November, and the Magnolia Tellers, a group of local and regional tellers actively involved in the promotion and preservation of this almost-ancient art form.
IF YOU GO:
For more information, visit http://www.Lagrange.edu/azalea or call 1-706-882-9909. Contact LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce at http://www.LagrangeChamber.com or call 1-706-884-8671. Visit the Storytelling Museum at http://www.SwampGravy.com. More information on Roswell's storytelling history is found at http://www.VisitRoswellGa.com.