Sounds of laughter and songs: Azalea Storytelling Festival again a hit in LaGrange

Published 8:32 am Sunday, March 3, 2024

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By Jody Sloat
Special to the Daily News

Sounds of laughter and songs filled Callaway Auditorium this weekend during the 28th annual Azalea Storytelling Festival sponsored by the LaGrange Society for the Performing Arts.

Donald Davis, a long-time fixture of the event, was joined on stage by award-winning storytellers and authors Paul Strickland of Kentucky, Bil Lepp of West Virginia and Regi Carpenter of New York. Carol Cain, the artistic director for the festival, serves as emcee.

“What a joy to introduce two new tellers to our Azalea audience,” Cain said. “Regi Carpenter and Paul Strickland are a perfect fit with our seasoned veterans Bil Lepp and Donald Davis. Together, these four tellers are demonstrating the power and artistry of storytelling and how it comes in a variety of forms.”

This was Kirsten Dunn’s first full year as director of the event after joining LSPA in January 2023. She said the festival attracts about 2,000 people, with audience members traveling from Wisconsin, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, the Carolinas, and Washington D.C.

Sunday’s performances are free and began with The Dulcimers Troupers at 8:30 a.m. and two sacred storytelling segments from 9:30 – 10:40 a.m. and 10:50 to 12:00 p.m. The artists share different stories each performance.

“We’re lucky to have a diverse group of storytellers,” she said. “There’s something for everyone.”

The tellers’ stories Saturday morning focused on eccentric relatives, childhood adventures, and beloved teachers. Strickland agreed to participate in the event this week after Josh Goforth had to cancel due to illness. He started and ended his set with a sing along: “Years go by, folks grow old, but the stories that get told, they’re going to live a long, long time.”

“Here’s the magical things, friends,” he said, “if we’re all listening out for each other, then what we can do is find a way to add our own voices to that together.”

Davis, a 60-year veteran storyteller and author of 16 books, followed with his stories of his Uncle Frank, “one of the most profoundly extroverted people I have ever known.”

“I remember the year the World’s Fair was in Knoxville in 1982, and he and my Daddy went to the World’s Fair one day, and he came back very frustrated that there were 96,000 people there that day, and he said he never met more than two-thirds of them,” he said.

Carpenter shared a tale about her third-grade teacher Mrs. Carter, “who is unlike any teacher I ever had. She likes kids.” On the first day of school, 8-year-old Carpenter told her new teacher that she had a run in her stockings.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she recounted. “Now my fat has somewhere to go on vacation.”

Storytelling, like fishing, is rooted in lies and exaggerations. Lepp, the last performer this morning, began his set by asking a young girl in the front row if the adults in her life ever lied to her. She said no.

“Well, you need to find better adults,” he said. He followed with tales from his childhood, including a story of his family’s vacation in coastal Maine in the 1970s. His grandfather, called Grosspapa, told his grandson, 7, and his friend Skeeter that the bioluminescent anglerfish lived “six to seven feet” at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, so the boys put rocks in their swim trunks to try to see them. The next morning, Grosspapa woke the boys at dawn and said “they had broken the ocean” after building a makeshift dam, and they were going to be caught by “the ocean police.”

“And this is why you should lie to children,” Lepp said. “A well-qualified adult can lie to a child so that they can enjoy themselves under any circumstances.”

Audience members can purchase the storytellers’ books and audio performances along with Azalea Storytelling merchandise in the lobby of the auditorium. The annual event ends at noon Sunday, but the LSPA hosts monthly Storytelling with Friends events throughout the city, along with a storytelling workshop with Davis in July, October Stories in the Gardens, both at Hills and Dales, and Deck the Halls with Donald Davis in December. For more information on these and other events, visit