Once merely the brainchild of two local educators, one librarian, and one renowned storyteller, LaGrange’s own Azalea Storytelling Festival will mark its 25th Anniversary the first full weekend of March 2022, making it one of the longest running and most successful storytelling festivals in the country!
Way back in the mid-1990s, local storyteller Pat Gay and Dr. Evelyn Jordan began dreaming of a local storytelling festival. Mrs. Gay was the Children’s librarian at LaGrange Memorial Library, and her position involved storytelling on a regular basis. She’d lived in New Orleans, a city rich in the storytelling tradition, and fell in love with the art form there. She traveled around Georgia attending storytelling events and sharpening her own way with a story.
Dr. Evelyn Jordan was serving as Chairperson of the Education Department at LaGrange College when she and Mrs. Gay began talking about a festival. Together, they approached the Artist in Residence at the college and asked him if he thought a festival here would be possible. His legendary reply was, “Yes! And I’ll help you!”
The Artist in Residence happened to be the inimitable Donald Davis, one of the best known and most loved storytellers of our time.
Thinking four heads would be better than three, the group of dreamers brought Joyce Morgan-Young, then Assistant Superintendent of Troup County Schools onto the team, and from there the planning and scheduling and learning began. A storytelling festival was really going to happen in little ol’ LaGrange!
The first Azalea Storytelling Festival was held in the LaGrange College Auditorium, in March of 1997, with folding chairs and a shiny gym floor and three marvelous tellers- Donald Davis, Ed Stivender, and Kathryn Tucker Windham. Twenty-six years later, The Azalea Storytelling Festival is still in that auditorium, but it has been transformed into a world-class concert performance space, with fantastic acoustics and comfortable seating for the throngs who come to listen to stories each year. Storytellers often say that it’s the best storytelling venue in the country!
Throughout the years, “The Azalea”, as it’s fondly referred to by members of the committee, has maintained the highest standards regarding the talent that it brings to LaGrange. Planning for festival lineups begins years in advance with visits to storytelling events and discussions about who among the tellers might be the best fit for “The Azalea”. Artistic Director Carol Cain researches tellers carefully and gives recommendations for future tellers. Usually, there are four nationally known storytellers at each festival, curated to work well together and provide the absolute best experience for the audience.
The Azalea Storytelling Festival has received several awards in the last quarter century, including The National Storytelling Membership Association’s Regional Leadership Award, and it was chosen by the Southeast Tourism Society as one of their top twenty events in the south in 2011. Each year the three-day festival draws around 2000 visitors to the area, helping to bring tourist dollars to LaGrange through restaurant sales, shopping and motel stays.
Happily beneath the umbrella of the Lafayette Society for The Performing Arts (LSPA), which sponsors and offers guidance and business office support to the festival, the Azalea Storytelling Festival has developed and maintained lasting relationships with several local entities and has been able to turn what began as a oneweekend-a-year event into a year-round endeavor, rich with opportunities to hear and tell stories. In October of each year, Hills & Dales sponsors and hosts “Stories in the Gardens”, a free event held in the pecan grove at the historic estate. Featuring regional and local tellers, it has become a beloved and anticipated occasion and just last fall celebrated its tenth annual performance! February, and the Friends of the LaGrange Memorial Library, brings “A Taste of Storytelling”, another opportunity to hear regional and local tellers, in an effort to whet the “appetite” for storytelling and the festival soon to follow. A more casual way for locals to participate in storytelling, LSPA presents “Stories with Friends.” This is a monthly meeting of those interested in telling stories, working on projects underway, or just having fun listening to others tell.
The Azalea Storytelling committee is cochaired by Joyce Morgan-Young and Linda Hart, and many of its members have been around since the beginning. Sadly, two of the three founding members have slipped the mortal coil; Pat Gay passed away in 2016, and Dr. Evelyn Jordan two years later in 2018. While others have stepped in to fill the empty spaces at meetings, the absence of these women who had a dream will always be felt.
The Azalea Storytelling Festival is always held during the first full weekend in March. This March 4-6, the committee and LSPA are thrilled to present the 25th anniversary festival! Two of the storytellers who performed at the first festival will be back to help celebrate! Festival favorites Donald Davis and Ed Stivender, who were there at the beginning will be here this year, as well as our own Carol Cain; and Josh Goforth and Kevin Kling will round out the tellers nicely.
Information and tickets for the festival will be available online at www.LSPArts. org, by phoning LSPA at 706-882-9909. In addition, tickets may be purchased at the LSPA Business Office at 214 Bull Street in downtown LaGrange, Georgia.