When Elizabeth Ellis grew up in the area near Milligan College, a few miles from Elizabethton, she often got in trouble for talking too much. Oddly enough, she earned a master’s from East Tennessee State University in library science and took off for Dallas to work at the public library – a hushed place of quietude and page leaves cautiously turning.
“People used to say to me, ‘What on earth will you do when you grow up?’” Ellis said from her Dallas home base. “You always run your mouth. I wanted a job where I could talk all the time and no one would tell me to stop.”
Then Ellis discovered storytelling. Because she had been telling stories at the library, Ellis was able to get the library to send her to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough. She and her friend, Gayle Ross, went and came back determined.
“On the way home, Gayle began to say, ‘We could do this. We could do that.’ ” Ellis recalled. “By the time we crossed the Mississippi River Bridge, ‘I could do that’ changed to ‘I will if you will,’ and we hung out our shingle as professional storytellers.”
In 1979, the East Tennessee native left the Dallas Public Library and has since traveled the United States, Canada and other “beautiful” parts of the world, meeting “amazing people.” She has become known as “one of America’s finest storytellers” and was selected as a “Listener’s Choice” at the 30th Anniversary National Storytelling Festival.
“She came along in the storytelling movement quite early,” said Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the International Storytelling Center and the Jonesborough festival. “So, in that respect, she is an ‘elder’ of the storytelling community and a ‘pioneer’ in the storytelling movement. In those days, the traveling professional storytellers, like Elizabeth and Gayle, did as much or more to advance the movement as any media coverage the early festivals received. People in the storytelling community, as well as her listeners, find her talented, sincere and comforting as a storyteller.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Ellis will return to East Tennessee to perform “Telling the Silence,” sponsored by Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, at 7:30 p.m. in ETSU’s Brown Hall Auditorium.
She will also be giving the keynote address and holding a workshop on Storytelling in the Classroom for the Johnson City Area Arts Council Arts in Education Conference at the Millennium Centre the preceding day.
“Elizabeth is equally known as a very capable storytelling educator,” Smith said. “She probably does as much, if not more, training in storytelling as performing. Her students, young and older, adore her. She’s well respected among the storytelling community as being a warm, gracious, and inspiring teacher. Coming from her background – emerging from her story-rich, Southern Appalachian heritage to become both a well-respected librarian and performance storyteller – gives her a special perspective on storytelling as both an ancient tradition and a newly recognized performance art.”
Since Ellis was in the area in July, as a storyteller in residence at the International Storytelling Center, and back this fall for the National Storytelling Festival’s Midnight Cabaret, the ETSU event will have a completely different focus, says Mary B. Martin School Director Anita DeAngelis.
“We asked Elizabeth to share with us stories that are a bit more edgy for this performance,” DeAngelis said, “and she, I believe, has just the right stories to tell for this special visit.”
Ellis didn’t have to thing long once the invitation was made.
“When Anita DeAngelis invited me to be part of this …” Ellis said, “I thought, ‘I’m your gal. I can certainly do that.’”
Ellis is considered one of Appalachia’s most versatile storytellers. With strong ties with the “Texas tradition,” she also has the grounding in Appalachia life and lore.
“I have lived in Dallas for nearly 40 years, but I am Appalachian in every way – the good the bad and the ugly,” she said. “Appalachia is an important part of who I am and what I do and what I tell.
“I think it’s a process of trying to make peace with where you come from and how that defines who you are. Every time you peel off a layer, there’s another layer underneath it. Every time you peel off a layer of what it was like to grow up in that place in that time there’s another layer that’s closer and deeper to be worked out and thought about – first of all to be felt, then thought about and then to be transformed into something you can share with other people.”
As Ellis has peeled back the layers of life, she has found some difficult truths that in “Telling the Silence,” she explores with a comfortable mixture of candor and humor. While folk tales native to Texas and Tennessee are Ellis’ stock-in-trade, she also has felt compelled to focus her communicator’s lens on today’s society, as well.
“It’s a collection of stories about the misuse of sexual power and how we, especially women, allow ourselves to be silenced …” Ellis explained. “I want to help people look at how our unwillingness to accept the truth about abuse – sexual, physical and cultural – creates a climate that is so toxic that it poisons our children.”
“Telling the Silence” not only addresses overt-but-secret abuses, but also pervasive modern-day issues in America, such as obesity, body image, double standards, greed and basic survival.
“It’s heavy stuff and our greatest weapon in dealing with these issues is our laughter,” Ellis said. “We look at it. We’re honest about it. We look it in the face and we say, ‘You can’t make me cringe and you can’t make me cry. I may not be able to change the facts, but, by God, I can change the effect of the facts on me.
“Yes. We’re going to talk about some heavy things, but the heavier things are, the more you have to laugh about it,” she concluded.
Ellis is also the co-author with Loren Neimi of Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories published by August House. For more information about Ellis, visit her website at www.elizabethellis.com.
Tickets for the ETSU performance are $15 general admission, $10 for seniors 60 and over and $5 for all area students. College students will need to show identification.
For tickets or more information about this event or Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 439-TKTS (8587). Follow Mary B. Martin School of the Arts on Twitter at TheArtsAtETSU and on Facebook.