Since 2006, Laurinburg’s Storytelling and Arts Center of the Southeast has been involved in the import business.
The center’s Executive Director Jan Schmidt thought it natural to try to counter the mass exodus of industry from the county by bringing in something that could not be sent overseas.
“I was talking to Rebecca Blue about how we could use the John Blue House grounds more often,” said Schmidt, a transplant herself. “I had been to the storytelling festival in Tennessee and I thought that would be a perfect thing to do here. We wanted to do something that would help the economy of the community because everything had left to go to China.”
More than 800 people attended that first festival.
Some seven years later the center — or SACS as it is called — has not only hosted thousands at its storytelling festivals, but become a real center for the arts with juried art exhibits, jazz performances, musical jam sessions and multicultural events.
Schmidt attributes the center’s success to a dedicated base of support from Scotland County’s residents, who have been involved in everything from remodeling thecenter’ interior to labeling newsletters.
“So many people in this community care about it working,” said Schmidt. “I think the fact that we’re still here is a testament to the community and the fact that they want it.”
In the beginning
SACS began as an independent project of the Scotland County Historic Properties Commission. It became its own organization late in 2007 as the Storytelling Arts Center of the Southeast. The name later changed, adding the “and,” to reflect the organization’s commitment to all forms of art.
“We modeled our storytelling festival after the national,” said Brenda Gilbert, chair of the SACS board of directors. “The same people that people go to the national to go to see are right here in Scotland County. We have gotten to be known for quality in our events. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything that wasn’t wonderful.”
Much of SACS’s funding comes from grants, including a grant from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center that allows it to rent the Main Street facility it has occupied for several years. The building, formerly Barron’s Department Store, has granted SACS greater scope in hosting events and performances.
“I’ve performed throughout the country in all kinds of different venues - I’ve performed in funeral homes,” said Bil Lepp, a nationally renowned storyteller who has performed at the Storytelling Festival of Carolina on several occasions. “To be performing in a former department store is nothing new for storytellers. However it is a very nice place and they’ve done a lot with it. When you go in there it doesn’t fee like a former department store, it feels like a performance center.”
Lepp, who will again be performing at the 2013 Storytelling Festival of Carolina, said that storytelling can often flourish more in small, rural towns than it would in more urban areas. The Storytelling Festival of Carolina will hold its seventh festival March 21-23.
“I play more in small communities than I do in large metropolitan areas; almost everything I do is a smaller community performance,” Lepp said. “A lot of storytellers seem to think that it works better. In a large metropolitan area there are thousands of things to do and people aren’t as receptive to storytelling. Small town communities still remember what storytelling is and they still remember people in their families sitting on the front porch telling stories.”
Though many of the storytelling festival’s attendees are from out of town, Gilbert, herself a storyteller, said that the familial process of storytelling will keep them coming back for more.
“As storytellers, a lot of what we do is celebrating the ways that we are the same and the sense of community,” she said. “The things that happen to you may not be the same experiences but you have the same feelings that I do, and when I tell you about my grandmother you think about yours. It forms bonds and ties. The people who come are people who care about each other and about the world and making it a better place.”
SACS has branched out considerably since its early days, however, offering a haven for local musicians, ladies’ teas, and bringing headline acts to Laurinburg.
“Brenda had started the storytelling guild and they were meeting monthly here, and then some bluegrass people wanted to have a place to meet, so we started the bluegrass Sundays,” Schmidt said. “We expanded our name from the Storytelling Arts Center to the Storytelling and Arts Center and then we started writing grants for music concerts and for art displays.”
In October, the SACS calendar included one of its most considerable achievements to date: bringing the storied Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Laurinburg.
“For the Preservation Hall jazz concert, downtown Laurinburg looked like Asheville in the evenings: lights everywhere, music on the street, people everywhere,” said Gilbert. “People came from as far away as Florida to see them and they were walking up and down the streets having dinner. It was just magic. People driving by were amazed that this was going on in downtown Laurinburg.”
In addition to filling about 100 hotel rooms for the weekend during the storytelling festival, Cory Hughes, director of the Scotland County Tourism Development Authority, said that SACS events help the county build a positive reputation.
“There is a brand value in having Scotland County and Laurinburg associated with top flight opportunities,” said Hughes. “It also expands our message to folks in other areas that may be drawn in for something unique and may not normally think about Laurinburg.”
Hughes calculated that the Storytelling Festival of Carolina creates $50,000 in local economic activity during the weekend it is held, exclusive of ticket fees charged by SACS. As the county is short on natural tourist attractions, the festival and other SACS events contribute appreciably to its appeal.
“One of the challenges we have in Scotland County is that we have no natural resources: no Liberty Bell and no beaches,” Hughes said. “So we need to create reasons to come here in most cases. What a great marquee and promotional opportunity to be able to say that we had someone as prominent as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.”
The primary areas of focus going forward will be to broaden the appeal of SACS to a local audience and to find ways of becoming more independent financially. At last year’s Bold Faced Liars competition, 90 percent of those in attendance were from outside Scotland County.
“Part of what we do and one of the reasons we need grants so much is that we really don’t charge that much for the things that we do,” Schmidt said. “We need to find ways of being more self-supporting, I think. Our festival’s not self-supporting, we get grants to help pay for our festival. All of these grants help us to pay for things in order to keep the price low for local people.”
Schmidt say the key the center’s success will continue to be Scotland residents.
“When we have a ladies’ tea, we have 20 people who volunteer to decorate tables, to serve people, to make food, to buy favors, to do centerpieces. Some of them have done it all nine times. When you have such basic needs for people: housing and food and things like that that they need to just survive, it makes it even harder to make your case for the arts.”