At barely 19 years old, Lee Hunsaker helped young Native American women tell their personal stories. Thirty-five years later, Hunsaker draws tales out of first-time and seasoned storytellers alike.
“Hoot and Holler: Our Stories. Out Loud.” is Hunsaker’s semi-regular storytelling production. The show began on the covered porch of Sweet Donkey Coffee in Roanoke in 2016. Now, it regularly sells out that city’s Grandin Theatre. In September, Hoot and Holler will be featured at Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival.
Each Hoot and Holler show features a handful of storytellers. Hunsaker tries to stay out of the limelight, but she’s really the star of the show. She plans every detail, right down to the minute. She recognizes that each show will have its own flavor, but she doesn’t like surprises.
A few days before the show, Hunsaker holds a mandatory dress rehearsal. After each performer takes the stage at the rehearsal, Hunsaker turns to the small gathering of storytellers and asks, “What did you think?”
Folks give their honest feedback — what worked and what didn’t. Mostly, they encourage each other. Hunsaker looks on with a smile, offering advice as needed. She calls herself the “story midwife” for good reason. She works closely with each performer to perfect their stories. Each person is held to a strict 10-minute set but, within that time frame, almost anything goes.
Anything, that is, as long as Hunsaker has received and approved the final script. In the last few days prior to the event, she spends long hours on the phone with each storyteller, massaging the tales to perfection.
Hunsaker works through the content and shape of the stories, according to longtime Hoot and Holler storyteller Matt Chittum of Roanoke. She also addresses the anxiety that new storytellers feel in the days leading up to the event. Much of Hunsaker’s work is in making sure everyone who takes the stage feels good about their stories, according to Chittum.
The stories become her babies and it is evident that she is proud of each one.
“She’s good at taking people by the hand and saying, OK, you got this, we got this. It’s gonna be great.’ And people believe it,” Chittum said.
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Bringing people together is Hunsaker’s calling. As a freshman at Vermont’s Bennington College in 1988, she spent her winter term working with at-risk young adults on the Flatlands Reservation in Montana. Native Americans from multiple reservations were spending time at Flatlands during Hunsaker’s term. The people Hunsaker worked with were one step away from prison, she said.
While working in a girls’ dorm, she started a writing circle with some of these troubled young adults.
“These girls had lives that I never could have imagined,” Hunsaker said. Some had multiple children, some had lived with abuse or alcoholism.
That experience sparked Hunsaker’s interest in listening deeply to other people’s stories. “That seed was planted that winter. It took me a long time to realize it,” Hunsaker said.
Hunsaker grew up in Roanoke. Her mother, Julie Hunsaker, owned the Grandin Theatre during Lee’s teenage years. Lee spent most weeknights and every weekend working the concession stand at the Grandin, she said.
“The Grandin brought together these wonderful and creative like-minded people,” Hunsaker said, referring to the independent films that the theater showed during that time.
Still, the creative world of the Grandin wasn’t enough to fill Hunsaker’s desire to be a part of the art world. She soon moved away to attend a performing arts-focused high school in Boston. The school was an answer to prayer, she said.
“The mountains felt like they were closing in on me,” Hunsaker explained. She blossomed in Boston, writing and performing in plays.
From there, she was on her way, she said. “I was never going to sit in a cubicle,” she said.
After moving from Boston to Bennington to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Hunsaker flitted around even more — she lived on a dude ranch in Wyoming, and she moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, to wait tables just so she could live out West. Eventually she landed in Austin, Texas.
That’s where she got involved in the film industry. Hunsaker says she fell into costume design, first working as an intern on Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman.” During her 20-year career in costuming, Hunsaker also worked on “Miss Congeniality” and “Office Space,” among other films.
Hunsaker’s background in costuming would probably be no surprise to those who attend a Hoot and Holler performance. At a spring 2022 show, Hunsaker glittered in an enormous bejeweled statement necklace, hot pink tunic and iridescent bell bottoms. Her hair was pinned up in a fabulous updo and she wore eye-catching rings on several fingers.
That performance, like the other 2022 Hoot and Holler shows, was a sold-out affair at the Grandin Theatre. It is hard to imagine that this shining star has experienced anything but a lustrous life. But not everything is what it seems.
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Hunsaker is not shy about her story. She was living the high life in Texas. Costuming and film work were fulfilling for her. And then they were not, she said.
She was constantly moving around, working with new people in the film industry. She describes it as having a summer-camp feel, where you quickly meet new people and then have to say good-bye.
“It fed my restless spirit at the time. It was feeding my creativity,” she said.
Twelve years into her costuming career, Hunsaker said she started growing up. She grew tired of living life on the move. She started to feel lonely and stressed. In 2005 she met her husband, Jonathan, on a film set in Dallas and got pregnant.
Three years later, when her son was a year and a half old, Hunsaker learned she had breast cancer. Her life came to a halt, she said. She revisited her priorities. She had a year and a half of chemotherapy.
Then she needed to run. She had always been running, she said. Running was behind her move to Boston, her move to Richmond, her move to Texas. She ran from Roanoke as a teenager. Then she found herself running back.
Except for a single semester between Bennington and VCU, Hunsaker had been gone for 27 years.
“The mountains called me home,” she said.
Once Hunsaker, her husband and their son were settled in her hometown, her attention turned to writing. She took some classes at Hollins University, studying under Beth Macy and Amanda Cockrell. The classes gave her sparks of hope, she said.
She began opening her home to writing circles like the ones she had led in Montana. “We would cry and laugh and build fires and burn stuff,” she said. She felt like she was coming back to life.
That’s when Hunsaker realized that Roanoke had become a vibrant creative center while she was away. She wanted to help people tell their stories, and she needed to give them a platform so other people could hear them.
Hunsaker had previously listened to the storytellers showcased on “The Moth” and wanted to bring that sort of energy to storytelling in Roanoke. Tellers at the New York-based “Moth” stage show were diving into the nitty-gritty with heart-wrenching personal tales of adversity and triumph.
Hunsaker believed that the Star City was hungry for the same sort of honesty.
In 2016, Hunsaker approached Sweet Donkey Coffee owners Ann-Maree White and Dustin Eshelman with her idea for a storytelling event similar to “The Moth.”
Eshelman and White didn’t even need to discuss Hunsaker’s pitch before saying yes, according to White. “We loved the idea from the get-go,” she said.
“The first show was very homegrown,” White said. They decorated the porch with Christmas lights and a huge peace sign, and Hunsaker hung a homemade banner that read “Hoot and Holler.”
Sweet Donkey Coffee provided hay bales for the seating.
They were ready to go. And then the rain came.
The show was postponed, but Hunsaker saw an opportunity. She called everyone together to practice their stories in person in one of Sweet Donkey’s upper rooms. Doing so decreased the anxiety surrounding the upcoming performance, according to Chittum.
“It was really kind of a wonderful accident that immediately became a part of the process,” he said.
Hunsaker continued to hold workshopping sessions before every performance. She also cultivated an ensemble culture by bringing the tellers together virtually through Facebook Messenger group chats, Chittum said. Doing so allows the tellers to connect with one another early in the process. They build relationships. Often, they wind up creating a support network for one another that lasts long after the curtain falls, Hunsaker said.
Roanoke resident Megan Smith Burtch is another longtime Hoot and Holler storyteller. She has seen Hunsaker turn a jumble of words into a beautiful, cohesive story, she said. But that is not Hunsaker’s main talent, according to Burtch.
“What makes her so special is not just the story she brings out. It’s the people she brings together,” she said.
When Burtch’s husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a support network of past storytellers and writing workshop participants came together to see Burtch through her darkest days. They became her primary support in the days after her husband’s death this past April, she said.
Burtch calls the group her badass lady tribe.
“All this beautiful juju and goodness and blessing came from this group of women,” she said.
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Hoot and Holler soon outgrew Sweet Donkey. The group moved to 5 Points Music Sanctuary. It sometimes met in breweries. In January 2019, Hunsaker permanently moved her show to the Grandin Theatre.
“It makes so much sense to come full circle. The place is full of happy ghosts for me and for so many people I love,” she said.
Hunsaker produces several Hoot and Holler shows each year. The night of each performance, the crowd lines up in the Grandin’s foyer. They greet each other like family, with hugs and exclamations. People buy concessions, or browse the merchandise table that might contain storytellers’ books and Hoot and Holler stickers.
And, right around 7, the lights dim. An opening act might take the stage — a magic show or a mother/daughter singing duo, perhaps. Hoot and Holler DJ Sam Lunsford cranks up the music. Then Hunsaker appears.
“Hey, y’all,” she might say, waving at the crowd with a big smile on her face. She urges the audience to lean in, to prepare to hear the most amazing stories, to learn something, to connect with each other, to listen deeply.
Then the stories begin.
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There have been times that the crowd has left a Hoot and Holler performance in collective tears. Other times, favorite storytellers like self-deprecating Franklin County comedian Joe Stanley have left them laughing. Hunsaker does her best to make sure that each show covers a range of topics, so that no one evening is too emotionally draining or too lighthearted.
“Hoot and Holler touches on the whole range of human emotions and the human experience,” Lunsford said.
Hunsaker is hoping to draw some new storytellers into the Bristol show. An open call has been placed for storytellers from the Bristol area, the Roanoke area and everywhere in between.
“The area is so rich in character, experience and music. There’s an undercurrent of life there,” Hunsaker said, regarding Bristol.
Bristol radio personality Toni Doman recalled interviewing Hunsaker for her Radio Bristol show, “Mountain Song & Story,” prior to a Hoot and Holler performance in Abingdon in 2020. Hunsaker was the last person Doman interviewed in the studio before the pandemic closed everything down. After the interview, Doman began campaigning to invite Hunsaker’s show to Rhythm & Roots.
“Toni pushed it and pushed it and didn’t let [Hoot and Holler] fall off the radar,” Hunsaker said. Eventually, festival organizers issued Hunsaker a formal invitation to appear in the 2023 festival lineup.
“She’s a really vibrant, excited, positive person. And she’s such a great fit to host Hoot and Holler storytelling. … The event is an outlet for the entire Appalachian region because it can bring people together,” Doman said.