When renowned storytellers Andy Offutt Irwin and Bil Lepp come to Homewood April 20 their appearances at Homewood Public Library and James Hart School will be a kind of punctuation for drama teacher Greg Weiss’ long carreer as a performing arts teacher.
Call it an exclamation point.
Irwin and Lepp are in the top echelon of professional storytellers in the country. Each has won numerous awards, is in demand around the country and is regularly featured at the World Series of storytelling, the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee.
And they’ve been to Homewood before.
That’s because Weiss began at the turn of the century to make storytelling a part of his life and a part of his teaching. He has become a respected storyteller in his own right and is well-connected in the storytelling world.
It’s also because Weiss took to heart a word of advice from an early mentor, Lynn Rubright, a storytelling giant who founded the highly respected St. Louis Storytelling Festival 40 years ago.
“She said, ‘You only bring in the best,'” he said. “I’ve only brought in people that have made themselves known nationally.”
Because he knows what it’s like to perform, he also makes sure visiting storytellers feel welcome and are well taken care of, he said. He knows from experience how it feels to endure poorly planned and executed events, and he vowed not to let them happen to his guests.
That care has earned Weiss — and Homewood — a reputation as a good place for storytellers to perform.
That means James Hart School students and Homewood residents have had opportunities to see performers like Sid Lieberman, Beth Horner, Bobby Norfolk (last year), Sherry Norfolk and Tim Tingle (in February).
The first big storytelling event Weiss organized was a fundraiser for the Red Cross following 9/11. With the success of that event as a starting point, Weiss decided to keep things rolling and obtained a $5,000 grant from Sage Foundation.
That gave him the resources to introduce storytelling festivals, with top tellers as guests, to his students at James Hart without having to ask the school to fund the project. After getting his storytelling events established, Weiss convinced the district to continue them with proceeds from school plays and musicals.
The district has not had to pay for storytellers all these years, he said.
His purpose as an educator was to provide a creative activity for students who might not be a good fit for other performing arts.
“Storytelling is the egalitarian performing art. Everyone … has a story to tell,” he said. “This is a way to get the kids who are creative performers and aren’t going to be recognized any other way.”
Although storytelling is, he admits, a bit of hard-sell for the general public, he believes it has been a good addition to Homewood School District 153.
“This is a town that loves seeing young people engage in creative endeavor,” he said.
And they will Monday, at least one more time, as students at James Hart School will have a chance to learn about the art of storytelling from two of its masters, Irwin and Lepp.
Weiss hopes his efforts to bring storytelling to Homewood will be a key part of his legacy as he retires from teaching and will be something the community continues to embrace.
Disclaimer: The author’s spouse is director of Homewood Public Library and is an officer with Illinois Storytelling. Greg Weiss is a member of the library board of trustees.