Bil Lepp: Storyteller with a story

Susan EspirituAnderson, Our Town Neighbors

Bil Lepp will be one of three nationally known storytellers entertaining at the Flatwater Tales Storytelling Festival, on Saturday, June 8, 7 p.m. at the Historic Grove Theatre in Oak Ridge. Lepp, a veteran of the festival, will be presenting stories of adventure and mayhem involving his friend “Skeeter.”

Since he is a five-time champion of the West Virginia Liars’ Contest, I wanted to find out the real story from this often described “side-splittingly funny man.”

In 1990, Bil started doing the tall-tale West Virginia Liars’ Contest event which is part of a larger Appalachian heritage festival. After winning second place that first year, he went on to win first place five times, jumpstarting his storytelling career.

Storyteller Andy Offutt Irwin and Bil Lepp

He says he didn’t really realize a person could make a living telling stories until the year 2000 when he got invited to do a 15-minute spot at the National Storytelling Festival and his career “took off after that.”

Did Bil just decide one day to be a storyteller? Actually, yes, he did. He says, “I always wanted to be a writer, and I like to make people laugh. I couldn’t get my written stories published, so I started telling them out loud, and that has worked out. People have to listen, unless they run out on me.”

Unlike the majority of the media industry, Bil says storytelling has mostly stayed the same as it has been for thousands of years with the biggest changes being in the content. He says some things we laughed at 30 years ago, we now realize were less friendly than they needed to be. And currently, it is also tougher to tell political jokes.

Storytellers Regi Carpenter, Bil Lepp, Paul Strickland, Donald Davis

Bil’s challenges are tied to the insights he has gained from being a masterful storyteller. He aims to write stories that appeal to as large an audience possible so they have something in common with the stories he is telling, so he writes an hour of new material every year, always keeping his eyes and ears open to new ideas.

Most importantly, he says, the storyteller must always connect with the audience because that is the heart and soul of good storytelling. “Tell stories you understand and believe in. It doesn’t matter the genre, you have to understand what you are saying, and why.”

When Bil is not telling a story, he finds balance in life with his wife, Paula, and children. He says he’s learned to not be in a hurry, be grateful for what you have and take nothing for granted.

Bil Lepp’s future plans are right in line with his past and present: keep telling a good story as long as there are still people who will listen.

Don’t miss Lepp telling his story this June about John Hendrix, Prophet of Oak Ridge, even if you have heard it before because he’s added a new twist to the story’s end.

Tickets for his show and other festival storytellers may be purchased at the Flatwater Tales website, here or with cash or check at Calamity’s Coffee, 219 Jackson Square, Oak Ridge.

The storytellers will also offer free, 35-minute shows the mornings of June 7 and 8 at the Oak Ridge Senior Center and Oak Ridge Public Library. Those interested in attending must sign up for free tickets here because of limited seating.

The Grove is located 123 Randolph Road, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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