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WL's Chris Leebrick has made a name for himself teaching Shakespeare, storytelling to local kids

TIDINGS PHOTOS: VERN UYETAKE - Chris Leebrick has worked for decades as a professional storyteller, and it all started with an eighth-grade storytelling class.Chris Leebrick is happy to tell you the story.

In this case, the proper follow-up to that statement is: "Which one?" For there are thousands of stories in Leebrick's arsenal, some personal and many others acquired during a decorated career as a storyteller, director, writer and teacher based in West Linn.

But this particular story is special. To borrow from a superhero term, we'll call it Leebrick's origin story. It begins in mid-1970s Eugene, when Leebrick was in eighth grade.

"I went to I guess what you'd say was almost an experimental school at the time, where all of the kids could take whatever classes they wanted as long as the parents agreed," Leebrick said. "And at the school they had classes like basket weaving, funk art — and storytelling. Beginning and advanced storytelling."

Leebrick didn't know what "storytelling" meant, exactly, but he'd taken classes with the teacher before and decided it was worth a shot. He attended the beginner's class and was later invited to sign up for advanced storytelling, where he caught an incurable strain of the performance bug.

"There was like 12 of us, and two or three times a school week we would pile into the teacher's van, travel around mostly Lane County ... and we performed at elementary schools and nursing homes and libraries."

By the end of the class, Leebrick had made a name for himself.

"The teacher said, 'Chris, you're good at this, and you seem to like it. You should think about doing plays,'" Leebrick said.

The teacher was right, and those eighth-grade classes turned out to be the first few steps on a path Leebrick has never wavered from. After honing his craft with high school plays Leebrick attended theater school in Wisconsin, where he scored his first professional acting and storytelling jobs before eventually returning to Eugene.

There that he founded the first iteration of the program he is perhaps best known for — a Shakespeare theater class for ages 12-and-up that has become particularly popular among homeschooled students. Leebrick founded the Lord Leebrick Theatre in Eugene in 1993, and when he moved to West Linn 18 years ago he started "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits" in Woodburn.SUBMITTED PHOTO - Leebrick's Shakespeares Greatest Hits group recently performed 'Richard III' and 'Much Ado About Nothing.'

"It's a three-month program — every year I pick two Shakespeare plays, we perform selected scenes from them and I do narration in between to sort of fill the audience in on the story so they can follow what's happening," Leebrick said. "They're mostly homeschooled kids, although not exclusively. It just started in Eugene when I was there, and they happened to be homeschooled kids and I had never really worked with homeschooled kids. And they're awesome; they're such good students — they love being together."

The program aims to bring Shakespeare's work to life while also helping kids overcome public speaking anxiety.

"The thing I hear over and over is, 'With this program you're doing and them having to grapple with Shakespeare, my kids are no longer afraid of public speaking,'" Leebrick said. "So it's like these kids get a certain level of confidence, and they also come away with a love of Shakespeare."

Two of West Linn resident Marissa King's children have participated in "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits." At the most recent production, which featured scenes from "Richard III" and "Much Ado About Nothing," her 19-year-old daughter Katie was a page and ensemble member.

"He's a phenomenal teacher and coach," King said. "The way he just guides them, it's very nurturing and the great thing is kids get to see how things come together (in a production). ... He's quite the talent we have in West Linn."

King added that while Katie won't pursue acting as a career, "she's definitely louder" after participating in the program and ended up wishing she had a bigger part in the most recent production.

"I just wish any kid could go through his tutelage — I think it's life-changing for all of them," King said.

Outside of the whirlwind three months each year working on "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits," Leebrick keeps busy with storytelling gigs at schools and other locales. He's also working on a how-to book called "The Art and Craft of Telling Stories."

While Leebrick is always adding new stories from a variety of cultures to his performances, he often finds himself returning to his three favorite writers: Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss and Edgar Allan Poe.

"For an actor-storyteller, to be able to dine on material from those three geniuses — that right there is like a blessing," he said. "That's like payment in and of itself."

To learn more, visit allgoodstories.com/ or contact Leebrick at (503) 656-9567.

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