Appalachian native among those sharing tales, techniques in storytelling festival

Bob Dylan put forth in his 1966 song “Absolutely Sweet Marie” that “to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

In his work, West Virginia native Bil Lepp, a professional storyteller and award-winning liar, follows a similar philosophy. When spinning a tall tale, he finds it best to start on solidly truthful ground.

“You have to come up with something believable to draw the person in,” he said. “There has to be some kind of trust — something common enough for a wide audience so they know what’s going on and can relate to it in some way.”by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Bil Lepp, a West Virginia-based storyteller, author and comedian, will share his techniques as well as tall tales on Friday and Saturday.

Once that trust is established, however, all bets are off.

“You can expand into other areas, then comes exaggeration,” he said.

Lepp, 44, will dip into his seemingly bottomless bag of stories, jokes and spun yarns in appearances this week as part of the Washington County Cooperative Library Services’ 10th annual Storytelling Festival — “Art of the Story,” which started on Friday and runs through Saturday, April 12.

The festival features five professional storytellers and 14 performances and workshops held at the Washington County member libraries, the Glenn & Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center and the Washington County Museum in Hillsboro.

In addition to Lepp, who will perform twice on Saturday, including a storytelling workshop at Beaverton City Library, 12375 S.W. Fifth St., the lineup includes Alton Takiyama-Chung from Vancouver, Wash., Olga Loya of San Jose, Calif., Will Hornyak from Portland and Habiba Addo, a resident of Portland via Ghana, West Africa.

Festival events are designed for the enjoyment of adults and children ages 6 and older, unless otherwise noted.

The festival’s Saturday finale boasts a full slate of activities, with Lepp performing his “Fire, Fire Pants on Liar” at 10:30 a.m. at the Sherwood Library, 22560 S.W. Pine Street, and presenting his “Lego Method of Storytelling Workshop” from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Beaverton City Library. A community-wide Story Swap hosted by the Portland Storytellers’ Guild follows the workshop at the Beaverton City Library.

The final concert features performances by all five storytellers that evening at the Hillsboro Public Library, 2850 N.E. Brookwood Parkway.

Jodi Nielsen, senior program educator for Washington County libraries, says the festival is a way for libraries and patrons to enjoy shared events and experience libraries beyond one’s own neighborhood.

“It’s a way to draw together the community,” she said. “You may live in Sherwood, but you can come to a Cedar Mill program and so forth. It’s a way of developing community ties. It’s also a way to celebrate different cultures. A variety of cultures are represented.”

The events are designed for the equal enjoyment of children and adults.

“We want people to realize it’s not just story time for little kids,” she said. “The program takes the oral storytelling tradition and perpetuates it. These (tales) and urban legends can be found in books, but to see them brought to life is a whole other experience.”

That experience was Lepp’s lifeblood as he grew up in urban Appalachia next door to West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston. His family’s approach to storytelling left the listener in charge of divining what was true and what was fabricated in casual sessions around the dinner table, living room or weekend campfires.

Lepp cut his performance teeth as a five-time champion of the annual West Virginia Liars’ Contest, part of the Vandalia Gathering celebration of West Virginia culture. Dissecting regional customs, hunting trips, funerals, visits to the dentist — whatever, Lepp derives humor from any and all experiences and situations.

“My whole family are the kind of people who tell stories all the time,” he said, noting his original ambition was to be a writer. “I found out about storytelling, which is a way to do writing and tell stories at the same time. I developed it from there.”

The author of three books of tall tales, 10 audio collections, a non-fiction book and a novel. Lepp’s first children’s book, “The King of Little Things,” was published to positive reviews last fall.

His travels include entertainment as well as workshop-oriented instruction through his patented “Lego Method.”

“When you’re playing with Legos, you have different shapes, sizes and colors to fit together into a coherent wall,” he noted. “The pieces are similar, they form a whole unit, but you have different qualities you can start to dissect. You might have something made up of different stories, but you hope to fit them together as one solid unit.”

Rather than perplex his parents, Lepp’s irreverent approach to a literary career — and propensity to lay it on thick — if anything, endeared him further to his family.

“My parents, oh, they love it. They think it’s fun,” he said. “They come to see me all over the country. They’re proud of me for being a liar.”

His sly diplomacy in identifying characters likely helps matters.

“If I’m gonna say something nice about someone, I use their real name,” he confessed. “If I’m going to say something that’s not nice, I make up a name for them.”

Schedule for 10th annual Storytelling Festival — 'Art of the Story'

Thursday at 7 p.m. Banks Library — Tales From The Plantations: Alton Chung stories from Hawaii's Plantation Days

Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Tualatin Public Library — "Singing & Dancing Through Stories": Olga Loya (in Spanish) Celebrate through dancing and singing as you hear folk tales, personal stories and myths. The culture of Latin America is passed on through personal stories about family and life, stories about community, stories about taking responsibility, stories about building character.

Friday at 7 p.m. Cedar Mill Community Library — "Bright Ideas Gone Bad" by Bil Lepp. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and then...

Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Sherwood Public Library — "Fire, Fire Pants On Liar," award- winning, hilarious tales from Bil Lepp

Saturday, 1-3 p.m. Beaverton City Library — "The Lego Method Of Storytelling" workshop, presented by Bil Lepp (For adults and ages 10 and older) Learn how to drop/add content of a story without affecting the impact or message. Understand how to locate markers, characters, themes, on-ramps, jumping-off points in your material to couple, triple even quadruple your various stories and ideas into an interlocking pattern. Just as with Legos — end up with a solid structure that is built with pieces of different shapes, sizes and colors.

Saturday, 3-4 p.m. Beaverton City LIbrary — Story Swap with Portland Storytellers’ Guild: An opportunity for members of the public to tell a five-minute story. Designed for both beginners to seasoned tellers interested in testing out new material. Meet and mingle with members of the local storytellers’ guild.

Saturday, 6:30-9:30 p.m. Hillsboro Main Library — Storytelling Reception & Festival Finale Concert (Adult focused) A Storytelling Reception and Finale Concert featuring a no-host bar with complimentary hors d'oeuvres. Limited childcare for children ages 2-8 is also available for this evening event; call 503-615-6500 in advance.

For directions and more information, visit or pick up a festival newsletter at a local library.

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