September 10, 2007
New media beware: Storyteller stoking fire of oral traditions
By carol clark
After 25 years as a storyteller, performing for children of all ages, in all kinds of settings, Jim Weiss knows how it feels to go into free fall without a net.
“Once I was telling the story of Archimedes at the grand opening of a library,” he recalled. “In the middle of the story, they started announcing the winning raffle numbers over the PA system. Luckily, Archimedes was a mathematician, so I was able to work the numbers into the story.”
Then there was the mariachi band incident at a fair, and the time he was asked to prepare for a group of second graders but the audience turned out to be high school students. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Weiss said. “That’s one reason I love having an enormous repertoire. My wife will say to me, ‘How is it that you can carry 500 stories in your head and never forget them, but you can’t remember where you put your glasses or your keys?’”
A nationally known storyteller — who has produced dozens of recordings of tales from classical literature, history and the Bible — Weiss thrives on the adventure of giving live performances and teaching his craft at venues around the country. During his upcoming residency at the Carlos Museum, he will focus on Bible stories, bringing to life for children some of the historical figures represented in the “Cradle of Christianity” exhibit.
“What fascinates me most about Bible stories is that the people we meet in them are average people,” said Weiss, “not Hollywood stars or Olympic athletes, but normal people who are suddenly thrust into astonishing situations. Imagine what it would be like to be sitting on your porch one day and to hear God call your name.”
Weiss’ recordings of biblical stories are non-denominational, and used in churches, synagogues, schools and homes around the world.
The era spanned in “Cradle of Christianity” is fertile ground for a storyteller. “It was a pivotal time because of the life of Jesus, and in many other ways, too,” said Weiss. “The Romans had just gone from the Republic to the Empire, for example. The Western world walks on two legs. One leg comes from the Middle East — our religious and moral traditions. The other comes from Greece and Rome — our politics, our art and theater. In addition to all this significance, what was happening at that time in the world offers us some of the most exciting true and fictional characters and events of history. This is not dry and didactic stuff.”
Tell-tale tips from Jim Weiss
Follow a form: “Remember that 99 percent of stories follow similar structures. The details differ, but if somebody shows you the structure, you can figure out how to write or tell a story.”
Be selective: “Only tell stories that you love yourself. If you do not love the story, it will always fall flat. If you do love it, your enthusiasm alone will probably carry the day.”
Let yourself go: “You’re not going to be perfect and that’s just fine. Not only do people not expect a storyteller to be perfect, it’s part of the charm when someone pauses to choose a word. You’re sharing something from the heart and telling it in your own words. There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Oh, wait, there’s something I meant to tell you.’”
Tell it like it is: “In many stories, the facts are not the most essential thing. But when telling stories from history, do your fact-checking and make sure you’re accurate.”