On Saturday night I drove downtown to the Indiana History Center for storyteller Bil Lepp’s presentation of “Punching the Lard: True Stories & Tall Tales.” It was produced by Storytelling Arts of Indiana and sponsored by Andrew Hamaker.
The IHC’s Frank and Katrina Basile Theater was packed. Earlier in the evening, several people had attended Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s annual fund-raiser dinner and auction. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s founding by Ellen Munds, Nancy Barton, and Bob Sander. Storyteller Celestine Bloomfield shared a beautiful five-minute slideshow that gave highlights from Hoosier Storytelling Festivals and Story Theatre series over the years. The slide show brought back many, many good memories. The art of storytelling includes such a wide and deep range of styles and material!
Bil Lepp’s style is sexy, mischievous, and wholesome, all at the same time. What is that line from the West Wing TV show? “Women want to sleep with him and men want to drink a beer with him.”
Bil got his start as a storyteller by winning the West Virginia Liars Contest. The first time I ever heard Bil tell, a few years ago, he told a tall (skyscraper tall) tale about a runaway train. I don’t remember the details now, only how much I guffawed when I realized how completely he had pulled my leg.
Saturday night, he told personal tales. They were very, very funny, but I left feeling a little disappointed that he hadn’t told us any lies.
But by the time I got home I was thinking, “Wait a minute. Wait. One. Minute. Could all of that stuff really have happened the way Bil says it did?”
I think his stories Saturday night were based on things that really happened to him, but they were also very creatively crafted.
Bil’s appeal comes not only from the humorous content of his stories but also from the way he tells them. He uses his whole, lean body as he speaks. His gestures are natural and seemingly effortless, but also perfectly chosen to enhance and illuminate his slick words. His timing is immaculate. He peers out from under his baseball cap and talks in a deadpan, innocent manner that is just irresistable. He rarely cracks a full smile beneath his mustache, but you can tell that he loves his audience as much as his stories.
You can also tell that he is in love with his wife. One of the first stories he told Saturday night was about the many mistakes he made as he learned the rules of gift-giving within a marriage. It was hard to tell who was laughing louder during that story: the women in the audience or the men!
He also told about several misadventures from his teenage years, including his participation in his friend, Skeeter Bart’s, inspired plans for observing the first day of hunting season. They impersonated eight-point bucks and drove around with a manniquin tied to the front of Skeeter’s truck. I thought I would burst, I was laughing so hard.
Bil’s tale of his own bright ideas for exploring Communist East Germany on a field trip when he was an exchange student in West Germany was funny, too, and gently thought-provoking.
The title tale was a story about telling a story at a high school commencement recently. “Punching the lard” was an expression that he and his co-workers at the Kentucky Fried Chicken used to use to mean doing something self-destructive and foolish. His detailed explanation of how they had developed this expression was hilarious. The frame story about telling this story to a group of rowdy 18-year-olds at his former high school was touching as well as funny.
As all of the best storytellers do, Bil acknowledges and appreciates – with his actions even more than his words – both the essential historical context and the unique here-and-now-ness of storytelling. Saturday night he wore an early Hoosier Storytelling Festival t-shirt that he must have picked up when he was first invited to tell here in Indianapolis, back when the Festival was in Broad Ripple instead of downtown. He also pointed in a friendly way to someone in the audience as he mentioned a certain county in West Virginia. That Indianapolis audience member must have told Bil during the intermission that he was from there.
Bil also joked on stage with Joyce Ellinger, the sign language interpretor who has been signing for Storytelling Arts events for almost the full 20 years of its existence. At the end of the evening, Bil mentioned that Ted Parkhurst (founder of August House) was in the audience. Bil thanked Ted for believing in him even before he had been invited to tell at the National Storytelling Festival or otherwise been successful outside of West Virginia. Best of all, Bil listened and watched his audience as he told, reacting appropriately to our reactions, and making this umpteenth telling of his stories unique to our night with him.
Bil was only in Indy for one performance this time, but if you go to his website, you can purchase a recording of his telling of “Punching the Lard” and other stories at the Midnight Cabaret show at the 2006 National Storytelling Festival.
The next storytelling event for adults sponsored by Storytelling Arts of Indiana will be Heather Forest presenting “Travel Scenes” on March 1, 8-10 pm at the Indiana History Center. I love her work, too, for different reasons. Her style is very musical. Please call 317-576-9848 for more information. Storytelling Arts is also on MySpace.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com