When Jim Weiss was a child, his father entertained Weiss and his younger brother with stories taken from classical literature and history. Weiss fell in love with the stories and the art of storytelling, and as an adult he happily entertained family and friends, acting out each character and creating distinctive voices.
Most of Weiss' tales were taken from literature and history, although some, such as "Good Night," a series of bedtime stories he created for his daughter, came purely from his imagination.
But Weiss wanted to reach more people with his storytelling. So in June 1989, feeling as though his business career was not adding anything of great value to the world, he and his wife Randy created Charlottesville, Va.,-based Greathall Productions to produce and market audio recordings of his stories.
Three months later, having invested their entire savings into making the recordings, the Weiss' made their first sale to an independent bookstore. Within a year those first recordings - "The Three Musketeers/Robin Hood," "Greek Myths," "Arabian Nights," "Tales from the Old Testament" and "Good Night" - not only helped Greathall Productions recoup its entire initial investment, but also earned Weiss his first three national awards.
Since then, Greathall has produced 30 recordings, earning Weiss 65 national awards. Each of his recordings has earned at least one prize.
"It was the right thing," Weiss said of his family's decision. "This was something I could do that was distinctly mine."
Juneau residents will have an opportunity to hear Weiss' distinctive voice at a public performance at the downtown library at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8. He also will conduct two storytelling workshops at the Mendenhall Valley library on Saturday - one for children at 11:30 and a second at 2:30 for adults and children.
Weiss carries what he calls a "varied repertoire" of stories in his head. From fairy tales to the more action-oriented, to true stories taken from history, Weiss has a story for every audience. Many of the tales, such as Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare, are not typical child's fare. But more than being purely entertainment, Weiss tries through his stories to "lead the child to the original book." To that end, he strives to tell his tales at a child's level of understanding, without undermining the integrity of the original story.
"I'll perhaps soften the violence, or explain motive in a way that a child can grasp," Weiss said. "Our experience is if you introduce children to these characters, they won't be intimidated. They'll be curious for more."
So curious, in fact, that it's not uncommon for a library to suddenly find every copy of a book Weiss has just performed checked out.
"You want to turn kids on to literature," he said. "Once they get that love, it will never leave them for the rest of their lives."
Weiss was involved in drama and singing during high school and earned degrees in speech and communication from the University of Wisconsin. While he admits the training helps in his performances, they are not the keys to good storytelling.
"The very first rule is that I have to love the story myself," he said. "It's no good trying to tell one you don't love."
Aside from that, the rest is pretty simple.
"Listeners are on your side when you tell them a story," he said. "People do not expect perfection from the storyteller. If you hesitate or stumble over a word, they're charmed by it. They just like hearing a good story told with a lot of love and feeling."
With more than two decades of storytelling behind him - and still more tales to tell - Weiss' love of storytelling has yet to fade.
"When you tell a story, you give a gift of yourself, as well as the gift of the story itself, to whoever's listening," he said. "That's the beauty of it."
Those interested in the Saturday workshops should contact Carol Race at 586-0434 for reservations.
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