Andy Offutt Irwin (born 1957) is an American storyteller, arts educator, singer-songwriter and humorist. Born and raised in Covington, Georgia, a small town outside of Atlanta, Irwin began his career in 1984 with an improvisational comedy troupe at Walt Disney World. After five years he shifted to performing as a singer-songwriter, touring the Southeast. In the mid-1990s, Irwin branched into performances for children and since then has appeared in hundreds of schools (from preschools to colleges) and countless public libraries.
Irwin continued to perform as a singer-songwriter and added storytelling to these performances, usually telling one story (about ten to twenty-five minutes in length) during a show. In the fall of 2004 he decided to pursue storytelling as a career and quickly achieved national prominence. Irwin now appears regularly in storytelling festivals across the United States. He has released several albums which feature stories, songs or whistling and has collected numerous awards for these albums. In 2013, Irwin received the Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Network.
In addition to performing, Irwin worked as an artist-in-residence at Oxford College of Emory University and Georgia College for a total of fifteen years. During that time he directed several plays, conducted acting workshops and served as an acting coach. Irwin was also featured as storyteller and host of the program Evening Star on public radio. Currently, Irwin divides his time between storytelling festivals and children’s performances. Irwin also performs as a whistler with the Kandinsky Trio, a chamber music group.
Background and early career
Andy Offutt Irwin is a native of Covington, Georgia, a small town in the United States' Deep South about 35 miles east of Atlanta. As a child, he always wanted to be a musician, learning to play drums in elementary school band and adding guitar as a teenager. It was also in his youth that Irwin discovered his talent for imitating different sounds and the speech of others. While he was growing up, Irwin was an avid fan of comedy albums. Irwin memorized these comedy routines and, at his teacher's suggestion, would recite them to his class while his teacher prepared a daily report. Irwin later attended Georgia College where he received a B. S. in Sociology in 1983. While there, he was named Mess Georgia College.
Starting in 1984, Irwin spent five years writing, directing, and performing shows with the improvisational comedy troupe SAK Theatre at Disney World. Upon returning to Georgia, Irwin began to focus on singing and songwriting, though he always kept comedic elements in his music. Beginning in 1991, Irwin toured the Southeast as a singer-songwriter, performing both solo and with his band, an act that he bills as "Andy Offutt Irwin vs. the fingermonsters" (sic). From 1995 to 2001, Irwin sang humorous songs, played guitar, and performed comedy as "Offutt the Minstrel" at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. He also performed at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival during the 1980s. From 1997 through 2005 Irwin directed the annual Cracker Crumble, an evening of politically satirical skits put on by the Georgia Press Association for Georgia politicians and lobbyists.
Evolution as a storyteller
Irwin's evolution from singer-songwriter to storyteller was gradual and over a decade in the making. While performing with his band in the early 1990s, Irwin would often tell a story about a song before performing it. "I could do a 10-minute introduction for a three-minute song." He would usually end these stories with the phrase, "but I digress," before getting back to his musical performance. One evening a member of the band said to him "You know, the digressions are the best part." When Irwin released his first album as a singer-songwriter he also included a 22-minute story recorded live during a 1994 performance. He honed his storytelling skills in his monthly appearances with the Evening Star Music Series where he would tell a story in addition to serving as host and introducing musical acts. However, at this point, he did not realize that storytelling was a performance genre and that there was a national storytelling circuit.
Around 1996 while performing at the Georgia Renaissance Festival (GARF), Irwin met nationally prominent storyteller Carmen Deedy. Deedy had previously been a GARF performer and was joining several current performers for dinner after the festival. After spending several hours interacting over dinner, Deedy said to Irwin, "You’re a storyteller". After seeing Irwin perform at Eddie's Attic, Deedy explained the storytelling circuit, and encouraged Irwin to develop his storytelling, splitting a storytelling show with Irwin at Atlanta’s 14th Street Playhouse. Leaving his guitar at home, "to stretch myself a bit," it was Irwin’s first storytelling gig.
Irwin continued to develop his storytelling repertoire at Evening Star and by telling one or two stories during performances as a singer-songwriter. His second album, released in 2004, consisted exclusively of stories. In 2005, Irwin appeared as a Featured New Voices Storyteller at the National Storytelling Festival (which Irwin refers to as the "Super Bowl" of storytelling). This appearance resulted in him getting eleven storytelling gigs nationwide and launched his career as a full time teller.
Since his debut at the National Storytelling Festival, Irwin has performed at storytelling festivals across the United States. He has returned several times to the National Storytelling Festival both as a Featured Teller and to perform stories and songs at the Midnight Cabaret.
Storytelling as a performance form
While he grew into storytelling from his performances as a singer-songwriter, it was the skills that he developed in the years he worked in theatre that Irwin drew from to become a skilled storyteller. "I look at storytelling as a form of theater. I’m on stage doing what I’ve done for years, but now it’s just me. Now I can do all the theater I want without having to worry about sets, costumes, lighting and working with a big cast. It’s very economic, storytelling."
Prior to deciding to become a full time storyteller, Irwin worked as a stand-up comedian "for a few minutes". During this time, Irwin won the Farber Invitational stand-up competition at the Punchline comedy club in Atlanta. However, Irwin came to see that the days of storytelling comedians, like Bill Cosby, had passed. Irwin also realized that his style of performance was at odds with the main venue available to comedians today; comedy clubs. (Irwin joking refers to comedy clubs as "evil, smelly places".) Some of his stories are an hour in length and Irwin notes, "[t]here was a time when comedians could do that but they can’t anymore because the clubs give them three minutes, and they are timing the laughs per minute." Using storytelling as a theatrical form allows Irwin to create more fully drawn characters and to explore darker subject matters as well. "Although I like to think of my storytelling as funny, I can have these serious moments. I’m not depending on the audience to laugh the whole time... I hope there’s content with the form."
Irwin "takes the humor very seriously... I remember being a little kid wondering why we laugh and what makes me laugh. I always was a class clown. I was always interested in what makes laughter happen and now I get to dig into the theory of it every day." Irwin thinks of himself as a fiction writer and refers to himself as a humorist, and states, "I call myself a humorist and storyteller instead of a comedian because I play in libraries and there's no three-drink minimum." Irwin's stories often reflect life in a small Southern town with recurring themes of growing up and growing old, the bonds of family, the complexities of racial relations in the Deep South, especially during the 1960s and the important art of the practical joke. In addition to performance, Irwin leads workshops where he teaches storytelling technique.
Irwin is a natural as a children’s performer, because at heart he is an overgrown kid. His performances for children can be traced to summers during college when he worked as a camp counselor. It was as a camp counsel that he started using his middle name, “Offutt”, (the maiden name of his paternal grandmother and the name of a favorite uncle).
In the mid-1990s he began touring the Southeast as an arts educator and over the years he has performed in hundreds of schools and libraries. In 2000, Irwin was the keynote performer/speaker at the Library of Congress/Viburnum Foundation Conference on Family Literacy. Irwin’s work in schools ranges from forty-minute shows where he sings, plays guitar and tells stories (show titles include "Offutt's Environmental Epic", "Nouns, Verbs and Other Important Stuff" and "PROtozoa/ANTIbacterial") to weeklong residencies where he leads workshops in songwriting. He has contributed a chapter called "(I Got Those) Low-down Dirty Emergent Reader Blues" for the book Literacy Development in the Storytelling Classroom (Norfolk, Stenson and Williams, eds., 2009). Irwin has also written and recorded three songs for public service announcements for the Books Ahoy! Vacation Reading Program for children in Georgia and South Carolina.
In addition to performing for students in schools, Irwin has held part-time positions at two colleges. During the 1983-1984 academic year, Irwin served as artist-in-residence at Georgia College. While there, he wrote and directed the play Through the Needle's Eye: A Celebration of St. Francis, which Irwin describes as a "musical comedy". The play was subsequently produced at Duke University's divinity school in 1986.
In 1991, after returning to Georgia from his five-year stint at Disney World, Irwin began to work part-time at Oxford College of Emory University, first serving as acting coach and then as Interim Director of Theatre. From 1993 until his retirement in May 2007, Irwin served as artist-in-residence. While at Oxford, he directed several plays, conducted workshops, worked with the Campus Life Division and assisted Oxford's Chaplain. In 2001, Irwin was recipient of the Sammy Clark Award for Exemplary Teaching and Service.
Many of Irwin's stories revolve around his fictional aunt, Dr. Marguerite Van Camp, whom he describes as being about 85 years old. Aunt Marguerite founded Southern White Old Lady Hospital in rural Georgia because (as Irwin explains in Marguerite’s old lady voice) "all our husbands have moved on, and we were tired of the garden club and the bridge club and the ladies club. So Mary Frances and Julia and I all went back to medical school." Irwin loosely based the character of Marguerite on his mother ("unabashed and delightfully inappropriate") and his maternal grandmother ("a genteel, bun-haired lady of means"). As Irwin explains, "I was raised by Southern women so I imitate a lot of them. Marguerite is the voice of my grandmother, who was born in 1894, and the attitude of my mother. And anything that I want to gripe about I put into [Marguerite's] voice and nobody feels bad about me."
Two other recurring characters in Irwin's stories, Johnny and his brother Kenny, are actual people whom Irwin knew as a child. When the all-white elementary school that Irwin attended in the 1960s was forced to integrate, he became classmates with Johnny Norrington, an African American. They became good friends despite lingering racial barriers. In his story "The Rudiments" on Banana Seat, Irwin describes an accident he caused while riding his bike on a visit to the Norringtons' all-black neighborhood. Genuinely afraid of retaliation, Irwin was whisked to safety by the boys' mother. On the album Bootsie in Season, Irwin recalls how he and Johnny managed to watch the movie Dr. Terror's House of Horrors together despite Johnny having to sit in the "colored section" in the balcony while Irwin watched from the level below. (The two boys would share a box of Milk Duds by throwing it back and forth between the balcony and the floor.) Friendships that crossed the color barrier were unusual at the time and Irwin had to endure vicious taunts from other white children.
Mouth sounds and imitations
Irwin has a unique ability to make an extremely wide variety of sounds with his mouth, whether he is imitating the voices of others, musical instruments or the sounds found in everyday life. Utilizing these vocalizations in both storytelling and musical performances, he has been called "a veritable master of sound effects and voices" and a "virtual sound factory".
Additionally, he is an extraordinary whistler, able to make sounds on both inhalation and exhalation, which allows him to whistle without pausing for about one and a half minutes. The Beacon, the student newspaper for the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, recounted a portion of Irwin’s performance:
'Someone ask me if I smoke,' said Irwin. The audience complied. Then he whistled without taking a breath for over a minute. After which he answered with a sly 'No.'
The Kandinsky Trio, a classical chamber music group, heard Irwin whistle when they were performing at the National Storytelling Festival in October 2005. The Trio was so impressed with Irwin that they suggested collaborating. In December 2006, Irwin joined the Trio in concert at Roanoke College. The evening featured Irwin performing with the Trio by whistling several songs specifically arranged for the Trio and Irwin. Their repertoire includes Dvořák, jazz standards by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, a Romanian pan flute concerto, and unusual arrangements of popular music. Several videos of their collaboration have been recorded and posted on the video sharing website YouTube including their version of the new wave tune "She Blinded Me with Science" and the Monk/Best tune "Bemsha Swing".
"Don't be afraid to be amazing"
In an interview, Irwin described a late night conversation at a Waffle House that he had with Cyndi Craven (a friend, musician and Irwin's website designer):
... and I was talking about what I have to tell myself all the time when I'm afraid about doing something that hasn't been done before because it really is frightening to step out and do something different. So I will tell myself, "Don’t be afraid to be amazing". Cyndi said, "Where did you get that?" I said, "I made it up".
Craven subsequently posted the quotation on the internet and it now appears on hundreds of websites. Irwin's quotation was chosen to be the message of the murals created by artist Susan Guevara for the post-Katrina renovation of the New Orleans Children’s Resource Center branch library. Irwin also uses the quotation as a title of a storytelling workshop that he teaches to adults.
In 1992, Irwin and his wife, Kathleen, married. Later that same year, Kathleen gave birth to twins. One of the twins, Ian, was stillborn and the other, Tristan, was born profoundly disabled and microcephalic with the spastic quadriplegia form of cerebral palsy characterized by extremely limited motor skills and cognitive abilities. Two stories and one song on Irwin’s album Crowd Control recount his experiences of loving and living with a severely disabled child. Defying medical expectation (Irwin jokes that Tristan flunked out of in-the-home hospice care for not dying on schedule), Tristan lived to the age of eleven, dying in 2004.
Irwin resides in Covington, Georgia with his wife and their son, Liam (born 1999). Irwin is 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm) tall.
|Banana Seat||Folk/Pop songs with one story||1995|
|Christmas at Southern White Old Lady Hospital||Storytelling||2004|
|Book Every Saturday for a Funeral||Storytelling||2006|
|Bootsie in Season||Storytelling||2007|
|Crowd Control||Storytelling with one song||2008|
|Lip Service||Whistling, singing, mouth noises||2010|
|Risk Assessment||Storytelling with one song||2011|
|A Not So Silent Night||with Bil Lepp & Kim Weitkamp||2013|
|Sister True||Storytelling with one song||2013|
|Andy's Wild Amphibian Show||Stories and music for families||2015|
One of the songs from Banana Seat, "Clamydomonas (sp?)" (sic), is featured on the website of the International Society of Protozoologists. Another song on that album, "Clarice", (which a reviewer described as "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl ... to the Klan.") was recorded live at Eddie's Attic by Shawn Mullins and Matthew Kahler for their album, Jeff's Last Dance, Volume 2.
The final track on Risk Assessment, "One Clown Short of a Circus," is an improvisational piece recorded with storytellers Bil Lepp and Kevin Kling. Lepp also appears on "Upidstay, Umday, Ainbray," the final track on Sister True.
Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer appear with Irwin on the final cut of Andy's Wild Amphibian Show!, performing the 1938 song "I Love to Whistle".
Awards and honors
|2006||Winner: Storytelling Album||Just Plain Folks||Christmas at Southern White Old Lady Hospital|
|2008||Winner: Storytelling Recordings||Storytelling World||Christmas at Southern White Old Lady Hospital|
|2008||Winner: Storytelling Recordings||Storytelling World||Book Every Saturday for a Funeral|
|2009||Winner: Stories for Adult Listeners||Storytelling World||"The Beauty Pageant" (recorded on Bootsie in Season)|
|2009||Winner: Storytelling Album||Just Plain Folks||Bootsie in Season|
|2010||Winner: Storytelling Recordings||Storytelling World||Crowd Control|
|2010||Winner: Special Storytelling Resources||Storytelling World||Literacy Development in the Storytelling Classroom, |
ed. Norfolk, Stenson & Williams
|2013||Winner: Storytelling Recordings||Storytelling World||Risk Assessment|
|2013||Winner: Circle of Excellence Award||National Storytelling Network|
|2015||Winner: Storytelling Recordings||Storytelling World||Sister True|
|2016||Winner Silver Honors: Audio: Storytelling||Parents' Choice Award||Andy's Wild Amphibian Show!|