Longtime crowd favorite Andy Offutt Irwin among performers

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FARMINGTON — A quick look at Andy Offutt Irwin's online bio indicates he's a man of many talents — traveling storyteller, educator, keynote speaker, theater director, songwriter, comedian, newspaper columnist, camp counselor and Shakespearian actor.

Thanks to an experience he had in Farmington several years ago, you can add one more item to that list — skunk herder.

Irwin is a longtime favorite at the Farmington Public Library's Four Corners Storytelling Festival, which opens its two-day run Friday. He has performed here so many times he's lost count, but one thing he hasn't forgotten is an experience he had here several years ago.

Irwin found himself standing outside one of the performance tents in Berg Park, sizing up the long line of school children waiting to enter. The crowd uncharacteristically fell silent, then erupted into screams as a skunk emerged from the nearby brush and strolled across the sidewalk close to the children, all of whom desperately were trying to make their way inside the tent at the same time.

Reacting instinctively, Irwin seized control of the moment.

"I decided what would be funny would be for me to chase the skunk," he said during a telephone interview Wednesday while driving to Farmington for his appearance at this year's festival. "I chased that skunk in front of 200 or so sixth-graders. I remember thinking, 'If this skunk stops or turns around, I'm in trouble.'"

Waving his arms about and growling, Irwin was intimidating enough to send the skunk scurrying back into the bushes before the scene turned chaotic. The relieved kids thought it was hilarious, and, thanks to his quick thinking, Irwin found he already had earned the audience's approval by the time he took the stage a short while later.

Irwin said he puts his storytelling skills to use in everything he does, but he said heading out on the storytelling festival circuit is his favorite pursuit.

"I would rather hang out with storytellers than anybody on the road," he said. "I'm in the joy business, and they're the nicest folks. It's not a lonely road."

Irwin said he made a promise to himself several years ago that he would no longer work with people he didn't like, and that vow has been easy to keep because of the tight-knit and caring nature of the storytellers community, he said.

Irwin said he has built a friendship with another one of the Four Corners Storytelling Festival performers, Anne Rutherford, and her husband over the years, even though they come from different parts of the country. Irwin is a native Georgian whose material largely reflects his southern roots, while Rutherford was raised in the Northeast before relocating to the Pacific Northwest after college.

A mandolin player, she accents her stories with music and specializes in folklore and ghost stories. Rutherford also notes she is an award-winning liar — and has the trophies to prove it.

"Liars contests are part of the storytelling world," she said, explaining she entered a liars contest several years at the recommendation of her storytelling mentor and won. "Every good lie starts with the truth. Then you try to stretch it a little at a time and try to keep the audience with you."

By the time a listener realizes he or she has been had, they've enjoyed the story so much, they don't care, she said. Gently tugging the audience along for that journey is the secret to being a good liar, she said, explaining that she came by her talent naturally.

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"I think it was my Catholic upbringing," she said, laughing.

Rutherford said she's learned to rely heavily on audience feedback while performing. In her early days on the storytelling circuit, she said, that wasn't a skill she had honed yet, and she recounted an experience that almost had disastrous consequences.

Rutherford was performing for an audience of children in an enclosed, blow-up bounce castle on a warm day. As she weaved her tale and became immersed in her performance, she failed to notice how heated it was becoming in the castle with all those squirming children. One young listener became so hot he almost fainted, then the entire castle collapsed, sending 50 children and Rutherford fighting for the exit.

That taught her the value of reading the crowd — not just paying attention to everyone's comfort level, but taking note of what listeners respond to and how they respond.

"I learned I've got to be more aware," she said. "Now, I appreciate the stimulus all around me. Sometimes that gives me different ideas and takes me in a different direction."

This will be Rutherford's first performance in Farmington, and she is looking forward to the experience. She said she loves going before audiences at older, well-established storytelling festivals like the one here.

"Festivals like this that have got a long history, you've got listeners that have been coming repeatedly over the years," she said. "Those are great audiences to be with."

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This weekend's lineup also includes storytellers Sunny Dooley, J. Omar Hansen and Lori Prescott Hansen.

The festival begins with a session from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday in Berg Park, then continues with sessions at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at the Totah Theater, 315 W. Main St. Another session runs from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Saturday in the park before the festival concludes with the finale at 6:30 p.m. at the theater.

Admission is free. Visit infoway.org or call 505-599-1270 for a full schedule of events.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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