Alcinous, majesty, shining among your island people, what a fine thing it is to listen to such a bard as we have here — the man sings like a god.”
— The Odyssey
It’s fitting that a story about a storyteller begins with a quote about a bard. After all, Homer, if he existed at all, was said to be a poet and bard and a pretty good one at that. The epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey are part of the canon of great literature.
That they still resonate today is testament to the power of the stories. Jeff Wright knows all about that. As a teacher and now professional storyteller and podcaster, those tales of Brave Odysseus, Penelope, Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon and Helen of Troy has taken over his waking life.
He’s created and released podcasts of The Trojan War and most recently The Odyssey that are likely the most successful ever produced in Ottawa with more than half a million downloads into about 170 different countries. Everyone from long-distance truckers to workers in a welding shop to academics and mythology nerds are listening to Jeff spin his web.
And now he’s been acknowledged by an august body of classicists — those academics who have made it their life’s work to study the teachings of the Ancient World.
The Society For Classical Studies, the largest professional body of Classics teachers in the world has awarded him their 2019 Forum Prize. For a retired teacher, for anyone in fact, this is a pretty big deal. And to think it all started when he was a kid and his dad bought him some classic comics that told Homer’s stories in several editions. He also consumed super hero comics featuring the likes of Thor and more and he’s a Lord of the Rings fan to boot.
Jeff is also a professional storyteller these days and his latest show Blame it on Zeus’ Thunderbolt: The REAL Origin Story of the Trojan War will debut at the Arts Court Theatre on Nov. 21 as part of the Ottawa StoryTellers’ Signature Series. By the way if you miss this one, it’ll come around again. His shows are announced on his website.
Wright cut his teeth on Troy and storytelling in a surprising place: Gloucester High School where a few decades ago he was a new Grade Nine teacher handed a dreary copy of The Iliad and told to teach it to his students.
He couldn’t bring himself to teach a book that was boring him stiff, so he decided to try something else.
So he prepared a plan that included five hour long lessons in which told the story of Troy 3,000 years ago.
The enduring power of these stories is what makes them eternally relevant. Dull prose takes away the vibrancy of the characters and their action-packed lives and tragic bloody deaths, Wright said in an interview with ARTSFILE. But told in the vernacular of today these stories can come alive in a classroom.
It worked brilliantly. Soon other teachers were knocking on Wright’s door with their classes and his lectures became a must do. This is where it might have stayed but a freak and serious skiing accident left Wright trying to recover from a debilitating concussion.
As he recovered, he found that teaching in a classroom aggravated his concussion symptoms. But his Homeric storytelling was manageable.
After awhile he made a pitch to the Ottawa-Carleton Board of Education to allow him to bring the stories to other schools as a way to enhance a message on subjects such as bullying, homophobia and other issues of modern life. The schools had to work on these issues anyway and this was an effective way to deliver a positive message that students might actually take in. He has now performed his epic four-hour long Iliad and Odyssey shows in front of more than 15,000 appreciative Ottawa high school students.
Teaching Homer in this way was a door to a career as a storyteller. That’s what he was doing anyway so why not share the good news.
Jeff retired recently and he’s turned to storytelling and podcasting fulltime. It’s worked, probably better that Wright could have imagined.
“The first time somebody cut me a cheque for a live show was in 2014,” he said in an email. But the big splash came with his 2016 personal stories show How to Make Love in a Canoe. At the same time, the Trojan War: The Podcast took off and pulled him away from his Canoe series, and fully into epic Greek poetry.
His podcasts have broadened the reach of his storytelling. The podcasts themselves have not made him rich in any way. In fact, he receives little if any money from the downloads. But, and it’s a big but, they certainly get his name around.
So his performances are well attended and he’s been able to open another front in The Trojan War storytelling saga. One Trojan War: The Podcast listener put him in contact with a senior Ottawa CEO and and he’s now delivering the meaning of Homer to the corporate and public administration world.
Anyone who is a manager will have been on a retreat where colleagues are encouraged to participate in some kind of bonding session. What better moment of enlightenment could there be than hearing about the foibles of the Greeks and Trojans and applying those lessons to one’s work. So Wright has created what he calls Leadership Lessons from a Bronze Age War, for some of this city’s top leaders and decision-makers. And the bookings are lining up.
In town: Jeff Wright’s Blame it on Zeus’ Thunderbolt: The REAL Origin Story of the Trojan War is at the Arts Court Theatre (2 Daly Ave.), on Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. It is part of the Ottawa StoryTellers’ Signature Series. For information on tickets and the show: ottawastorytellers.ca.