Feature

The Story of a Storyteller

Azalea Magazine gets into character with Tim Lowry, Summerville’s master storyteller.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a recent graduate of any local school who has not at some point been entranced by renowned storyteller Tim Lowry. A household name in the Summerville community, the former educator and gifted performer has shared his talents with schools across the Lowcountry for a generation. His performances aren’t limited to children, however. People of all ages have lost themselves in the time and place he creates for each story, told on stages throughout the country as he travels with his family to give audiences a unique experience with each telling.

A combination of theater, folklore, and creative writing, storytelling is both an art and a craft that dates to ancient times. From the epic tales of Homer’s “The Odyssey” to Native American culture thousands of years ago, oral tradition is the common thread that weaves together the human experience, including the tragedy of loss, the adventure of discovery, and the hero’s journey of Everyman. Br’er Rabbit and Ebenezer Scrooge, Odysseus and The Wide Mouth Frog, Gilgamesh and Enkidu all owe their immortality to prodigious storytellers. Stories are the reason we binge-watch, go – or went—to movie theaters, pay exorbitant ticket prices to see Hamilton, and indulge children for “just one more” before bedtime. They are the reason you picked up this magazine. Stories are a necessary part of our existence, connecting us with others and even ourselves. Tim Lowry’s job is making those connections.

“Professional storyteller” is not a vocation most people think of when planning their futures, and Lowry’s own story arc began at Bob Jones University in Greenville. There he enrolled as a theater major after his family moved to South Carolina from Kentucky in 1988. He became enthralled with an elective class in storytelling that would eventually put him on the path of a career performer. But first, he had to discover that path.

As a fine arts major, Lowry was required to also become a certified educator as part of the Bob Jones curriculum. He graduated with a certificate in speech education and then made his way to Charleston, finding employment as a carriage driver. In that role he captivated paying customers who were eager to hear the costumed guide spin tales of the South’s history and mythology to the rhythm of a horse’s gait. Wanting to learn more about storytelling and to spend time with like-minded artists, Lowry called the local library to inquire about local organizations. He learned of two area storytelling clubs and quickly became an active member of one of them, immersing himself in meetings and making connections. Before long, he had auditioned to join the South Carolina Arts Commission and was accepted, where he flourished in his talent while continue to earn his living as a city guide.

He later supplemented his income with a part-time teaching job at Goose Creek High School. As his network and reputation grew, he was invited to perform at local schools, including Summerville Elementary. It was there where Lowry forged a lasting friendship with then-principal Dr. Gene Sires, who quickly became one of Lowry’s biggest fans. Lowry says that Dr. Sires was the only principal who would stay and listen to his every performance, no matter how many times he had seen his shows.

“He even had his favorite story, ‘The Drainjo Man,’ that he would demand I tell before I could leave. He would wave my paycheck over his head until I told it,” Lowry said. When Sires died in 2009, Lowry was approached to tell the story at his memorial service, which he did, bringing comic relief to the ceremony. ‘The Drainjo Man’ was a story straight out of Lowry’s imagination, originally told spontaneously to fill a small window of time at one of his shows. It became an instant crowd favorite, eliciting belly laughs from both school children and life-long educators. The tale is now a Lowry classic.

Dr. Sires was the person responsible for so many Summervillians’ exposure to the storyteller. One day the beloved principal called Lowry into his office, telling him of his plan to ask him to become the school’s artist-in-residence thanks to a newly-earned grant. Yet, Sires recognized the effects of Lowry’s stories on children and their desire to hear – and read – more. So Sires instead proposed using the grant money for Lowry to perform in local schools across the district, and before you could say, “Jack Robinson,” there wasn’t a child in Summerville who didn’t get excited about a visit from Tim Lowry.
Lowry was soon in high demand in schools beyond the Summerville town limits. But as anyone who has made a living off grants knows, the future was still uncertain. While attending a drama conference with his wife, Bonnie, also an educator, the couple had an epiphany: Lowry had grown in his art to the point where he might no longer have to depend on grants. He felt that his gift was a calling, and pursuing a calling is an act of faith. With strong faith in God, Tim’s talent and each other, the Lowrys decided that he would become a professional storyteller full-time on his own accord. Bonnie had left teaching when their first daughter arrived. With this new decision, she became a full-time wife and homeschooling mother to their two daughters, and the entire family hit the road for performances near and far.

Lowry considers the national storytelling community an “extra family,” as members have become close friends at national and regional festivals. The pandemic has temporarily eliminated this part of Lowry’s life, sending him and other storytellers online for virtual performances rather than working with the energy and reactions of a live audience. When asked the difference between theater and storytelling, Lowry replies, “What is true of theater is truer of storytelling,” meaning that the dynamic between performer and audience is different with each telling, as the audience is a partner in the story. “I avoid Zoom like the coronavirus,” Lowry says of virtual experiences, which relegate his five-dimensional talent to a two-dimensional screen. Yet, the show must go on.

After months of figuring out how to adapt his craft to a digital setting, Lowry began creating videos, live streams, and even led a virtual theater camp. He also saw this down time as an opportunity to pursue an idea that had been percolating in his fertile mind: with a publishing goal of February 1, Lowry plans to launch an online periodical called All The Year Round, which he describes as a family magazine based on Charles Dickens’ own publication. The magazine will include everything from stories and writing to games, videos, and more. This project enables him to continue creating while exploring other outlets for his imagination with hopes of finding his online audience as robust as his live ones. While Lowry can’t wait to resume his live shows, including his monthly performances at the Timrod Library, Lowry is excited and optimistic about his new venture. The present time allows him to employ his teaching skills by working with Bonnie in homeschooling their daughters while contemplating the post-pandemic world of storytelling.

Lowry’s oral library ranges from timeless folk tales to original fiction and personal narratives. If you’ve somehow missed his masterful telling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, then you now have a new goal for the future. No doubt, this past year will inspire new material, similarly to how recent years have been the muse for his popular tale, “Br’er Rabbit for President.” While there hasn’t been much to win applause over the course of a year marked by loss and isolation, if anyone can find a story worth telling imbedded in a time of contagion, it’s Tim Lowry. After all, as his own hero, Dickens, says, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” AM