Stories can take listeners on a journey to exciting new places and away from everyday worries, says an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed storyteller and teacher
“Storytellers offer a tale that audiences can follow via their imaginations,” Laura Simms says. “Storytellers do not embody characters. Storytelling is about taking listeners on a journey that may be a pleasant jaunt or a profound exploration or anything in between. Stories expand the territories of one’s mind.”
Simms, the artistic director of the storytelling program in New York City’s Hans Christian Andersen Storytelling Center. will bring her tales to Toronto’s International Storytelling Festival from March 20 to 25.
“From the very beginning I wanted to be a storyteller who brought benefit to people,”, Simms says.
Simms’ storytelling career began about 50 years ago after she dropped out of graduate school to explore “what I really wanted to do.” Initially, she studied acting and taught drama to children. During her stint as an acting teacher she integrated explorations of stories with drama by asking her students to improvise scenes from a fairytale or from the legend of Robin Hood.
Later, she worked as a storyteller at Beth Israel Hospital in downtown Manhattan. There her clients included surgery patients and youngsters with cancer. Her adult patients would meet her “in a small, not very attractive room”, to hear folk and fairy tales. Simms recalls that often she was surprised when, upon completing a story, listeners, who she thought were asleep, reported not only that they enjoyed the story but also that it eased their minds. Some clients shared that the storytelling sessions altered their view of their illness or helped them to accept it. It was during these early stages of her career as a storyteller that Simms realized that “engaged, image driven storytelling” was of benefit to her audiences.
“I remember one girl remarked that without stories there would be no world.”
“Stories are alluring. You want to know what will happen next,” Simms says. She notes that stories encourage explorations of language and images and recalls a 14-year-old boy who observed about a tale, “that part makes me think about the sound of snow falling far away.”
Listeners’ curiosity about what will happen next and what will happen to the characters in the story binds them to the narrative and links them with one another. The teller bonds with listeners on the voyage they take toward the end of the story.
Simms says stories also are deeply restorative because they allow the listener to “put suppressed feelings into an image.” For example, when we read about a character who is walking through the deep dark woods, we may understand that he/she is confronting unknown territory and face the fear of this situation with the character in the story.
Simms says one can claim that stories take you on a journey away from concerns and stress. She also sees storytelling as a communal experience that helps people not feel alone.
Simms considers mythic stories as true in the sense that they offer symbols and situations that hold information about humanity. “Stories touch our imagination and inspire us to action. Myth is not make believe but a story created to reveal truth through characters, images and action.”
As a child, Simms heard few stories herself. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., just after the Second World War. Her father was originally from Poland and her mother’s family was from Romania. “After the Holocaust there were so many secrets and untold stories in the neighbourhood,” she recalls.
Simms compensated for the paucity of tales by reading fairytales in bed at night or telling herself stories. When she was little older she, “began to orchestrate neighbourhood children to act out stories I’d invent based on fairy tales or the story of Robin Hood.”
Today, Simms performs stories at an international level and collaborates on projects related to peacemaking, healing, education and community dialogue worldwide. She has served as artist-in-residence at several universities, co-designed a playground based on a fairytale and helped save a zoo in Romania.
Additionally, Simms is a spokesperson for the healing properties of “oral tradition” and a longstanding member of the Healing Story Alliance and the Therapeutic Arts Alliance of Manhattan. Since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she has devoted many hours to supporting woman and children who were affected by the disaster and to training health workers and educators to use narrative in healing. Of the many awards Simms has won, The Sesame Street Sunny Days Award is significant in that it recognizes her work with children worldwide.