Storyteller Henrietta Smith has brought books to life for hundreds of children and adults across the United States, Mexico and even Africa. Since she first started her career as a librarian at the New York Public Library, she’s transported people to faraway places and on exotic adventures through the written word.
But years later Henrietta is still sharing her passion for storytelling as a resident at Brookdale North Boynton Beach. And she’s proving that the power of story can impact anyone — no matter how young or old they are.
Learning to Captivate an Audience
When Henrietta began her work as a storyteller she was taught in the New York public library system that "there was no ‘can you’ or ‘do you want to be’ a storyteller. It was ‘you will learn’ to tell stories to different audiences and ages and in places from Central Park to the public schools.”
She learned and studied from the best, Augusta Baker, then head of Children’s Services at the New York Public Library. Augusta taught Henrietta specific techniques, including what Henrietta says is the most important lesson about storytelling.
“As a storyteller, it’s the story that’s important. Don’t worry about dressing up and distracting with your clothes or earrings. Fade yourself away, so the story becomes the essential thing."
Over the years Henrietta has read to countless individuals, in many different cities, but one of her favorite storytelling memories happened in Central Park while she was reading to a group of children.
“As I was talking I heard a ‘thump, thump, thump’ behind me. A policeman on a horse came up. He and the horse just stood there the rest of the time; my stories drew him in. I thought the kids would be distracted, but they just glanced for a minute and were pulled right back to what I was saying. You never know what’s going to happen when telling stories.”
Henrietta's favorite part of the storytelling experience is getting to see her audience’s reaction. She can watch her audience go on the journey with her, share in the characters’ experiences and react to surprising plot twists or happy endings.
And Henrietta finds that this happens just as often with adults as with children.
“I remember going into the schools to tell stories. I’d have the teachers stay. After a bit you can feel their mood change, see them relax, because they’ve gotten into the story too. They’re no longer that third or fifth grade teacher; they’re simply someone enjoying an adventure,” Henrietta says.
Sharing the Gift
Today Henrietta shares not only her stories but also her knowledge of how to be a storyteller with fellow residents and even Brookdale associates, including Nancy Venezia, the community’s resident program coordinator.
Her advice to those interested in storytelling is that “you don’t read the book or memorize it; you learn it. There’s a difference. Learning the story means you can tell it like a conversation.” Beyond that, she says the story itself has to interest you. If it’s not something you care about or want to share, it won’t go over. She says, “It’s gotta be alive in you as you’re telling it.”
Nancy has greatly enjoyed her time learning from Henrietta. She says the storyteller’s positivity is just one of the many things that make Henrietta so loved in her community.
“She’s amazing; very intelligent, upbeat and you’ll never hear her complain. She comes to everything and is not afraid to try something new; it makes my job so rewarding. She’s a gift to all of us.”
And so are her stories.
This article appears in our August 2017 edition of Optimum Life Magazine. Download a PDF of the issue to read more articles like this.