Once upon a time in 1956, a group of Hans Christian Andersen fairytale enthusiasts came together in New York to found the HCA Storytelling Center. For six and a half decades, the HCA Center has attracted and delighted tens of thousands of children, families and child-like spirits with its live storytelling programs taking place every summer by the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park. From the Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes to The Tin Soldier — these well-loved fairytales, along with numerous lesser-known ones, have continued to cast their spell over audiences young and old.
This year marks the 65th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen Storytelling Center in New York. On this occasion, Denmark in New York reached out to the team behind the magic: President Anne-Mette Elkjær Andersen, Chairman Lennard Knud Rambusch and Artistic Director Laura Simms. We wanted to know how they have kept programs alive through the difficult period of the pandemic, what this summer’s anniversary programming is going to look like and why Andersen’s fairytales continue to captivate and inspire people of all ages around the world today.
Denmark in New York: Though we still live in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year marks the 65th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen Storytelling Center in New York. How are you going to celebrate the anniversary?
Anne-Mette Elkjær Andersen: The planning of our anniversary has been very challenging, as the Covid-19 situation is in a constant change of flux. For that reason, we have, planned for the first two months of our season, June and July, to be online, where every Saturday at 11 AM on our Facebook page and our YouTube Channel, children (and adult children) from around the world can see and listen to live storytelling of Hans Christian Andersen (Andersen) and other stories by professional storytellers. One thing that is very important to us, is that our storytellers actually are true storytellers who engage with our audiences in their performances.
We are very encouraged by the rapid decline in Covid-19 infection rates, and plan to celebrate the rest of the season, i.e. August and September, outdoor in Central Park by the Hans Christian Andersen Statue (entrance at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street) every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. We are playing with fun ideas, e.g. having “Andersen” arrive by horse carriage for the Duckling’s Birthday, the last Saturday in September, and with cookies and juice served for everyone attending the birthday party and anniversary.
Lennard Knud Rambusch: It has been difficult to plan a special event to celebrate our 65th anniversary. However, assuming we are in the park we hope to make the Ducklings birthday party (65th birthday) into as a special event. I will try to get a proclamation from, the Mayor of New York, to declare the day a special Andersen Day. Perhaps we can get the New York City Parks Commissioner or the President of the Central Park Conservancy to present it. Actually, the entire year’s program is a celebration of our 65th year.
Laura Simms, Artistic Director: Every summer, except last summer where we had only Andersen tales, our focus has been on presenting traditional stories from around the globe for children of all ages. We have always tried to have at least one Andersen tale in each program. This summer our focus is very special. It is a celebration of how Andersen has been loved and why he is relevant today.
We are planning a special event on the last Saturday of September. We always have a wee party for the Duckling. But this year, we hope to have four five places around the Lake and in front of the Statue with Andersen stories and musicians. Instead of an hour, it will be a two-hour program with storytelling that last half an hour each. We are also aware of the Opening of the New HC Andersen Storytelling Museum in Odense.
The live online events programmed for June and July all share the common theme “Andersen Inspired”. What does that imply?
Laura Simms, Artistic Director: Andersen’s renowned stories were inspired by the tales he heard in Denmark in Odense as a child, and by the many important collections of world folklore being published in the 1800s. In his childhood he suffered the loss of parents and living in poverty. He heard stories, made puppets and loved the natural world. This inspires his tales to uplift children in need, value everyone’s natural right to dream and overcome difficulties, and honor the ability to imagine and find solace in life.
Every session will begin with an iconic Andersen story. The other stories will be either stories he was inspired by or variants of stories from different cultures that are similar. We love to feature tales that have meaning for families, particularly children that promote compassion, giving voice to the unheard, generosity, our connection to the natural world. In our post-Covid return to the park, we want to emphasize the issues that were significant to Andersen — justice, and overcoming the consequences of greed and power over others.
We love to present the brilliant imaginative stories of objects and plants that are alive with kindness and poignancy that are a special feature of Andersen’s world love tales, says Artistic Director Laura Simms.
Can you give one or two examples of how you continuously develop and renew Hans Christian Andersen Storytelling Center as an organization?
Lennard Knud Rambusch: The HCASTC is focused on one purpose — presenting the stories of Andersen and other great storytellers to the children in New York. In this connection we have had outreach to the Andersen Committee in Odense Denmark and, in fact have been honored by that organization for promoting the stories of Andersen. We have received many distinguished guests including HRH Queen Margrethe on the occasion of USA’s bicentennial. For years, we promoted a storytelling contest in NYC’ public schools. We have had school kids tell stories at the statue. During the year of celebration of HCA’s 200 birthday, we cooperated with NYC’s after-school program, which included an art contest illustrating Andersen’s stories. The results of this contest were judged at a gala event at the ASF Headquarters at Scandinavia House. On the occasion of the visit of their HRH Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary we participated in and provided storytellers for a program at the Hans Christian School in Harlem where, for many years, we ran training programs teaching the kids storytelling.
Laura Simms: From my part, as Artistic Director, I want to keep increasing the quality and the value of our storytelling in response to what is happening in the world. And, we continuously learn more about Andersen’s impact and significance today.
As the schools open again, we hope to raise funds to continue bringing the benefits of story listening and story performance to our children. This year, we may be able to hold a training session for teachers on how and why stories support our children’s capacity to learn, think with flexibility and intelligence and communicate with one another beyond bias.
Anne-Mette Elkjær Andersen: I think our biggest feat, after 63 years of live storytelling by the Hans Christian Andersen Statue in Central Park, was to move the entire 2020 season online, with live storytelling on social media, and to do so at short notice. Although we miss the outdoor aspect, it has been really special to be able to have storytellers share live storytelling from England, India, USA and other countries in the world, and to have listeners in Denmark, Japan, USA and many other countries.
Another subtle aspect I have noticed, especially with the Andersen stories, is how our professional storytellers always make the stories “their own” with the use of intonation, facial expressions, use of their own words, and little twists to the stories. Somehow, when you hear The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, The Wild Swans or The Tin Soldier, the parallels and lessons in relation to present-day events become readily apparent.
Why do you think the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen keeps inspiring people of all ages around the world today?
Laura Simms: The literary fairytales of Andersen are based on timeless narratives, or written as commentary to antidote and point out injustices. They are always about issues that are still important in our world: overcoming obstacles living from the heart, loss, poverty and bias. Often the stories are transcendent, giving a sense of regard for the mystery of life. They allow everyone to listen creatively and imaginatively. Andersen listeners co-create the stories as they listen with imaginative response. One of the most beautiful allures of Andersen’s language is his love of the environment where interaction between people, nature, angels and animals occur. Ordinary things in our kitchens and homes come to life. He tapped into the most human dilemmas and the most beautiful sources of celebration. Like all great traditional storytellers, he let us know we are part of a living and changing world.
Anne-Mette Elkjær Andersen: Andersen taps into eternal aspects of humanity. One of my favorite stories of all times of Andersen is The Wild Swans, which beautifully illustrates sibling love and the sacrifices siblings will make to help each other. During the 2020 season I found myself surprised by some of Andersen’s lesser-known stories, and how wonderfully they illustrate aspects of humanity. For instance, The Collar, which illustrates how boastfulness will eventually be left in shreds, and The Shadow, a dark tale of how a soulless shadow can take over humanity, if we are not careful, but also The Teapot, which tells of how the things that break us can also result in rebirth and new beginnings with great joys and rewards.
Katrine Nørholm Jensen is the Strategic Communications and Press intern at Denmark in New York
Sofie Dalhoff Saabye is the Culture and Public Diplomacy intern at Denmark in New York