ED2019 Caro Meets ED2019 Children's Shows ED2019 Interviews

Danyah Miller: I Believe In Unicorns

By | Published on Saturday 3 August 2019

Parents of Fringe-going children may already recognise Danyah Miller, because her show – a storytelling version of ‘I Believe In Unicorns’ by Michael Morpurgo – has graced edfringe before, to much acclaim.

Miller’s work has also found favour with the great Morpurgo himself, who says “Danyah’s one of the great storytellers in this country… she brings stories to life in the most enchanting way”.

The last time we spoke to Danyah it was about a show aimed at adults and we’ve never really talked to her about ‘I Believe In Unicorns’. So it seemed about time we put that right. I made a date to ask her some questions, to find out more about the show and lots more besides.

CM: Just quickly – for readers who don’t know – can you give us a brief outline of what ‘I Believe In Unicorns’ is all about…?
DM: The show is a theatrical storytelling production based on the beautiful and enchanting story by Michael Morpurgo – writer of War Horse. It is the story of 8 year old Tomas, who hates school and hates books but finds that his world is turned upside down after he’s dragged to the library, by his mother, and meets The Unicorn Lady. The show is about the power of imagination, stories and books and the strength of a community which, through Tomas, comes together as the war almost robs them of their stories.

CM: I would have thought most parents of children of any age would be well aware of the work of Michael Morpurgo, but for any that don’t, can you tell us a bit about him?
DM: Michael Morpurgo’s an award winning author and storyteller, who believes in ‘literature over literacy’. He has written in excess of a hundred superb books for children – although his stories appeal across the generation – the most famous is ‘War Horse’, others include ‘Private Peaceful’, ‘Kensuke’s Kingdom’ and ‘The Amazing Story Of Adolphus Tips’. Michael was a primary school teacher for many years, and this was when he began to share stories with children. In 2003, Michael was appointed the third Children’s Laureate.

CM: He’s clearly a fan of your interpretations of his work – can you tell us about your friendship with him and his support for your shows?
DM: Michael is an incredibly kind and generous man who has supported us as we’ve developed this show and another – ‘Why The Whales Came’, which we produced in 2016. One of the most incredible things for me, as a creative practitioner, is that he really understands that the medium of book and theatre are different, so he’s not restrictive in his permission for us to explore the story and find a new form for it. I love working with Michael, and on his stories, which are often multilayered and thought-provoking whilst still being great pithy stories.

CM: How did you go about creating an adaptation of a well known book? What’s the working process?
DM: I work very closely with both the director and designer, in this instance Dani Parr, and Kate Bunce, over an extended period of time. We first meet to discuss the themes that appeal to us most and to answer three key questions: Why this? Why now? Why me? We usually have two separate, one-week, development periods, perhaps 3 – 6 months apart, between which we continue to explore set design and story arc etc. Finally we’ll rehearse for a three week period running up to the opening performances. During this time we play on the set and with the props that have been created as a result of the previous process. Finally the ‘words’ (script), emerge through improvisation and play.

CM: Can you explain what to expect from your performance in the show? What is your approach to storytelling?
DM: The show is set in a library full of books and the Unicorn Lady – me! – recognising that a library is only a library because of its books, decides to share the story with Tomas, because without him this library just wouldn’t have these books. As the story begins we see that the books hold more than stories in their pages! As a storyteller I move in and out of character and then back to narrator, in the tradition of oral storytelling. I use many storytelling techniques and styles, including audience interaction, a mythical tale and a playful spontaneous story thrown in for good measure!

CM: I’ve heard that you feel the seasons are really important to the way you tell stories – can you expand on that?
DM: I think we’re extremely fortunate to experience such wonderful and varied seasons in this country and I love to acknowledge these in my work. There’s more and more research about the healing power of nature, gardens, plants and trees but many children are losing touch with this natural world, not spending time outside, in uninterrupted play, climbing trees, wading in mud, swimming in the rivers, exploring as I did as a child. I want my storytelling to be a bridge back to that world of magic and beauty – particularly for young children who benefit and grow enormously in a natural environment.

CM: It seems to me that children are being drawn away – largely by devices and the internet – from stories in the traditional sense, although I suppose one could argue that some of the content they absorb through the likes of YouTube is a type of oral storytelling. Do you think it’s a problem, and if so, do you have any thoughts on how we can keep them interested?
DM: We live in a world where we all have access to an unprecedented amount of technology. We won’t know how this is affecting us or our children in the longer term for at least one generation, probably more. However, it isn’t going away so I’m interested in how we can harness it as a tool that’s useful to our creativity rather than us becoming slaves to it. I believe that the ancient art of oral storytelling, face to face, heart to heart, is a crucial component in our lives and even a homeopathic drop can act as a balancer to our ‘on-screen’ world, which can be isolating and lonely.

Storytelling is an ever evolving medium but there is something special about being together with others to share a good tale. We all share stories all the time; in the office, the pub, in our marketing, our discussions and our intimate moments – storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human.

CM: Tell us why you keep coming back to the Fringe. What do you like about it? What do you look forward to when you know you’re going to be in Edinburgh?
DM: I love the buzz and camaraderie of the Fringe, I love the chance to show my work to a wide and eclectic audience, I love meeting up with colleagues and being introduced to new ones, exploring ideas with them. I love seeing shows that I might not otherwise get the chance to see. I love the beautiful city of Edinburgh. I’ve been coming to the Fringe, on and off, as a theatre producer, performer and punter since 1984 and there’s something comforting about the paradox of how it hasn’t changed in that time and yet how different it is each year.

CM: Are there any shows you are planning to see when you are up for the Fringe this year? Are there other storytellers you look out for?
DM: Before I head to the fringe I prepare a list of shows I want to see, for example companies whose work I admire and find inspiring, but I also like to listen to ‘the buzz on the ground’ when I arrive and go with the flow of this. In this way I’m introduced to new companies – I love these new discoveries. I did this last year when I stumbled across Thom Monckton’s wonderful show ‘The Artist’, I can’t wait to see his show, ‘Only Bones 0.1’, this year. I do love seeing what other storytellers are doing – but of course, we’re all storytellers, we just find different mediums in which to tell our stories

CM: What plans do you have for after the Fringe?
DM: I’m on tour with ‘I Believe In Unicorns’ during October and I’m concurrently co-producing ‘Pippi Longstocking – The Musical Adventure’ with Royal & Derngate Theatre which opens there at Christmas.

CM: What aims do you have for the future? Any new projects planned?
DM: My next solo show, based on ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett, will begin first stage development in January 2020, and I’m writing a book – about storytelling with children – which I hope to finish next year too, so I have plenty to keep me occupied and out of mischief for quite some time!

Danyah Miller performed ‘I Believe In Unicorns by Michael Morpurgo’ at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2019.