ED2017 Caro Meets ED2017 Interviews ED2017 Review Edition ED2017 Theatre

Danyah Miller: Perfectly Imperfect Women

By | Published on Wednesday 9 August 2017

If you’ve been coming to the festival throughout this decade we find ourselves in, you might have seen Danyah Miller’s 2013 family-orientated one-woman adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s ‘I Believe In Unicorns’.
And if you did, you’ll no doubt be eager to see her latest show, which is aimed at an older audience and focuses on themes of family connections and the desire to achieve perfection.
I spoke to Danyah to find out more about ‘Perfectly Imperfect Women’.

CM: Can you start by telling our readers what kind of performance to expect? Your show is listed in theatre, but it’s really storytelling, isn’t it?
DM: The way I describe the show is that it’s ‘theatrical storytelling with a splash of stand-up thrown in’. It’s a one woman show. I would definitely say I’m a ‘storyteller’ rather than an ‘actor’ but they are very close cousins, and I bring my training in drama and dance, and later at Lecoq in Paris, into my performances.

I believe that we’re all storytellers, sharing stories with each other all the time, whether it be describing our day over a pint in the pub, delivering a marketing pitch, listening to a politician’s spin or our daughter explaining why she didn’t catch the last bus home!

CM: What is the story you are telling in this show?
DM: The show examines why we have a need to be perfect and what’s so bad with imperfection anyway? It’s specifically about five generations of women in my family, from my great-grandmother through to my daughter. In the show I explore the complex relationship between mothers and daughters and what it is to connect more deeply to my own matrilineal line.

CM: To what extent is it autobiographical?
DM: The story is essentially autobiographical but it’s also universal and archetypal. I’ve been told by audience members, men and women alike, that they thought I was telling their story, that it connected with their own biography and history. It definitely provides food for thought…

CM: What themes does the show explore?
DM: The show explores our family lineage, what we pass from generation to generation and what we choose to change or ignore. In the show I consider the journey of discovering ourselves and how this is directly influenced by those who came before us.

The show looks at themes of perfection and imperfection… what are these, what would make us more perfect and is this a good thing anyway? Perfect comes from the latin meaning ‘to finish’, do we want to be finished?

CM: What made you want to look at these themes? What was the inspiration for the show?
DM: My daughter is the inspiration for the show. Unfortunately I haven’t always enjoyed a strong and positive bond with my own mother but I felt instinctively that if I didn’t find a better connection with her, then it could adversely affect the relationship with my daughter. I needed to heal backwards in order to move forwards.

As well as a performer I’m also a storytelling trainer and workshop leader, I often work with biographical storytelling. I have seen how powerful it is both for the teller and the listener to share these personal stories. But I knew that the show had to be more than ‘my story’, that it had to speak to other people’s story and be more universal in its themes and inspiration. Dani Parr (director) Kate Bunce (designer) and I worked together to throw out the purely personal and bring it back together in a more comprehensive way. I hope we’ve achieved this.

CM: I feel as though it’s potentially rather political theme, but that’s probably because I believe that society and the media puts unfair pressure on women. Is it political to you?
DM: I have been acutely aware in the creating and ‘selling’ of this show that I have to make a point of saying that my show is ‘not just women’. I know that, as a woman, I see shows and films, read books, listen to discussions that have men as the predominant lead figures, sometimes the only characters and I don’t question if this story will be of interest to me – as women we have long seen the world through the male lens. However if the show, film, book has a female protagonist, so often both men and women’s first reaction is ‘this is a girl’s subject’. It makes me remember that my grandmother, one of the characters in my story, didn’t get the vote until after she was 30…..

It’s shocking but a reality right now… I want this show to be part of that gradual change which enables men and women to see a show with ‘Woman’ in the title without rejecting it for all the wrong reasons.

This production happens to be about women because I’m a woman, but at heart it’s a story about people and their interrelatedness, about what drives us to want to be better, to be perfect. It’s relevant to everyone who has a mother, although of course like all art it will delight some and not appeal to others – that’s part of the creative process.

CM: Is there an intention to reach out to women struggling to deal with their own imperfections?
DM: When we began to create the show I didn’t have any mighty ideas about how my story could help others, I was invited to create a show which was about women, I eagerly took up that challenge knowing that I wanted it to have a personal feel to it. What I have been inspired to hear is how women in the audience have told me that they have felt liberated, vindicated, relieved. People have thanked me for being so honest and so raw. Some of the men have said ‘this is our story too’.

CM: How does this show compare to your previous, very successful show ‘I Believe in Unicorns’, which you brought to the Fringe in 2013?
DM: I’m thrilled that it’s the same artistic team who devised and created ‘Unicorns’, Dani, Kate, Martin (sound designer) and me, so I’m sure there are our ‘trademark’ touches in both – both are theatrical storytelling productions, with wonderful imaginative props for me to play with, but PIW explores different themes and is made for an older age group (14+). One of the themes that does run through both shows, and is very important to me personally, is the importance and power of ‘connection’, being linked to each other and supporting one another as a family, community, tribe.

CM: That wasn’t your first trip to the Edinburgh Festival, was it? How long have you been visiting for the Fringe, and what have you been involved in?
DM: Golly, I’ve been thinking about this a great deal this year – probably because it’s the 70th birthday year of the Fringe. I first visited as a student in 1984. I was part of the National Student Theatre Company in their administration and marketing team. We had our own venue in Albany Street, with 10 shows running back to back from early morning to late at night. I was part of NSTC for three years and after that came up whenever I could as a ‘punter’ or producer. In 2009 I performed for the first time in a two-handed adaptation of ‘It was a Dark & Stormy Night’ by Janet and Allen Ahlberg at Scottish Storytelling Centre. I have loved being involved in so many different ways and I still do.

CM: What makes you want to return to the Fringe? What do you like about it?
DM: It’s great to be a part of this incredible, intense and hugely creative festival. I love the camaraderie and the opportunities of the fringe. I really enjoy meeting so many talented and interesting people from all over the globe, seeing street theatre and shows, arts and artists of all kinds. I really feel expanded and filled by the end of the month – I also feel exhausted too!

A couple of times when I’ve been performing in London’s West End over the summer months and I’ve looked at all the tweets, Facebook messages and Instrgram posts, it seems that everyone’s heading northwards to Edinburgh and I get twinges of FOMO (fear of missing out). It’s in these moments that I promise myself “next year I’m taking another show to ‘the’ festival”.

CM: What’s your favourite non-Fringe thing to do while you are in Edinburgh?
DM: This year I’m teaching myself to model with balloons. I can make a natty little mouse, I’m now working on a sausage dog, which when it goes wrong seems to become something more like a giraffe. I hope by the end of the month I will have mastered these and other more complex animals and flowers!

I love taking myself away from everything, cuddling up in my pjs and writing my diary….

CM: What’s next for this show, after this Fringe run?
DM: We will be doing a short run of dates in England in September this year – then we’re intending to take the show to Europe in 2019, as part of a larger project working with groups of women in each country offering storytelling workshops and hearing the stories which emerge from these workshops. I’m also open to other ideas for the show which might present themselves as a result of this festival..

CM: What plans do you have for the future?
DM: It’s a busy year ahead, I think – I’ll be touring another of my one-woman shows this autumn ‘Why The Whales Came’ by Michael Morpurgo. Opening a show called ‘Kika’s Birthday’ at Orange Tree Theatre at Christmas – a collaboration between us (Wizard Presents), them and Little Angel Theatre. Next spring I’ll be touring ’I Believe in Unicorns’ again, both nationally and internationally.

‘Perfectly Imperfect Women’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2017.