Danyah Miller will be performing “I believe in Unicorns” at the Edinburgh Fringe this years. In this interview we have discussed her motivation behind his performance, her believe in the importance of books and storytelling and why she choose this particular children book to perform.
What is so special about Oral Storytelling?
Oral storytelling is one of the most ancient art forms and is a unique form of human expression. Stories have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education and cultural preservation over thousands of years.
Our lives are ‘stories’ so that these and the stories around us can form a powerful sense of who we are and who we will become. We tell stories every day as we interact with our families, friends and colleagues.
Storytelling underpins literacy too by improving our skills in reading and writing. Including strengthening the imagination and our ability to reason. Supporting the richness and emotional range of our writing, training our memories, offering us a moral compass and helping us to empathise with others. Thus enabling us to look at ourselves and find where we belong in the world.
Stories can motivate children to connect with their learning across the curriculum as it brings facts to life.
Children who grow up with oral stories develop a wealth of knowledge, skills and resources which are available to them throughout their lives. Stories can also offer an antidote to the stresses of our world.
What changes have you witnessed through this form of storytelling?
Over and again I’ve witnessed firsthand the powerful positive effect of oral storytelling both on children and adults.
One mother came to thank me at the end of ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ (whose main themes are about the power of imagination, storytelling, reading and books) because her 7-year-old daughter – who had only wanted to read picture books – said after the show ‘mummy, I’m ready to read chapter books now’. On a separate occasion, one father spoke to me after a performance saying that he hadn’t picked up a book in 25 years since leaving school but that he felt inspired to go home and now read to his children.
I can confirm many transformations whilst working creatively in schools, including tangible improvements in children’s learning outcomes. With many of them wanting to tell and write their own stories when before they had shown little interest.
It is clear to me that oral storytelling offers us a myriad of opportunities. Particularly since we now live our lives at such a fast pace. I believe stories give peace to our minds and feed our souls and can inspire us to achieve more than we thought possible. Meeting the world reinvigorated and renewed.
Why is it important to keep libraries open?
Like oral storytelling, I believe that we need libraries. They are warm, inviting, safe spaces in our communities where we have free access to books, information, and ideas. They also deliver other opportunities; courses, clubs, activities, art programmes etc.
Often with a cafe and cosy areas, that contribute towards our education, wellbeing and health. Like the local pub, church or post office they offer a place of connection and socialising for everyone within the community.
As Tomas’s mum says in ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ “books open up whole new worlds where you can do and be anything that you want’.
Books stimulate us and can help us become more creative, interested in the world around us, enhance our tolerant of others and open our minds to change.
The Summer Reading Challenge alone brings in over 700,000 children to the library each year and this has been a source of great fun, pride and stimulation for families since its inception in 1999.
I believe it is particularly important now, as local authorities are under great pressure and having to make incredibly difficult choices, that we stand up and fight to keep our libraries open for our children and their children.
What style do you use for your storytelling?
If I have to define my style, I suppose that I would say that I’m a theatrical performance storyteller, heavily influenced by movement and dance.
My storytelling style and approach is certainly informed by my own history and biography, my own story and the stories around me. I have always been transfixed by different tales.
From a young age, I loved to hear the stories of my parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods listening to adults reading books to me that would transport my imagination to other realms. I have never stopped wanting to hear stories, as an adult, I still enjoy listening.
What is your theatre background and learning style now?
My training in drama and dance (Bretton Hall College) at Lecoq (Paris), was in physical theatre and mime.
Since then I continually try to develop and improve my skills, through research, courses, reading and working with outstanding practitioners.
My audiences, in particular, the children, teach me and show me what works and what doesn’t as they engage with the songs, rhymes, games and stories that I bring to them. I’ve learned a great deal about a child’s development and observe this as I work with children of different ages and abilities.
I believe that children nowadays are particularly in need of oral stories. They are surrounded by a great deal of ‘passive media’ distracting them from the serious business of play. Once, I was sharing ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ in a library a young boy of around 6 years old was listening and transfixed. When he suddenly turned to his mum and in a booming voice said ‘mum, put her on pause, I need the loo’
My passion is to bring families and communities together to share stories, to engage with each other in this way, to ‘breathe’ together, to share the heart of a story.
How did you find the process of adapting a well-known book into a theatre show?
Michael Morpurgo is a master storyteller and I have learned that his stories are rich and multi-layered, so when we embarked on adapting this beautiful story into a piece of theatre it was with some trepidation. However, I soon discovered that Michael is a generous and encouraging author who understands completely that writing a book and creating that same story for the stage are two different art forms. He gave us free rein to invent and mould during rehearsals and for that, we are so grateful, it made the process so much easier and I’m sure we created a better show as a result.
What processes do you use to create your pieces?
It often takes a long time to bring a piece of theatre from page to stage, many months and sometimes years. This is particularly true with devised work, which is how we created ‘I Believe in Unicorns’.
Creating a method of theatre-making in which the script arises from collaborative, often improvisatory. Our team was made up of the director, designer, myself, another actor and our stage manager. This is my favourite way of creating a show.
When devising I believe that the gaps between one block of rehearsals and the next are as important as the rehearsals themselves. This gestation period allows us time to consider ideas of plot and structure, sound, lighting, video projection, set design: the world and atmosphere of the story are being born. With ‘Unicorns’ we had three blocks of rehearsals two to three months apart from each other.
Our explorations, research and development for the show began with questions such as ‘Who’s telling the story?’ ‘Why are we telling the story and to whom?’, ‘Why now?’ ‘How can we best serve this story?’ ‘What are the themes and images that excite us most?”
What resources do you use?
Almost as soon as we began rehearsals Kate, (our designer) brought in a mountain of books for us to play with alongside a ladder and a wheelbarrow. Some books she’d adapted to include ‘treasures’ – a purse inside a book, a ladder, or some spectacles. We then used our time to play and explore.
By the end of the week, we evaluated our work and decided what we wanted to carry forward. We knew almost immediately that we’d found ‘our world’ and everything should emerge from within a book! As rehearsals continued we added layers and refined our decisions.
My experience of rehearsals is almost always of being out at sea, with no sight of land and sometimes the waves crashing and overwhelming me. I’m not sure I’ll stay afloat at times and then there’s a sense of calm so I can see clearly for miles. As we travel through rehearsals I know the best way forward is to trust the process I now use and accept the unknown while being steered by the Director.
Have you performed at the Edinburgh Fringe before?
Yes, I first performed this show in August 2013, at Pleasance Courtyard, as a two-hander. I remember quite clearly having doubts, uncertainties and asking myself ‘What will the show be like?’ ‘Will the audiences enjoy it and respond well?’ ‘Will I know all my words?’ ‘Am I good enough?’
Thankfully the audiences loved it and continue to do so. The show has changed beyond recognition since that first performance, not least transforming into a solo show! It has now been seen nationally and internationally by over 75,000 people. At the beginning of each new tour upon returning to the rehearsal room, Dani (our director) and I make tweaks and changes.
I begin my voice exercises and increase my physical training in order to be ‘match-fit’ again and feel my heart pounding once again. Although now it’s more in anticipation and excitement as I know this sea and metaphorical waves all too well.