I Believe in Unicorns: Interview with Danyah Miller
Danyah Miller is co-founder, artistic director and producer at theatre company, Wizard Presents. Wizard Presents has produced many successful shows such as Perfectly Imperfect Women, Why the Whales Came and Pippi Longstocking. Danyah’s production of I Believe in Unicorns, by Michael Morpurgo, will be performed at the Oxford Playhouse Theatre and live- streamed on Thursday 15th of April at 2pm and on-demand from Friday 16th to Sunday 18th of April. There will also be a post-show talk at 3.30 pm via Zoom on Thursday 15th with Danyah Miller and Michael Morpurgo. Book tickets here.
I spoke to Danyah over Zoom on Tuesday 13th April and we talked about I Believe in Unicorns, theatre during lockdown, and the magic of storytelling.
Have you been performing during lockdown?
Yes, I’ve been doing quite a lot but most of it has been via audio and on camera. When the first lockdown happened, I thought, I’m going to have a bit of a rest because I’d been working really hard; I’d been out on tour, I’d just opened a new show. Then about two or three days into lockdown, I got emails from friends who work in retail asking me to do some bed-time stories for their customers. So I went straight into a whole load of recordings very quickly. I’ve worked all the way through the whole period.
How did the play I Believe In Unicorns Come About?
When my daughter was about 7 – she set up her own story telling circle in our house. She would put duvets, cushions and chairs in our sitting room and invite all her friends to come along. Parents started to come too. Each person would each tell a story or joke. My daughter would tell the last story, which would always involve something about food. She would then serve food.
One of the parents gave me a book to say thank you. The book was I Believe in Unicorns by Michael Morpurgo – I read it and loved it. A number of years later I got together with the creative team, Dani Parr, our director, Kate Bunce, our designer, and the whole team to create this show. We created it in 2013 and took it to the Edinburgh Festival. It did so well that someone from the West End asked me to bring it to the West End.
Has working under COVID restrictions had any unexpected benefits?
I suppose what’s lucky is that a lot of the shows that we do as a company, Wizard Presents, are solo shows – so once we fully open up, we’ll be able to take the shows quickly to different places.
One of the unexpected benefits is how privileged we feel and how thrilled we are to work in this industry and to get back to what we love doing.
But it’s been tough for people who work in the theatre industry…it’s been tough.
You first created the show in 2013. Are you going to adapt the play for streaming?
Over today and tomorrow, we’re rehearsing it to work out what bits we might have to change or develop for a live stream. What’s interesting to me is that the performance that you give when you’re performing to a live audience is much more heightened than if I’ve got this screen between us. In some ways this [Zoom call] is more intimate. If I start being very big and making big gestures to the back of the auditorium, to you it will look a bit odd.
Today, I’m rehearsing with my stage manager, Matt Llewellyn Smith. Matt does as much as I do on this show – he just doesn’t move as much! He operates the sound, the lights and makes sure that everything’s set up and ready to go. Between us, we’re a team. Whenever I take my bow, if there’s a live audience who clap, I’m accepting that applause on behalf of a very big team.
Do you think that live streamed theatre will still have a place after COVID?
I think streamed theatre is here to stay. A lot of theatres have invested in very good, high tech equipment. But I also think that people long to get out. They long to have an experience that only theatre can give – which is to be together, to congregate and to be live. I think the two will have to play side by side.
I’m doing another show in July, where I will be performing Meet Pippi Longstocking – it will be live and we’ll also record it so that people who can’t access it will be able to see it via streaming.
What are your feelings about digital inequality, which means that poor children won’t get to see your shows?
I think that the digital world will allow some people to see shows that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see because they don’t live close enough or they can’t afford to go to the theatre. But on the other hand, some people who don’t have the equipment to see it at home need to be able to have places where they can go and see it in person.
As a company, we do a lot of touring to different venues - libraries, arts centres, schools, colleges and small spaces. I always try to create shows with the creative team which can adapt to the very largest and the very smallest spaces. Sometimes people don’t want to go into a theatre or they’ve never been to a theatre before and will be more comfortable in other settings.
What do you think about the message of the play and what it means in the COVID era?
For me, the biggest message of this story is about community. It’s about supporting one another and it’s about the power of stories, books and libraries. Today, Cressida Cowell, our children’s laureate, has sent a letter to the government asking for libraries to have available in every school. I have heard that there are laws to say that you have to have a library in prisons but there’s no law to say there must be a library in a school.
So when we talk about digital poverty, we’re also talking about some children who don’t have access to libraries. Books are so important for our imagination. And we need our imaginations more than anything now, because we’re living in times that none of us ever expected. We need our imaginations to be able to make our way through this. The power of imagination through stories, whether you read them or hear them, is really important. Libraries are the places that everybody can go to experience that.
Why do you think stories, fairy tales in particular, are so important and have lasted for so long?
I could talk to you for hours about this! The thing with stories is that they tell us about our past, and they help us to navigate a future. What they also do is build our empathy. They allow us to understand each other and ourselves. A good story, it reaches inside of us and it somehow begins to work on us.
We’ve been telling stories since the beginning of time. As humans, we to try and make sense of everything through a narrative, through story. Good stories allow us to go to places we wouldn’t otherwise be able to go, both emotionally and physically. A good story supports our health, wellbeing, makes us stronger emotionally. Stories help us to understand people, they provoke us to think, dream and to go further than we ever thought we could go.
What is your favourite fairy tale?
Fairy tales are about the journey of the inner part of us. The hero sets off on a journey meets all sorts of adversities, problems, difficulties and wicked people. They have to overcome those things and when they do, they grow stronger and wiser as a result. So it’s a journey and it’s the journey that we make through our lives I think.
My favourite fairy tale is called Princess Reedcap. It was read to me by my father when I was very little and I realised much, much later that it is pretty much the same story as King Lear.
What I find lovely about stories is that you’ll find the same sort of stories in lots of different cultures. They’re all slightly different. Before the written word , we spoke stories and we passed them down from generation to generation. Spoken stories travel all around the world, so you get different versions and I love that. The one fairy story that you might know, which is another favourite of mine, is Rumpelstiltskin.
Are there only 7 stories in the world?
It’s not that there are 7 stories, but 7 story structures. So every story will fit into one of those story structures.
Do you think that story tellers have a responsibility to tell the truth in their stories?
That is a whole conversation about the nature of truth! Is truth something that is sometimes bigger than reality? Is there a truth in something that isn’t necessarily real? It’s a very philosophical question! We need all day to answer this one!
But I think story tellers do have a responsibility. I think that the spoken word, bringing stories through the aural tradition, is a very important gift that we can carry as story tellers into the world. For me as a storyteller, serving the story is important. Truth has many layers to it. The idea of whether we tell facts in our stories is different to the idea of whether the story is truthful.
How much do you think that children should know about the world – like Black Lives Matter, COVID, Sarah Everard?
My feeling is that very little children, shouldn’t necessarily be exposed to a lot of the issues that we have going on in the world. Because, if you’re too young, and there’s nothing you can do about a problem, then I think you can damage the children through too much anxiety, worry and stress. By the time that they get to an age when they could become effective activists, they might be paralysed by apathy and fear.
I think it’s about what we share at what age. It’s a matter of degree.
I really believe in play, imagination, in allowing children to be children so that they can have fun and run wild in the hills like I did when I was a kid, and the way Tomas does in I Believe In Unicorns, so that they can be stronger as adults.
Young reviewer, Charlotte Trichard, age 12, has been going to the theatre regularly since she was a baby. She is looking forward to going back to the theatre when things open up. Charlotte loves fencing and she plays the piano.
Safeguarding procedures were in place throughout the interview process.
Photo Credit: The Other Richard.