Interview: Danyah Miller, Why The Whales Came

“I love how this story makes us think about others, about how we view difference and how sometimes we misjudge when we’re unsure or afraid,” says Danyah Miller, award-winning performer and storyteller, of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came. “I would hope that the audience take away a sense of hope and joy and perhaps the feeling that one person can make a huge difference.”

Why the Whales Came sees Danyah again teaming up with director Dani Parr and designer Kate Bunce, following the success of their collaboration on I Believe in Unicorns – also by Michael Morpurgo. “I love working on Michael’s stories because they’re multi-layered and really gripping tales, based in truth,” she explains. “It is often said that he doesn’t patronise children in anyway and takes them, and us, to dark places and back again. I like that. I find his stories full of surprises, sadness, hope, joy. Above all, they’re about ordinary folk often doing extraordinary things during extraordinary times.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Their admiration is mutual; Michael Morpurgo describes Danyah as a “storytelling phenomenon”. What inspired her to take up performing as a career? “As long as I can remember I wanted to be a performer and I certainly ‘entertained’ my way through childhood! I have always been very chatty and there’s nothing I like more than spinning a good tale. How I became a storyteller is a long story…

“I suspect that the difference between being an actor and being a storyteller is a very fine line. As a storyteller we ‘hold’ a central point, as ourselves, and from there paint the world of the story, become characters, weave in and out of landscapes and people, but we always come back to the centre, as ourselves. As an actor we become another character and remain in that role (although of course sometimes actors are asked to multi-role too). Perhaps it’s possible to be both, I suspect that the best in our profession are both actor and storyteller. Stories are everywhere, aren’t they? We are storytelling beings and it’s what makes us human…”

Why the Whales Came is the story of Gracie and Daniel, who’ve been forbidden to go near the mysterious and seemingly dangerous Birdman – but then they find a message in the sand that suggests all is not as it seems. When they get stranded on the Birdman’s tiny island, the two friends begin to unravel his secrets…

Although it’s based on a children’s book, Danyah believes the show has something for everyone: “This is definitely not a show just for children – it is a ‘family’ show in the widest possible sense. We have people of all ages from 7 to 107 enjoying the show whether or not they have children with them. Good stories, good theatre can appeal across the ages and we hope that our show does this.

“I enjoy sharing the show with children who’ve never been to a theatre before or experienced any kind of live show – as an audience they are really responsive and truthful and often give me insightful feedback. I also really enjoy it when families of children, parents and grandparents come to see the show and all of them have been moved by the show in different ways.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

As a solo performer, Danyah may be the only person on stage, but she’s far from lonely. “I really like performing solo, although I feel as if I have a collaborator when I perform on the set, in the ‘world’ that the creative team have produced… the set, projection, lighting and sound,” she says. “I also like to be able to see the audience, we have the lights set so I can do this – so I’m not alone. I think of what I do as a delicious triangle between the story, myself and the audience – every show is different because of this, and I’m never lonely. I do have to make sure that I’m always fit and ready though, as it’s down to me being on top form for every show!”

Why the Whales Came is at Ovalhouse until 31st December, with other one-off performances scheduled for early 2017.

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