Performer Danyah Miller on Why the Whales Came

It’s September, I can hear the birds singing as I walk the dogs, taste the sharp burst of blackberries in my mouth and smell sweet autumn creeping into the air, the sun a little cooler in the sky. It seems to me to be the perfect time to return to rehearsals. Our new show will open just as the nights begin to draw in a little. I know that families, large and small, will travel to theatres, art centres and libraries across the country to enjoy this live experience together and I’m excited that it’ll be part of the wonderful Get Creative Family Arts Festival which takes place throughout October. To take part in the Festival, you can register and upload events here.

We’re rehearsing for our new one woman show ‘Why the Whales Came’ . This is Dani, Kate’s and my second show together. We first collaborated on Morpurgo’s wonderful tale ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ which successfully toured nationally and internationally for nearly three years.

Our decision to create a second show based on a Morpurgo story was easy. He’s a master storyteller and his stories are so rich and multi-layered.

As I walk with the dogs, I consider how long it takes to bring a piece of theatre to fruition, many hours, days and months of planning, raising finance, booking venues, finding the perfect team to work on the many aspects of the show from creative to press and marketing to production. Rehearsals are of course a major aspect of the process but, particularly with devised work I think the spaces in between rehearsals are as important as the rehearsals themselves. This gestation period allows us time to consider ideas of plot and structure, sound, lighting, video projection and set design: the world and atmosphere of the story is being born. Of course during these periods the producing work continues too…

It occurs to be that producing and creating theatre is a little like trying to push a huge beached whale back into the sea.

I also realise that there’s so much more to the birth of a show than an audience ever imagines, and if it’s done well and with a little theatre luck, the audiences will never see ‘behind the scenes’, they will only enjoy the whole experience and come away feeling satisfied and inspired.

Our explorations, research and development for the show began back in January 2015.

First and foremost we know it’s the story which is most important, from this everything else can follow. We ask ourselves questions ‘Who’s telling the story?’ ‘Why are we telling the story and to whom?’ and ‘why now?’. We eat cake and chips, nuts and apples and ponder these questions, kicking answers around, leaving somethings unanswered; making notes, exploring ideas from a variety of angles.

I remember in our first rehearsals examining the themes and images that most interested and appealed to us individually and collaboratively. Themes of communication, misunderstandings and prejudices, community, friendship, adventure, bullying and bravery.

A few months later we brought car loads of wood, rope, string, paper, scaffolding, shells, boat paraphernalia into the room. Kate and Matt (our stage manager) erected a series of playing areas for me to improvise on and around. Other creative artists were invited into the room, throughout the week, to stimulate ideas and provoke our play. Dani met with Morgan, a dramaturg and script writer as I explored the movement of the three main characters with Jennifer, a dancer and devising actor with whom Dani has previously worked. I was thrilled to discover the physical differences between the two children and a completely separate impulse and gesture for The Birdman, an 80 year old man, one of the main protagonists.

Bev, a skilled actor and professional sign language interpreter, joined us. Dani set us improvisational tasks where Bev and I, in role, had to communicate, none-verbally, with each other and make ourselves understood. This work later inspired me to attend an introductory 6 week evening class in sign language.

Dani introduced Gemma, a superb voice coach, to the process. She challenged me to explore the range and qualities in my voice, leaving me with voice exercises to practice daily.

By the end of the week we evaluate our work, what we want to carry forward and which of the playing areas delighted us most. Kate now leaves with a range of ideas and challenges to begin to create the world of ‘Gracie and Daniel’.

My experience of rehearsals is of being out at sea, with no sight of land around, sometimes the waves crashing and overwhelming me, sometimes I’m not sure I’ll stay afloat, other times there’s a sense of calm so I can see clearly for miles and the possibilities are endless. As we travel through rehearsals I know the best way forward is to trust the process, accept the unknown, put my oars in the water and be steered by the director…

As the year has progressed we’ve added layers and decisions to those we’ve already discovered and agreed.

The rest of the creative team was appointed in the spring – Martin and Will join us again, having worked so successfully on ‘Unicorns’ and Cate Blanchard was our first choice of Video Designer. We enjoyed working with Jennifer so much that we ask her to continue as our movement director…

And so our exploration continues, on the phone, by e-mail, a riotous day together on the beach to capture photograph and video footage; dipping into the shared ‘Whales’ Pinterest board; a trip to London for Kate and me in search of my costume – in and out of fitting rooms, arms filled to bursting with shoes, skirts, jeans, culottes, shirts, jumpers, t-shirts – chatting merrily as I parade in front of mirrors until both of us are spinning with excitement, laughter and fatigue; a further week of rehearsals in July when we broke the story down, bit by bit, to arrive at a rough storyboard; in images, words and video, the whole the team working together.

And here I am at the beginning of September, walking the dogs, doing my voice exercises and increasing my physical training, the weekend before our final rehearsals begin on Monday. We’ll all meet at OvalHouse in London to row steadily, quickly, towards the launch of our production, at Watford Palace Theatre on Saturday 24th September, in advance of our national tour throughout autumn.

I contemplate what the next few weeks has in store for me, and project forward. What will it feel like to step on stage again in front of an audience to share this next story? Doubts and uncertainty race through my head – Can I do it? What will the show be like? Will the audiences like it and respond well?… Will I know all my words? Am I good enough? These thoughts begin my heart pumping faster and faster, as if I’m entering a storm… I’m scared.

And then, in an attempt to calm the waters of my emotions, I focus on the families who have booked, or will be booking, to see the production, some of whom saw and loved ‘Unicorns’ . I see the children’s faces smiling up at me, the wonder in their eyes as we cast off together on another story adventure. I imagine adults commenting about how magical it is to share this moment with their children and/or grandchildren.

These are the thoughts that remind me why I love my work so much, why the long journey towards the opening of a production is so worthwhile. I love the opportunity of drawing family and communities together to experience a magical moment, to offer them high quality productions in their own neighbourhood and the chance it gives me to share my deep and passionate love of story.

Danyah Miller, Performer / Adaptor

Creative Team

Dani Parr Director / Adaptor

Kate Bunce Designer

Cate Blanchard Video Designer

Jennifer Jackson Movement Director

Martin Thompson Sound Designer

Will Evans Lighting Designer Morgan

Lloyd Malcolm Dramaturge

Gemma Boaden Voice Coach

Bev Wilson Sign Language Interpreter

Matt Llewellyn Smith Stage Manager

Pauline Fallowell @ Boom Ents Marketing

12 September 2016