It all begins with a little child’s imagination.
Michael Morpurgo’s I Believe in Unicorns tells the story of Tomas, who lives in a little village in Eastern Europe who loves the hills and the mountains, running free, and being in his own imagination, creating his own worlds. His mum drags him to the library, much against his will – until he realises that opening a book opens up a whole new world as well, where his imagination can run as wild as it does up in the mountains.
Years later, another young child’s imagination was to start the chain of events that would result in this much-loved children’s book being transformed into a magical theatrical show.
“My daughter Sofie, when she was about seven, set up a storytelling club,” explains Danyah Miller, the former Kings Langley resident and professional storyteller who is bringing the production to St Albans as part of Family Arts Festival 2014. “She charged ten pence entrance! The children came and listened to the stories after school, we had a huge attendance, and one of the mothers, to say thank you, gave me a copy of the book. I just fell in love with it.
“Sofie is 12 now and she loves the show, but she’s seen it a lot. She’s a bit like ‘Do I have to come and see it again?’”
Danyah and her husband John, who run the theatre and production company Wizard Presents, started working on the idea and last year took I Believe in Unicorns, which stars Danyah on stage alone working her magic in the midst of the beautifully designed on-stage library, to Edinburgh and then on a tour of libraries in Hertfordshire, and this summer have been in residence with it at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand.
Danyah was a child with a very big imagination herself. “My mum was always telling me to stop telling tales,” laughs Danyah, who moved with the family to Tring at the beginning of this year. “I was forever telling fibs, and that’s basically what a storyteller is, isn’t it? Somebody would say to me ‘What did you do yesterday?’ and I’d make up this whole, elaborate story when I’d probably just stayed at home and read. They weren’t malicious stories, but they were very inventive.”
This inventive stretched to entertaining her schoolmates and ‘playing the fool’, and Danyah says she can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be on the stage.
“Anyone who was sitting down, anyone who would listen, I’d tell them a story. I often got sent out of my classes for talking too much!”
Danyah is a lot more forgiving of this behaviour herself when she goes into schools now to run storytelling workshops.
“The literacy level of some of the infants and primary school pupils I’ve worked with in Hertfordshire has improved dramatically after we’ve done storytelling with them,” she says. “I think all children should have the opportunity to be able to share stories. Your imagination is like a muscle, isn’t it? The more you use it the stronger it becomes.”
Danyah’s imagination led her to Bretton Hall College in Yorkshire to study drama and dance and then to Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris to train in physical theatre. But her heart never let go of storytelling, her first love, and when she saw an advert for a schools storyteller when she returned to the UK she applied and has never looked back.
Danyah now runs storytelling workshops for adults and children and is a visiting teacher at the International School of Storytelling in East Sussex, where she also trained, when she isn’t performing in Wizard productions or writing her own stories.
She says: “To any children who have big imaginations and want to have a go at storytelling, I would tell them: Follow your dreams.”
Trestle Arts Base, Russet Drive, St Albans on Sunday, October 26, 2pm and 4pm. Details: 01727 850950, trestle.org.uk For more festival events visit familyartsfestival.com