People Profile – Danyah Miller – Storyteller & Writer

Dress rehearsal for Kika, the story of a little French mouse, who is going to be 5 years old! Her family has planned a birthday surprise – Photo: © The other Richard

I love telling and sharing stories so when I was asked to share my story here of course I leapt at the chance!

Actually I believe that we’re all storytellers, it’s a large part of what makes us human, we make sense of the world through story. Whenever we’re interacting with each other, whether it be at work, in the playground, over a pint or a cup of tea, we’re all sharing stories… adverts are stories, our politicians tell tales all the time don’t they?!

Everything is a story, and if we don’t know what the exact story is then we have a tendency to make one up for ourselves, for example, if we’re looking at a piece of abstract art we reach for a meaning, it’s the same for contemporary dance or music, what story does it tell? In science we want to know the story of the universe, the atom, the disease. If we don’t know the facts, we make them up, like ‘Chinese Whispers’… stories can be used for good and bad – lies are often elaborate stories based on some truth, but then so are novels.

Ironically as a child I’d never heard of the word ‘storyteller’ even though I was always telling tales. I was sent out of class at school a lot for talking too much and being the joker.

For as long as I can remember I wanted to be on stage. I loved dancing up and down my grandparent’s sitting room, acting out scenes from various story books. Looking back I realise that I was forever fabricating, making things up. I would often chat to myself, pretending to be interviewed, about my ‘family’, five Sasha dolls that I loved dearly: Heidi, Paul, Lydia, Simon and Sarah.

The book I remember most vividly from my childhood was ‘Fairy Stories from Many Lands’. I still have it. One of my favourites was The Magic Thread. It made such an impression on me that I adapted it recently for an on-line Storytelling Festival, basing it in Yorkshire where I was born. But the story I asked my dad to read over and over again was also from that book, ’Princess Reedcap’.

I subsequently discovered, when studying at university, that it was pretty much the same story as King Lear. What a lovely revelation to me, a full circle from child to adulthood understanding!

I studied Drama, Dance and English at Bretton Hall College, the arts college affiliated to Leeds Uni. Afterwards I headed for London, because of course ’the streets are paved with gold’! My friend and I took telemarking jobs in an office in Catherine Street, opposite the main entrance to Theatre Royal Drury Lane. On our first day we were handed a huge Yellow Pages each and told to call people to sell some product or other. At lunchtime that first day I said to my friend ‘I can’t do this.’ We left the office and marched across the road to the theatre’s stage door to ask if there were any jobs but were told that since the chief electrician and master carpenter were out at lunch we’d have to come back later. I really couldn’t wait that long so I went to box office and asked to speak to the Theatre Manager. Billy Roberts, the manager, flamboyantly strode down the main stairs in his full black tie and tails, (that’s what West End Managers wore in those day) and to our delight my friend and I were offered jobs as ushers, selling ice creams, beginning that night. I never returned to the sales job after lunch. The show was ‘42nd Street’, with Catherine Zeta-Jones in the chorus, and I was selling programmes, brochures and ice-creams. I was in my element, more at home here than across the road.

Me in my parents garden as a young girl, dreaming . . .

It wasn’t long before this job presented me with an opportunity to move into theatre management. Theatre Royal Drury Lane was owned by Stoll Moss Theatres, then the largest theatre owner in the West End. They had no female managers within the group but Billy Roberts championed me to become the first one. This was in 1986, the then General Manager of the company, John Avery, told me in no uncertain terms that if it didn’t work with me they wouldn’t have any more female managers. I started at London Palladium but subsequently worked in many of their other theatres. I was working at Her Majesty’s for the opening of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ which was fun!

After a short time, perhaps a couple of years, I spotted an advert for Marketing Manager at Soho Theatre (then called Soho Poly Theatre) and was delighted to be able to move there as it was so much closer to the action, to the creative process. The Literary Manager at the time was Mark Ravenshill – now one of the most widely-performed current playwrights in British theatre.

I wasn’t at Soho for very long before Ian Albery invited me to become General Manager at the Shaftesbury Theatre, an independent theatre then owned by the Theatre of Comedy company. Follies was playing when I arrived. I was only 23 and was thriving on the opportunities that came my way. I could keep you here all day with the stories I have to tell, if you had the time!

Although I was experiencing new and exciting openings, I never really felt I was in the right place. I wanted to get closer to the creative side of theatre. I was Chief Exec. of Cheltenham Everyman Theatre when I met John Miller, a record producer and theatre producer – he was the music producer of ‘Blood Brothers’, and co-wrote ‘Only the Lonely – the Roy Orbison Story’ – a few years later we decided to work together, so I quit my job as General Manager of Watford Place Theatre and embarked on becoming an independent theatre producer. Together we general managed a number of shows before producing our own ‘All You Need is Love’ – based on the music of Lennon & McCartney in 2001. It toured nationally and it ran for a season at Queens Theatre, West End.

And, like all good fairy-tales, John and I fell in love and married – in a Native-American-Indian wedding, in a field in Gloucestershire.

This however was only the beginning of the story, rather than the end… several years later I gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Sofie. When I held her in my arms, I said the only thing I wanted for her, was that she would follow her dreams. I realised immediately that if I wanted her to follow her dreams, I was going to have to follow mine.

I still wanted to be on stage so I packed my bags and set off for Paris and re-trained in mime, physical theatre and clowning at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. I had an incredible time although it was tough juggling being a new mother with acrobatics and being taught in French when all I had was school girl French understanding. John held the fort at home and came over to visit us as often as he could. After I returned home I was all fired-up, ready to create my own shows, but I lost my nerve and didn’t think I was good enough.

We moved from London to Warwickshire to be closer to John’s son, Luke. We dived into renovating of a 17th century farmhouse.

SohoTheatre © Ewan Munro

By complete chance Luke’s mum forwarded an email to me advertising a freelance storytelling project in a school in Coventry, a collaboration with Creative Partnerships. This was the first time I’d even heard that there was such as job as a storyteller! I prepared a simple hand-puppet story with songs and rhymes and arrived, heart pounding, at the school. There were about 15 nursery children together with a few teachers, gathered in a circle around me. I shared my story using homemade props and cloths. The teachers subsequently invited me for an interview after which the Deputy Head, Anne, remarked, ‘You must have so many stories in your head’, ‘One or two’ I laughed, thinking to myself, ‘closer to one than two’.

That Thursday evening, as I was chopping carrots for supper, the phone rang ’It’s absolutely unanimous’ Anne said, ‘we want to offer you the job’

It was a four-week project, three days a week working with nursery, reception and Class 1 pupils each day. That was 9 different sessions each week! They asked me to start the following Monday. I gulped and wondered how I could stall for time – as it dawned on me that I didn’t know enough stories – I asked if I could begin on the Tuesday instead. Over the weekend I kept wondering what I could possibly offer. It was an incredibly creative school, but my observation was that as such it was also very busy and noisy. I wondered if I dare offer a ‘homeopathic drop of calm’. I decided to share seasonal songs and rhymes, gentle stories and craft activities, demonstrating how stories can transport us to a tranquil, calm place. More controversially I decided to share the same story with the children over several sessions, perhaps over a week or two.

I knew from my own experience, as an au pair and as a mum, that children love repetition, it’s how children learn language, how they learn to communicate, to make up their own stories. Oral storytelling underpins all literacy; reading, writing, recall, communication. Stories have been passed on over thousands of years, long before the written word.

Just appointed as CEO of The Cheltenham Everyman Theatre

I was scared that I wouldn’t be enough, that what I had to offer wasn’t enough. It took me right to the edge of my comfort zone and beyond, but it paid off and I actually ended up working with the school, on and off, for over four years, during which time I was also asked to work in numerous other Coventry schools. I was now beginning to learn my craft. I gathered my material, my stories, from all sorts of places, all the time, learning new tales and rhymes every day, each week.

I’ve been privileged to observe many times how much children’s language develops when they’re exposed to oral stories, how much more confident they are in so many ways. I’m concerned that we expect our young children to produce ‘fruit’ (read & write) too soon, when what we really need to do is feed their ‘roots’ (share stories and let them play). I’m also awed by how teachers take what I teach them and transform the whole curriculum using story.

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn, Tell me the truth and I’ll believe, But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American Proverb

John and me at a concert on Hampstead Heath

Over the years I’ve taken my stories into many children’s centres, schools, universities, libraries, art centres, theatres. I was a workshop leader at the International School of Storytelling for over 10 years.

There is an art and craft to oral storytelling. There are many practices to becoming a skilful and accomplished storyteller, but there are four basic techniques that can be taught relatively quickly, to enable someone to share a story with assurance. I’ve seen how, when I teach these, it can give confidence to people who are working with children, or those wanting to give talks or presentations in their business, it often ignites a passion for stories and storytelling.

Stories aren’t only for children, we can use story and storytelling really effectively in business, to sell product, share our core values with our stakeholders, promote our brand to customers, motivate staff teams, change direction, build confidence.

It is said that there are only 7 basic story plots – Joseph Campbell in ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ alludes to this – and we can use these basic archetypes in our businesses and with our children. There are numerous forms of story from nature stories, folk and fairy tales, myths & legends, biographical stories… it’s important to know why you’re telling and to whom. I don’t think I will ever stop learning from stories and from sharing them in different contexts.

After a number of years working in partnership with schools, whilst still working alongside John in theatre production, I wanted to combine these two passions. I created a theatrical storytelling show based on Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Night’, which I adapted with a fellow storyteller, applied for an Arts Council grant and toured into village halls and libraries. We transferred to Edinburgh Festival 2006, receiving a 5 star ‘Must See’ review in The List and superb audience feedback. That was the confirmation I needed!

A year later, when Sofie was six, whilst I was away on tour, I came home to discover she’d invited friends and their parents to join her storytelling circle, where there was a platform for them to share jokes, riddles and songs and tales. She’d drawn a poster and charged 10p entrance fee. We continued to host this once a fortnight and it became hugely popular! More popular in fact than the storytelling circle I’d set up in the village!!

Sofie and I were living in an airstream caravan at the time. As a family we were in the process of moving from Warwickshire to Hertfordshire but John remained in the farmhouse whilst Luke finished his A levels, and we joined them each weekend.

One of the mum’s who came regularly with her daughter to these circles gave me a present to thank me for hosting them. It was ‘I Believe In Unicorns’ by Michael Morpurgo, a story about a librarian who inspires a young boy named Tomas to read. I loved it so much that my immediate thought was that I wanted to adapt it for stage. After a great deal of negotiation with Michael’s agent, we created a show that we took to Edinburgh Festival 2013. It received excellent reviews including a number of 4 & 5 stars and great audience feedback. A West End theatre manager saw it and asked us if we’d like to bring it into the Vaudeville Theatre for Kids Week (the month of August) the following year. This show’s now being seen by over 85,000 people across the world. It’s been in the West End twice, at Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank – what an enormous stage that is – over 2000 people saw it there one afternoon and it took longer for me to sign autographs and have photos taken than to so the show! It’s also been seen locally here at the beautiful Cranleigh Arts Centre.

Me and baby Sofie with some of the cast and cew from ‘All You Need Is Love’

The first year I was in the West-End Michael came to see it for the first time. I’d been on tour with it for almost a year by then, but I hadn’t met him, I was really nervous.

Our adaptation of ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ is in part interactive and so it’s important for me to be able to see and interact with the audience – much theatre takes place with ‘a fourth wall’ so the actors can’t see the audience at all – but I like to leave the auditorium light up a little throughout the show. However, my director had persuaded me that the audience would have a better experience if we took the light down for the sections where I wasn’t interacting. I trust her implicitly so reluctantly agreed. Therefore on the afternoon of Michael’s visit I was relieved that I wouldn’t be able to see him, however there are a number of tiny emergency lights dotted around the auditorium and as I came on stage I noticed that Michael and his wife were sitting directly under one of them, I could see them clearly – it was terrifying!

At the end of the show he took John and me out for lunch. We all instantly had a rapport and chatted happily together for a long time. As he and Clare were leaving I plucked up the courage to ask ‘Is there anything I can use as a quote from you?’. Without missing a beat he said ‘Yes! I didn’t like it, I loved it!’

After I adapted another of his books, ‘Why the Whales Came’ in 2016 he asked if I’d adapt another of his stories, we’ve been discussing since and we’re waiting for the right story to emerge. He and I recently enjoyed a lockdown ‘in conversation’ which I recorded and is available on our website ( In this he shares his latest short story ‘A Song of Gladness’

A performance of ‘I Believe in Unicorns’, by Michael Murpurgo

Towards the end of 2016 we were devastated to discover that John was diagnosed with incurable cancer, so we decided to move from our large house which needed too much renovation. At the time we were also in the process of looking for a new school for Sofie who was finishing her GSCEs, her drama teacher recommended Hurtwood House, a sixth form college in Surrey, which she thought would really suit Sofie. We all loved it immediately, although John definitely didn’t want her to board knowing that he had so little time. We made the crazy decision to move, which was tough on him. Happily we discovered Cranleigh which, as soon as we drove through the village, past the sports centre and Arts Centre, we knew was the place for us, it felt like home. I was delighted later to discover that my mum traced part of our family line back to Kirdford. We visited the church and found their gravestones dating back to 1700’s.

Hurtwood House was indeed the best place for Sofie, a fantastic college whose leader and teachers supported her with more care and tenderness than I could ever have wished for.

Sadly John died, at home and in my arms, in June 2018. This knocked us out of orbit, we’d been together for 25 years. Not only did I lose my husband, best friend and life partner but I also lost my business partner and confidante. Luke and Sofie lost their powerful father at such a young age. I took the tough and painful decision to re-home our two beautiful dogs as I was on tour and couldn’t look after them properly.

It’s been a challenge and a huge pressure to look after my family and carry on with our theatre production company, Wizard Presents, alone without him.

Author, Michael Murpurgo

But the theatre saying that the show must go on has never been more true… We were due to be taking my latest show ‘Kika’s Birthday’ which John and I had co-written, to Edinburgh Fringe so Sofie and I headed up there as normal. I don’t know if this was foolish or if it’s what kept us going. Obviously John’s death has taken a huge emotional toll on us all.

John was working creatively on a musical, based on the stories of Pippi Longstocking, right up to the week of his death. We were due to hold a meeting with the creative team the week before he died and he whispered to me, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ Five days after his death I went to the meeting, in honour of him, and last Christmas I was so proud that ‘Pippi Longstocking the Swashbuckling Musical Adventure’ opened at Royal & Derngate Theatre Northampton to great critical acclaim. I produced it in collaboration with them and with a fellow producer. John would have loved it!

It’s said that in every good story there needs to be a hurdle, obstacle or challenge for the protagonist to overcome, and from which this hero grows.

Over the past 12 months I’ve been working with a superb business coach to reposition my business and find a way to take the best of what John and I had built to make it stronger. I was excited and energised by these plans, but what I wasn’t anticipating was another twist in the story so soon, another blow which arrived in the form of Covid-19.

BBC Three Counties Radio as a regular, storyteller guest

As Artistic Director of Wizard Presents I’ve had to act swiftly to keep my core team and freelance partners together, to continue to work, despite the fact that theatres shut even before lockdown was enforced and, although some socially distanced live performances can now take place, many theatre will remain closed long after other businesses are fully open and operational. We have cancelled our tours and halted our rehearsals for the next production.

But can you imagine your lockdown without the contribution of, mainly freelance, artists? No books, music, films, video games, podcasts, radio, newspapers, dance, television!

What I love most about my fellow creative colleagues and friends is how adaptable, inventive and flexible they are in their thinking. Since March we’ve been creating on-line content including ‘Bedtime Story series with Danyah & Guests’; a ‘Birthday Month Series’ of stories, shows, interviews & activities. I wrote & filmed four new stories for Settle Stories ‘Yorkshire Festival of Story’. We adapted one of my solo shows, Meet Pippi Longstocking, into an on-line storytelling version, for Oxford University Press, which has over 33,000 views. This has all been free content, supported by an Arts Council England lottery grant, but now I have to be inventive again, to find ways to move forward and earn a living. I’m in the process of changing our next production of The Secret Garden to an on-line ‘Secret Garden Project’ which I anticipate will be available at the beginning of next year – watch this space!

So, the show really does need to go on….

A performance of ‘Meet Pippi Longstocking’

I will continue to write… to enjoy living in Cranleigh, with its beautiful independent shops, pretty outlying local villages, the swimming pool, stunning countryside and of course our very own Arts Centre where I was proud to be a trustee for a couple of years. What an asset we have, I look forward to continuing to support it and to its eventual re-opening.

And the story continues too… but as I close this part of my story, although I don’t really like offering advice, if I were pushed to do so I would say the same thing I tell my daughter, ‘Follow your dreams. Follow your passion, your joy and work hard. Practice and dream!’

Danyah’s series ‘Bedtime Stories with Danyah and Guests’ is available to watch anytime on YouTube. Choose from a library of 12 stories, all suitable for ages 3 and up – perfect for settling down and snuggling up with the whole family. For more of Danyah’s storytelling content check out the Wizard Online section of her website

Facebook – @wizardpresents
Instagram – @wizardpresents
Twitter – @wizardpresents and @danyahmiller

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