Danny Kanaber in the rehearsal room at Watford Palace Theatre

A Shiver Down Your Spine

31st January 2014

As his new play approaches its opening night at Watford Palace Theatre, Jill Glenn talks to writer Danny Kanaber

Danny Kanaber is a great conversationalist, which strikes me as an ideal attribute for a playwright. He’s also very funny, often at his own expense, and clearly a thinker. He anguishes over the number of sugars in his tea, for example (“more than one, really, but I don’t like to admit it to myself”) but it’s clearly about an honesty in himself, not about the public show. If he can fret this deeply over the little things, I think, it’s no wonder that his plays deal with some big themes.

When we meet, during a snatched lunch hour, his play, Shiver, has been in rehearsal for three weeks at Watford Palace Theatre. It’s going well, although it’s nerve-wracking for the writer of any new play when the cast start inhabiting the words you’ve written for them. “You see what's wrong with it. You start questioning: do you need that line? The actors all have a view, and they get to know the characters, so they’re able to say, ‘yes, let it go’ and then you ask about another line, and they look at you… ‘no, you can’t take that line out, I need that one.’”

He smiles. He smiles easily, chuckles often, and it’s often a precursor to the amplification of an earlier comment. Like I say, he thinks a lot. “You become less and less relevant as the writer through this process. You’re editing yourself out of the rehearsal room. It’s like parenting. My dad said the point of being a parent is to make yourself redundant.”

He’s particularly enjoying working at the Palace. “The cast and director are all brilliant,” and when I tease him that he would say that he looks shocked. “No, really, they are.  And rehearsing here… you feel part of the building, you see the box office staff and the marketing team and the coffee shop crew and you get to know the set builders. You see the same faces every day.” He stops to conjure up just the right word to describe the Palace atmosphere. “I’d say it’s a family, but that’s too twee, and I’d say homogeneous but that’s too scientific. Somewhere between the two.” It’s characteristic of him to want to be precise, to evaluate what he’s saying. It was, I’d say, inevitable that he would be a writer.

Now 33, he lives in Stroud Green, but he grew up in North London, near Golders Green, the child of a Liberal Jewish family in a street of mainly Hasidic households.

His first career plan was acting, and he trained at Mountview. “But I wasn’t that good at it,” he says, “and I didn't want to be unhappy in the pursuit of it.”

He explains the casting problems: “If I had a beard, I played a terrorist. If I was cleanshaven, I played a gay man.” Pause. “I never got to play Hamlet…” He looks rueful, but I don’t think he’s heartbroken by the lack of the lead roles, because when he’d accepted that acting wasn’t for him, there was writing. And he loves writing. “You get to talk about things that matter without waiting for someone to give you the part. You don't need to wait for permission. You can just do it.”

To keep himself afloat he’s worked in cinemas and bookshops. “My weirdest job was being the Big Bad Wolf in a fairy tale theme park… I had to frighten the three little pigs and then on the hour every hour I had to go and scare Snow White.”

He also teaches writing to schoolchildren. “Oh, it’s so much fun. Nine year olds are uncompromising; they’re not afraid to say ‘that’s rubbish’. It helps you clarify the process of your own writing as well as theirs. It keeps you honest.”

Slowly though, writing is becoming a viable means of support for him. This year he thinks he might not do anything else. “Scary thought. And exciting.”

Although Watford Palace’s commissioning of Shiver is, in his own words, “the biggest moment” of his career so far, Danny has had work performed at The Soho Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, Battersea Arts Centre and The Camden Roundhouse. In 2010, offwestend.com nominated him as one of the most promising young playwrights of the year. That made a huge difference in terms of both confidence and self-belief. “It’s not life-changing but it’s the moment when you feel you've made an interesting choice. You’re not totally wasting your time…” And he’s off on another story – he’s full of anecdotes and references and quotes – about an opera singer that can’t sing but whom no-one will confront. Being acknowledged as one of the most promising young playwrights “told me – I’m not the opera singer.”

He mentions his father more than once, in half-sentences and off-the-cuff references – “My Dad would say I ramble a lot” – and they’re clearly very close. The family unit is him and his dad and his older brother, a computer programmer. He has a stepmother but he doesn't think of her as such, he says. “She's just the incredibly lovely woman who's married to my dad.”

His mother, who was American, died when Danny was in his teens, and so it’s inevitable that we talk about the relevance of his own life experience to the plot of Shiver, which revolves around three men who are sitting shiva after a woman’s death: her husband (lapsed), her son (atheist) and her rabbi (trainee). “It’s not autobiographical,” he says, “except inasmuch as my own mother is dead and I grew up as a Jewish boy in a very Jewish area.” Beyond that, no: it’s imagined, although because it does resonate with his own life, he adds that he feels “not fraudulent”. He’s comfortable with the material. And then he quotes novelist Philip Roth: ‘I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction’.

Shiver wasn’t difficult to write, but it was hard to edit, “because that’s when you're trying to make it true.” He admits that there were a couple of lines that felt “too close to home”, but, although he hesitated, in the end he left them “because the alternatives weren't authentic.”

Writing Shiver was a quick process. It needed to be. Danny had worked with Derek Bond (who directed Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers at Watford Palace in 2012) before, and was thrilled when the opportunity arose again. “New writing is one of Derek’s things,” Danny explains, “and he was ready to work with the Palace again, so he asked ‘Got a play looking for a home?’ I had two in mind, and he thought the other interesting but not quite right for Watford. This one sounded better… so he said ‘Can I read it?’ and I had to admit: ‘I haven't written it yet…’ ‘Oh, very helpful,’ he said.” So Danny wrote Act One to a rather tight deadline and sent it to Bond and Brigid Larmour, the Palace’s Artistic Director, to read while he was sweating over Act Two.

“It was a play about loss. Now it’s a play about love,” he says. Watford Palace’s tagline for it is ‘A haunting, warm and funny play about family, identity, and love.’ Whichever way you phrase it, I observe, all the heavy stuff is there. Danny agrees. “It is,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “a play in which emotions are heightened.” Although its premise is both culture- and religion- specific, he sees it as not specifically about Judaism nor for an exclusively Jewish audience. “You relate to family dynamics, relationship dynamics. It’s a family going through an experience that may not be familiar but is recognisable.”

He himself is no longer observant. “I became an atheist at 12 or 13… but I want there to be something.” He laughs at his own angst. He’d like to learn Yiddish, he says, because “it’s such a fun language” but then adds that his girlfriend said ‘you’re not going to learn a dead language that only your grandmother speaks and she's not even alive any more’. He shrugs; he thinks his girlfriend may have a point. He switches from humorous to serious in an instant: “You can be Jewish by race or religion or culture; I’m definitely Jewish culturally” – and then back to humorous: “I mean, I like Woody Allen and sarcasm and smoked salmon.”

He’s immersed in work at present, feeding his head with words and ideas: “Just reading and writing all the time. It feels a bit onesided.” Again he laughs at himself. “I’m quoting Proust and Richard Feynman because I’m out of touch with what my friends think… I’m one step removed from reality.” He’s looking forward to a break in a couple of months: “I need some downtime to live my life, watch some films, and plays just for the pleasure of it, be interested in things in general…”

Whose work does he like to read or watch, I ask. “Oh, well… Miller, Albee, Pinter… Shaw and Shakespeare, of course, and then Jack Thorne, Mike Bartlett, James Graham, Lucy Prebble, Laura Wade…” He goes on, his face lighting up as each new name crosses his mind. He’s a man with a huge capacity to enjoy, I think; a man who relishes life. If he’s put even half of the wit and thought with which he peppers our conversation into Shiver, then it should be both entertaining and thought-provoking.

As he scurries off to the afternoon’s rehearsal, he stops and turns back to me. “It really is good here. Not enough places do new writing, but Watford Palace really is on the lookout. It’s so amazing; I feel so lucky.”

www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk • 01923 225671

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