Dan Leith: Co Down performer talks about making new work during lockdown

Jenny Lee chats horror movies, children’s books and making music with Co Down storyteller and actor Dan Leith who has turned the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic into an opportunity to ignite his creativity

Co Down musician and writer Dan Leith
Co Down musician and writer Dan Leith

As theatre doors shut this spring due to Covid-19 restrictions, work contracts and plans for Co Down performer Dan Leith melted away as the shows he was due to take part in were cancelled.

“It was very daunting and terrifying at the time. I had lots of work lined up and I had to re-evaluate what I was going to do and how I was going to try and make money. I live alone and during lockdown I thought I’d be sitting around watching lots of television, but I found it absolutely impossible to sit still and despite all my work getting cancelled I don't think I've ever been as productive," says the 34-year-old, who used the downtime to write.

Dan graduated in 2007 with a BA in English and Film from Queen's University Belfast, and with an MA in Creative Writing the following year.

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He is well known in the artistic community, having worked with C21, Young At Art, A Place to Wonder, Replay Theatre Company, and Tinderbox.

When his one-man show about his dog, Woofle, was packaged for online audiences, together with individual song recordings and fun activity pack on Replay Theatre Company’s website during lockdown, it kick-started Dan into thinking about other creative possibilities.

“Having a remote version of Woofle out there was fantastic as I knew my work and my music was still making people happy. I came to a realisation that even though I was very fortunate to be a full-time freelance performer and theatre maker, a lot of the jobs I was doing were fitting in with someone else’s vision, not mine.

“The pandemic freed up everything and I was without restraint and found I had a lot more creative freedom and drive to make the music that I wanted to make and write the stories I wanted to tell.”

The Arts Council’s Emergency Funding Programme helped Dan Leith to produce The Stargazing Otter
The Arts Council’s Emergency Funding Programme helped Dan Leith to produce The Stargazing Otter

The Arts Council’s Emergency Funding Programme, aimed at helping self-employed artists continue to produce new work during the pandemic, was the help Dan needed to get started.

The result was The Stargazing Otter, an enchanting story of an otter who finds himself so caught up with the beauty and details of the world that he is left behind on the riverbank and must find the courage within himself to move on.

“With the uncertainty surrounding live arts I was very uninspired to sit down and write something that I didn't know whether people could see. So I thought then it was perfect timing to do write this book and an eBook and audiobook, with accompanying music,” explains Dan, who is currently securing a publisher.

The story, which addresses mental health and social anxiety, was partly inspired by his childhood growing up near the Castle Espie wildlife sanctuary and his personal heartache of losing a close friend to suicide.

“I used to work with a wonderful artist called Patrick Sanders on shows such as Replay’s A Boy and His Box, which we toured all over Ireland and the UK. We lost him three years ago when he took his own life and this story is in part in memory of him,” says Dan.

Dan also used the lockdown period to focus upon his musical career, remotely making music with his friend Craig Campbell. They aptly call their two-piece synth band Worrying Won’t Do Any Good, and have released their music on Bandcamp.

He’s also been working on his own “funky acoustic music” and has his late father to thank for giving him the push to perform serious music, during his battle with cancer five years ago.

“Dad was a very creative soul and wrote a song in hospital about saying goodbye to my mum, which I performed at his funeral. It was terrifying and the first time I played serious music in front of a crowd.

“He left me some money to record an EP. I wanted it to be special and I found during lockdown I had time to focus on it,” says Dan, who hopes to release the EP, named The Harland Wolf, in late November.

He has also been contributing to Accidental Theatre’s digital output with his comic movie reviews, while this October he’s been doing a Halloween run-down of 31 horror movies on his YouTube channel, Otter Debauchery.

“The real world can also be a scary place, especially with the events that have taken place this year, and bizarrely I often find the fictional horrors of the movie world a therapeutic escape,” says Dan, who began his career writing horror-based tours in Belfast and Dublin.

And his picks from this year’s list?

“Ari Aster's Midsommar is a movie that is both stunningly beautiful and hideous in equal measure. It's not an easy watch, but it is a masterpiece.

“And the Korean Zombie flick #alive resonated with me a fair bit as well in terms of pandemics and self-isolation.”