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In Conversation with Danny Kaan: The Theatre Photographer Fans Wish Upon for Backstage Photos of their Favourite Shows

Last October, Danny Kaan got to see his work displayed on a West End theatre, but it wasn’t too long ago that his parents suggested he do funeral photography instead. The theatre photographer tells STRAND how COVID, concerts, and backstage content have shaped his career.

In the evening, London’s historic theatre district pulsates with colour and life, its formidable buildings scintillated by dazzling marquees and spectacular photos of the entertainment inside. Photography and imagery are a piece of theatre’s bedrock – they sell shows, excite past and future audiences, and define how we remember them. Nowadays, they aren’t just confined to the walls of theatres; they are everywhere: framed in train stations, hung upon New York City buses, and dotted in the souvenir brochures that theatregoers buy as a keepsake of their time at the show. These sensational images are created thanks to the ingenuity of theatre photographers, who capture all sorts of stage productions – one of whom is 28-year-old Danny Kaan, alternatively known as Danny With A Camera.


Along Shaftesbury Avenue sits the Gielgud Theatre, home to Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends. It’s the first time that Kaan’s photos have been emblazoned all over a West End theatre – a dream come true for him, five years and four months in the making. But don’t write off the half-decade it took to get there: before this, he already had many accomplishments under his belt, including several major British musicals and tours of the country photographing the most esteemed echelons of theatre stars. In fact, at the time that I’m writing this, Kaan is weaving through the aisles of the Manchester Palace Theatre, creative gears probably in overdrive, shooting the first-ever United Kingdom and Ireland Tour of Hamilton. He already did the West End company’s production shots; they caught the attention of legendary Broadway photographer Matthew Murphy, who commented on Instagram: “YES YES YAAAAAAAS. Nailed it!!!!”

The cast of Hamilton's UK and Ireland Tour. Photo by Danny Kaan.

We see his work. We know his images. But what of the man? I meet with Kaan to take a dive into the world of West End photographers. Describing his energy as larger than life is an understatement; it’s unquestionably clear that theatre photography is central to who he is. “The most interesting thing is trying to capture an atmosphere, trying to tell a story in an image,” Kaan says. “Obviously if you’re a theatre fan, you do your research, and you know what the show is about, who’s in it, what music is in it – but loads of people don’t. You try to capture the story in pictures.”


The pace is relentless. In a year of 365 days, Kaan does this 362 times – that’s how many stories he helped portray last year. He tells me about shooting almost every day and turning the photos around to marketing teams just as quickly as shoots come. I mention that I thought you’d get a week or so to work on them; he laughs and quips that photos are always wanted yesterday. Sometimes, it takes staying up in the dead of the night to get the job done. He once posted on his Instagram Stories about sitting outside a theatre, computer perched on his lap and McDonald's (bought by a friend) in hand, as he edited as soon as the concert ended – even though it was very late by then. 


Kaan’s career has skyrocketed relentlessly too. It started with numerous backstage shoots with his actor friends, featuring the unseen parts of performing as West End stars, before he was asked to take the official production shots for the United Kingdom and Ireland tour of Les Misérables. Later, he shot the smash-hit musical Hamilton in the West End. Along the way, he has been invited to shoot a couple of shows at London’s most extravagant concert venues too. In fact, when we spoke, Kaan told me that he has always aspired to shoot at the O2 Arena – soon after, he photographed iconic pop group S Club 7 there.  


“I never, ever, expected to have my pictures in a programme, like Mary Poppins or Old Friends now, or that I get to work with these amazing people and even sit in the rehearsal room. I've been to Abbey Road Studios, which was really surreal, and I never could have thought of that. This is where the most iconic recording artists record their music, so that’s pretty cool.”

Many theatre photographers get into this profession because they’re already somewhat in the industry — fellow luminaries Helen Murray, Johan Persson, and Manuel Harlan all trained as performers before trading costumes for camera harnesses — but Kaan bucks the trend. He studied Marketing and moved to London with a marketing job. This, he jokes, is a good thing too: “I just love being creative in a certain way, working on small projects and doing that kind of stuff. So my brain is always thinking of what's next?”


Other facets of Kaan’s identity leave traces in his images too. How does the born-and-raised Dutchman bring his culture into his work, I wonder? “I’m very direct,” he fires without hesitation. Very direct indeed.


People appreciate that he just says it how it is, Kaan adds. While shooting Hamilton, this Dutch directness was vital. The process of theatre photography in the UK generally involves shooting the final dress run as it unfolds, accompanied by setup shots of key moments if they're not captured spot-on during the run. Negotiating between artistic differences is an inescapable component of the process: “You just say, ‘Can this person come forward here?’ If the choreographer says, ‘No, it's not really how it looks in the show’, I take the picture, I show him how it looks, and then we discuss how it will be.”



While production and rehearsal shots are the bread and butter of every live entertainment photographer’s career, some within the field are carving specialised talents for themselves. Broadway veteran Evan Zimmerman has cemented himself as the King of Motion Blur, and I daresay Kaan is well on the way to crowning himself a prince of theatrical concerts. His credits include Whitney – Queen of the Night at the Royal Albert Hall, eminent Les Misérables alumni in the Sydney Opera House, and Jessie J’s London live show. Naturally, he counts the Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House among his dream venues to photograph (alongside the London Palladium, which he remarks that he’ll always clear his schedule for).


Last year, he toured the country with beloved West End actress Carrie Hope Fletcher (Heathers, Les Misérables) for her An Open Book concert. That’s an incredible experience not many theatre photographers get – as productions, in comparison, need only be shot once – so I ask him about it. “The tour was amazing; sleeping on a bus is hard,” he chuckles. Aptly, that will go on to encapsulate his entire recount. He eagerly talks about photographing hundreds of fans every night during the meet and greet sessions but feeling thoroughly tired (remember, sleeping on a bus is hard!). He also raves about the excitement of touring: discovering new places and going to a Starbucks in every city (“Which was really cool!”). Oxford was beautiful; the Scottish audiences in Edinburgh and Glasgow were loud and amazing; Newcastle’s theatre was freezing, even in the midst of the sweltering summer heat. 


During the tour, he also followed Fletcher around the theatres, documenting her journey as she sang every night. Backstage shots of casts and crews in action have become synonymous with the Danny With A Camera name – other than Fletcher, he’s been a shadow to some of the West End’s most renowned actors in their acclaimed roles, such as Bradley Jaden in Les Misérables and Jacob Fowler in Heathers. These photos are as regal as they are intimate, emotionally titanic as they are quietly reflective. The important thing to note is that they’re all organic in the moment, Kaan stresses. “I saw some people commenting online that it was like, ‘oh another setup picture'. There was one picture that we needed to set up, but all the other ones were honestly just [Carrie] chilling before the show. She was waiting in the wings, then she was chatting to everyone, and then I just stood there,” he says of his An Open Book images. 

When your jaw drops at the stunning calibre of his photography, it’s astonishing to think that Kaan has been shooting theatre full-time for just three years. And of those three, much of it was marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. When theatres closed their doors for good, so did many opportunities close in his face. 


Dark theatres are abnormal. The beating heart of British theatre being silent for two years was gut-wrenching. When live performance is ingrained in the DNA of so many theatre workers, the coronavirus takes another personal toll. There were those in the industry who shifted away; Kaan’s parents suggested that he try funeral photography, an emerging trade to help patients’ families achieve closure. But he didn’t cave. He loved theatre, and he only ever wanted to shoot theatre. As the theatre scene laggardly and warily resumed, he jumped at any kind of performance – livestreams, concerts, anything – and it changed his life. 

“Loads of other photographers moved out of London. When things were starting to happen again, they needed photos because everything needed to be promoted online. I decided to stay in London, so I was one of the only photographers actually there. I only had to jump on the tube or in a car, and then I could make it to the event.” 

To celebrate this period of recovery, Kaan developed Two Years On with The Theatre Cafe. The project comprised photographs of West End and UK & Ireland touring productions that had triumphantly re-opened post-pandemic. Still, the Damoclean sword of COVID cancellations would continue to hang over, as shoots took months to schedule… and then reschedule for cases of sickness. Even the shoots themselves felt different: “We obviously had to wear a mask for every single shoot. We couldn't hug people, and we couldn't come close,” he describes. “I want you to see what the photo looks like, and if you’re not happy, retake it. So if I wanted to give my camera, we had to sanitise the camera. It was a very weird atmosphere.”


Kaan has been a full-time photographer for about three years, a full-time Londoner for about five, but a full-time theatre lover since childhood. Wicked has been Kaan's favourite show for his entire life, and he’s sure that it is never going to change. Unsurprising, therefore, was his answer to my curiosity about the highs and lows of his career: “The Stephen Schwartz 75th birthday anniversary was really cool. I was literally standing next to Stephen Schwartz [lyricist-composer of Wicked] in the wings. I was like, I can’t believe I’m next to Stephen Schwartz! Challenges? I really wanted to work on the Wicked movie. It didn’t happen, and I’ve literally sent more than a hundred emails.”


Kaan insists, though, that he doesn’t mind not getting to shoot Wicked in the West End, given that his friend and advertising art extraordinaire Matt Crockett is the man on the job. It also helps that he has had the opportunity to shoot at the Apollo Victoria Theatre already: Wicked was one of the productions that took part in the Two Years On feature. He and Jack Malin, CEO of the Theatre Cafe, got to stand on the Ozian stage and shoot the two leading witches in costume. “I literally walked off that stage, and I said to Jack, who’s holding the flash, I can’t believe that just happened,” he recalls.


Danny With A Camera’s career took off because an actress shared his photos on her Instagram. Now, even after making it to the photographer’s equivalent of West End stardom, Kaan has no intentions of abandoning the genesis of it all – online content creation. In the last year, he’s been hard at work on his Access All Areas series, showcasing all the work that goes on inside theatre buildings. 



Here, Kaan is both the storyteller and the audience. While the series aims to introduce theatre fans to the myriad of jobs away from the stagey spotlight, it was born out of his deep-seated inquisitiveness, as a theatre fan foremost, to know more about the people doing these jobs himself.  “When I watch a show, I need to know how something works. So when I saw Wicked for the first time, I needed to know how Elphaba flies,” he explains. “I know that there are so many more people as curious as I am, but they sadly don't have the access to see how certain things look or how some things work. And I thought, how can I combine the fact that I have access to certain spaces and showcase it to other people?”


Since then, Kaan’s Canon lenses have offered scores of fans insights into some of the most intriguing questions in the theatrical world. What is an LX No. 1 – a title that sounds more mafia than musical? Danny With A Camera walked a day in the steps of Rohan McDermott, the LX No. 1 at SIX. What’s the view like from down under – inside the orchestra’s pit? Danny With A Camera takes a closer look with Meelie Traill, a musician at Legally Blonde


I’m a Les Misérables fan, and I’m always blown away by the colossal size of the barricade, so I listen with especial fascination as Kaan recounts the time he visited the Sondheim Theatre… and its exceptionally small wings. “If you think of Les Mis, you think of the barricades, you think of the big French houses. You’d think the space in the wings is so wide, like you can build a house. Well, there's nothing,” he declares. 


We are having this conversation in a cosy artisanal cafe, where the wood tables are roughly as large as a park bench. Our table, he emphatically gestures, is wider than the wings of the Sondheim Theatre. Like cogs in an elaborate machine, the Miz's crew moves props in and out of the wings, overhead and underneath, to make space for set pieces to come on and off stage smoothly. “There was one point in the second half when the barricades had to come off-stage,” he continues. “The amount of people that were running around in that building – I was like, this is insane.”


Access All Areas, while one-of-its-kind on this side of the Atlantic, reminds me of the rise of backstage content in America featuring production crews, including the Beetlejuice stage managers’ Instagram account and the Moulin Rouge! National Tour’s technical department videos. I prod Kaan on whether he thinks London is heading in that direction too. “I think it’s because people don’t realise what kind of jobs there are,” he responds, gushing about the time he spent with stage managers and dressers. “I just learned so much from their experience and how it varies from this show compared to another show, and how even a certain show could be so different. When I was with The Wizard of Oz, it was so different in the (London) Palladium than how it was in the Curve (Leicester). It’s very cool!”

Bernadette Peters, Lea Salonga, and the cast of 'Old Friends'. Photo by Danny Kaan.

Learning is a central theme in our conversation and an equally integral one to Kaan’s career. Throughout the hour, he shares about getting better with every shoot, mastering camera adjustments with experience, and becoming more used to rejections (which he still feels the sting of, despite his successes). Ambition drives him, he admits, but he also still sees himself as someone who is constantly trying new things. There’s a mix of hunger and humility, but it is the latter that strikes me. In the entertainment business, everyone yearns to make it big, and Danny Kaan has, but he’s still learning how to take it all in.  


“I walked past Old Friends, and I saw that they changed the photos from the portraits they had outside the theatre to the pictures that I took of the show. That was the very first time that a big show has used my images outside the theatre. Every time something like that happens, it feels so fun. It feels so surreal,” he tells me. Perhaps underneath the glitz and glamour of having your work adored by thousands of audience members every day, that’s just what it is – an ardent passion for theatre, an unbridled love for photography, and an immense honour to combine both for a living. 




Elizabeth Grace is a London-based theatre photographer, whose door is always open for more shows to shoot and other photographers to meet – follow her work on her website or via Instagram. She wants to thank  Danny Kaan for his time and the truly lovely chat, as well as STRAND Theatre Editor Georgia Gibson for arranging the Backstage Spotlight series. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

 

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.



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