Theo Ancient is currently starring in The Shy Manifesto, a one-man show that takes the experience of being shy as its central subject. It is a bittersweet coming-of-age comedy drama about a shy boy who is fed up of constantly being told to come out of his shell. Theo plays Callum in this UK touring production which explores adolescence, isolation, self-loathing, and sexuality, having previously played the role of Albus Potter in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the West End after graduating from RADA in 2017. He spoke to Young Perspective about his experience as an actor, exploring shyness and sexuality in theatre, and his current show.
Firstly, what drew you to the role of Callum?
“I read [the script] and I immediately fell in love with it. I think what Michael [the playwright] does so brilliantly is give a voice to shyness and shy people; Michael has put a lot of himself and his own views on the world into it, whilst creating a character. When I read it, there was something so profound about hearing that voice and hearing Callum’s voice, because Callum’s the sort of character who would usually sit at the back of class and not say anything, so it’s interesting to see what happens when a character like that is given the chance to speak.”
It’s very rare to see a show about shyness, especially a one-man show. As an actor, to play both a shy person and be onstage performing to an audience is almost a contradiction in terms: how did you approach that to begin with?
“I was very lucky to have a couple of years to be thinking about the script and to always be thinking about Callum as a character [Theo was cast in the role two years ago]. Whatever part I play, I always try to find as much detail as I can in the character. It was really important to me to be very clear with who Callum is, what his story is, what has led him to this moment where he feels the need to address people – in a way, to come out of his shell in order to talk to people. We [director Cat Robey and Theo] had a really great time in rehearsals because we had worked together before, and we were so comfortable working with each other that I felt I could just try loads of weird and wonderful ideas. It was a process of lots of exploration before we came to settling on what you see now on the stage.”
It’s quite a contrast going from a big production like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to a one-man touring show like this. How do the experiences differ?
“Coming to do this show, I’m realising that it’s different every night because the audiences are different. Especially travelling around the UK, people will respond to it from different areas as well. This is quite a small theatre here [in Greenwich], and some of the other theatres we are going to are bigger, which means we can do more with lights and the sound can be a bit more immersive: and those are elements of my character as well because the lights, and the sound, and the set design are supposed to be a part of Callum’s mind. What’s wonderful about doing this is that I feel really passionately about bringing theatre to other regions, and taking shows from London and bringing them all across the UK – I think that’s really important. Alongside this show, I’ll be running education and drama workshops to the public, to youth groups, and to universities. So I’m really passionate about the education side to theatre as well.”
In terms of playing Albus Potter and Callum, they are both quite shy characters. Is that a reflection on yourself?
“I’m really drawn to characters who are more vulnerable, and characters who are shy. I feel an affinity with those characters and I think that’s a lot to do with my background; having a shy upbringing, I think that’s what actually drew me to theatre. I find a lot of liberation and release in playing other characters, being someone that’s not me. As a performer, being introverted and shy, maybe I have a way of really trying to reach out to the audience, because I really need them with me and maybe an awareness of everything that’s going on around me.”
Another similarity between Albus and Callum is their complicated and undefined relationship with sexuality. Is that something you’re interested in exploring as an actor?
“I think sexuality is very important to explore in theatre, and there are wonderful plays like The Inheritance where it’s really at the forefront of the play. And then there are plays like Harry Potter, and then this, where sexuality is touched upon but it’s not explicitly explained. And, in a way, I find that really exciting because it gives the audience the chance to decide for themselves. In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it’s really wonderful because Albus and Scorpius’ relationship is essentially all about love; they really need each other and they are really looking out for each other. Some people might take that as a love in a sexualised way and some people might take that as a love just within friendship. I think what’s great is that the play doesn’t explicitly say either way, so people are left thinking about it and talking about it, starting conversations. With The Shy Manifesto, it’s touched upon and again it’s a bit of a mystery, you don’t really know where Callum’s sexuality lies.”
When you play a character like that, do you make a personal decision on what you believe the character to be, even if you want the audience to view it in an open-ended manner?
“I think the thing about these characters is they’re also quite vulnerable young people and they have not yet found a real answer for themselves yet. They’re going on a journey with it and, for me, the most important thing to play in theatre is the journey with the character. Sometimes it’s good to have decisions and to know all the answers and sometimes it’s fun to not know them, and for the audience to decide.”
Finally, who do you feel should come to see The Shy Manifesto and why?
“I think anyone who’s interested in exploring human nature – why we do the things we do and make the choices we do – and anyone who’s ever sat at the back of class… The wonderful thing about this show is that it’s relatable to everyone, because at some point everyone’s had someone say ‘come on, don’t be shy’ or ‘come out of your shell’. It’s a play for young people but also for older people; I think especially towards the end as Callum starts to imagine his future, I think there are a lot of older people who could really relate to that.”
More information about The Shy Manifesto, including tour dates, can be found here.
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