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Theo Ancient on The Shy Manifesto

15th January, 2019

“Do you really need to come out of your shell?” asks actor Theo Ancient. In a world where fame and lusting for the spotlight is worshipped, this is the dilemma explored by new play The Shy Manifesto, playing at Greenwich Theatre from 1-3 February.

Paradoxically, Ancient, who stars in the one-man show about introversion and limelight dodging, recently played the lead role in one of the most high profile plays in the world, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

“It’s a job like no other,” he says of stepping into JK Rowling’s magical creation. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There was so much excitement and anticipation in the theatre. I would stand backstage 10 minutes before the start and just listen to the audience. You could feel their excitement. And it seems that no matter where you go, if you say you’re a part of Harry Potter, people light up!”

Ancient enchanted the audition panel and won the role of Harry’s son, Albus Potter as he was about to graduate from RADA. His first professional job after drama school was in the most talked about stage production in years, performing to an audience of thousands each night.

The Shy Manifesto will be different. Its tour takes in far more intimate venues and there’s not a wand in sight. That said, it’s not entirely dissimilar, as Ancient explains: “I’ve always been drawn to work on pieces that explore humanity. I’ve played characters who start off lacking confidence then go on an epic journey where they find confidence and end up saving the world. The Shy Manifesto, even though it’s not a magical journey, really explores the human nature of that and what it means to be a young person and feel like an outsider.”

Written by Michael Ross, The Shy Manifesto tells the story of Callum, a 17-year-old who believes that shyness should be celebrated rather than apologised for and overcome. He shares his thoughts about famous shy people, how the world sees him and how friends and family have tried to help, before delving into the story of a party from the night before. As that tale unravels, the audience is left to decide whether there’s hope for him and his future?

“The play,” says Ancient, “gives a character like Callum the chance to say everything that’s going on inside his mind, when normally he would keep quiet at the back of the class and not say anything at all. We give him a voice and ask, ‘What would he say’? It’s a coming of age story that explores our insecurities and growing up as an introvert.”

Ancient can relate. At school, teachers would remark about how he’d rather take a book into a corner than join in more social activities. While he did “toy with the idea of dying my hair black and riding a skateboard”, he quickly found his “sense of belonging” in drama groups and acting. “All I wanted to do was act and perform,” he smiles. “I never really fitted in anywhere else.”

When he’s not playing the son of wizarding legends or taking new shows on tour, Ancient runs drama groups and works with children and young people. “As an actor who now has a few credits,” he explains, “I feel a responsibility to give back the experiences I had when I was growing up and hopefully inspire a new generation.”

That’s one reason that as The Shy Manifesto tours the country, Ancient will also offer a variety of workshops to schools, universities and the public, exploring a host of topics, from conjuring multiple characters in a one-man show to the responsibilities of telling a mental health story, to the character and to himself as a performer.

“As an actor,” Ancient says, “we put ourselves in a position of vulnerability every time we go on stage. You never get used to that. There are all sorts of self-doubts that creep in while you’re performing, so to have an output for those thoughts and feelings, no matter how rational or irrational they are, is really important.

“What’s wonderful about drama,” he continues “is there’s no right or wrong, so you can explore absolutely anything you want.” It’s one of the reasons he’s so passionate about the drama groups and workshops: “Where I could have been pursuing my rebellious streak as a teenager, I was creating something every week, working with other people and learning more about myself through drama.”

Though he sits unassumingly and slightly folded in on himself as we chat, Ancient exudes a quiet excitement about the venue-hopping schedule of the tour in which he barely spends more than a couple of days in one location.

“As we move to different theatres and communities, there will be a different feeling and response to the show. I’ll have to change my performance slightly to fit each space. As an actor, it will be a really wonderful challenge. Each day is a new possibility and each place will have something else to discover.”

But what can the audience discover at the theatre that they can’t by watching a Netflix boxset or catching up a show on iPlayer? “At the heart of all those things,” says Ancient, “is a story. As humans, we haven’t lost any sense of wanting a good story. What’s wonderful about coming to the theatre is you’re coming to a space where everyone is live in front of you. People around you are breathing with you. The performers on stage have beating hearts as well. And there’s a communal feeling. You’re not experiencing this on your own; you’re experiencing it with a community of people. You’re all coming together to hear this story, which is a tradition that’s happened for thousands of years.

 “I hope people will come along to the theatre and fall in love with Callum and his story,” Ancient concludes. “I hope they will go on a rollercoaster with him and leave feeling elated, excited, full of questions and debate. And, hopefully, inspired.”