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Theatre Q&A: Erin Shanagher

Blackpool-born Erin Shanagher is taking to Manchester’s Royal Exchange stage in David Eldridge’s two-hander Beginning. Premiered at the National Theatre in 2017, it’s an intimate and beautifully comic play about risking it all and wearing your heart on your sleeve.

Shanagher is a recurring cast member in ITV’s The Bay, and other TV credits include Peaky Blinders. She’s patron of Blackpool School of Arts, where she studied, and a fierce advocate for the town and working-class actors. In Beginning she plays Laura, alongside Gerard Kearns (Shameless) as Danny. The 100-minute, real-time play finds the pair brought together by circumstance. He’s the last hanger-on at her housewarming and the play sees them searching for connection as they wind their way through the after-party’s clumsy silences, empty bottles and near kisses.

Tell us about Beginning and your role in it?
Beginning is about two strangers in their late 30s/early 40s who, after staring at each other from across the room all night, are finally alone. My character, Laura, has thrown a flat warming party and Danny has come as someone’s plus one. We meet them just as the last guests leave and we stay with them in real time as they navigate those fragile first moments of getting to know someone. They both want connection but come at it from complete opposite ends of the scale. They battle with themselves and each other. Will they, won’t they? And should they, shouldn’t they? It’s a very human story of vulnerability and possibility. I don’t want to give too much away but underneath the small talk are two people with painful pasts, desperate for new beginnings.

How is stage acting different to screen acting and do you have a preference?
They are both so wonderful in their own way. It sounds cliche but they are so different that it can be hard to compare. I am loving being able to work in such a beautiful theatre, with such a phenomenal team and the thought of a live audience is terrifying and thrilling in equal measure. There’s something about theatre where each audience gets a different show to the next, once you’ve moved through the text, that’s it, there’s no edit or retakes. It’s very moment to moment and each performance will land differently. Performing in the round is very special and, in this piece, the audience are the third cast member, their reaction to the play informs so much.

How did you get into acting?
I knew from a very early age that I loved film, books and tv. I loved stories. It took me until I was older, 13 maybe, to realise that what I actually loved was being able to enter other worlds, as an audience member and as I got older, as an actor. It was all storytelling. I remember being eight and watching ET and then cycling around my street on my brothers bike talking to myself in an American accent, pretending I was one of Eliot’s friends, helping him on his rescue mission. Stories took me anywhere I wanted to go, so when I realised it was something I could try and do for a job, it was all I wanted. I didn’t know any actors whatsoever so I thought that if I went to college and maybe university and got some sort of qualification, that could put me on some sort of path. I didn’t know any other way of doing it. I remember being 14 and going on my own to an open audition for a new Blackpool drama club. It was a day of different games, improvisations and auditions and at the end of the day you found out if you’d got in. It got to five o’clock and the ‘tv star’ who was running it was about to announce the successful candidates. She pretended to look at a list, smiled then shouted ‘you’ve all got through’. I never went back. Some people were there for a laugh and didn’t do any of the activities but still got in. I was so serious about what I wanted and from a young age had a good instinct about what felt right and what didn’t.

Have you ever felt coming from Blackpool has been a disadvantage?
I’m incredibly proud of coming from Blackpool and although I’ve lived in Manchester longer than I did back home, it’s still just that. My roots are there, my memories, my formative years. Blackpool has my heart. Any disadvantages I’ve felt I’ve had have been more of a class divide than Blackpool itself. I’ve definitely been in situations where I’m aware of being working class. Something I’m fiercely proud and protective of now but there were times when I was younger and felt insecure, it makes me sad to think I ever allowed myself to feel that.

When will the next series of the Bay air, and what can we expect in general and from your character?
Series four is another deep dive into a grieving family and of course suspicious circumstances. I don’t have a date just yet, but can tell you it will be early spring and I’m really excited for people to see it! We have a really wonderful guest cast, and the story is really focused on them, with some lovely developments within the returning cast.

Do you think filming in Morecambe, and having a mainstream TV show set there, has reinvigorated the town in anyway, and would you like to see the same for Blackpool? 
I think the show has done great things for Morecambe and we get such incredible support from the residents and business owners. It’s a great place to work and stay in and I’m so thrilled Eden project has been awarded such a life changing amount of money, it will create so much positive change. And yes, I would love to see something set in Blackpool. I would love for everyone else to see all its beauty and hidden treasures! When people think of Blackpool they just think of the illuminations and the pleasure beach. It has so much to offer and would be a perfect setting for a drama.

You are patron of Blackpool School of Arts. What’s your best advice to acting students?
I think in all honesty my advice lately seems to be about being patient and defining what success is to you. If it’s what you really want then you have to give in to the waiting, it doesn’t happen overnight, in fact the hardest part of being an actor is the ‘not acting’ part. Get good at being patient and in those quiet moments be sure to fill your life with joy, don’t let life pass you by while you’re waiting for opportunities. I would always be hesitant about going on holiday or booking things in, just in case I got an audition. The adventures I missed out on! Go on the holidays and have your adventurers, they’ll only make you a better actor. Think about what success is to you and don’t be overwhelmed by thinking it has to be the very top of the mountain. To work as an actor, to actually get paid for acting is an astonishing accomplishment, take the small wins, they’re huge.

Beginning is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 16 February-11 March (royalexchange.co.uk). Read Big Issue North’s preview and interview with director Bryony Shanahan here.

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