Ahead of next month’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival run of his award-winning debut solo show Sex Education, The Queer Review’s James Kleinmann caught up with performance artist, theatre maker, entertainer and all-round beautiful human Harry Clayton-Wright to talk Blackpool, sex, cucumber sandwiches and winning over the audience at Skegness Butlins.
James Kleinmann: You grew up in quite a showbiz town in the north of England, Blackpool. What was that like? Did it stimulate the performer in you?
Harry Clayton-Wright: “God, I feel so lucky to have grown up in Blackpool with access to the incredible heritage and traditions of entertainment at my fingertips. The wonderment of being a child and seeing clowns and acrobats at Blackpool Tower Circus. The building is 120 years old and one of two circus arenas in the UK where the ring can fill with water becoming an artificial lake. It takes less than a minute to fill with 42,000 gallons of water. There’s the cabaret and ice skating spectaculars at the Pleasure Beach with showgirls and dancers galore. Discovering incredible and hilarious drag at Funny Girls (Blackpool’s longest running drag revue show which this year clocks in at 25 years) and is located in an old Odeon cinema. It has an incredible production, including a revolving stage. Growing up around these wonderful institutions, I now realise how lucky I am that it was normalised to me in my childhood so early on. My imagination was always so stimulated. As I got older and realised I wanted to become a performer, while I knew it required dedication, achieving that goal didn’t feel impossible because it was on my doorstep. It was accessible. Whenever I mention I’m from Blackpool I always feel like I make sense. Plus my complete obsession with wigs, feathers, sequins, glitz and glamour can easily be traced!”
When did you first get into performing professionally, what were your early shows like?
“My first job was at Butlins in Skegness. I was hosting a Blues Brothers tribute show, with no prior hosting experience, I might add, and it was incredible training to be in front of those audiences. You really had to work to win them over. In terms of my first jobs closer to home in Blackpool, I would dress up as a mascot at the Sea Life Centre, a shark or an octopus, and I performed on a ghost train on Blackpool Promenade for four years in my early twenties. I’ve definitely paid my dues along the way.”
How have you developed or changed as a performer over the years?
“With having no drama school training I’ve learned everything I know through doing, asking questions and trying to pick up as much knowledge as possible from anyone involved – directors, producers, designers, technicians, PRs. That curiosity I have has led to me throw my hat into the ring with a variety of jobs across multiple genres: gameshow glamorous assistant, circus cabaret spectacle, performance art installations, adult pantomimes, short films. I feel entirely comfortable in what I do as a well rounded performer and entertainer now and all that stage time, experience and hard graft has been invaluable. Plus, I feel so happy that I know how to make work as well as perform it.”
How did the idea for Sex Education come about?
“The initial idea for Sex Education came in 2015 when I wanted to retrace my sexual history and how it shaped me, specifically in regards to how I learned about sex and my parents’ role in that. My mum never spoke with me about sex and on the flip side of that, my dad bought me a bag of gay porn DVDs when I was fourteen years old. So I started writing and researching, I dug under the bed and found the porn to rewatch, I set up an interview with my mum to finally have “the chat” and then I was fortunate enough to have a commission from the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton in 2016 to make my debut solo theatre show so it all fell into place.”
How would you describe Sex Education, what can your audiences in Edinburgh expect? Has it changed from Brighton or is it fundamentally the same show?
“Sex Education is an autobiographical theatre show featuring me, my mum and a tonne of gay porn provided by dad. It’s funny, moving and full of heart. I make and serve cucumber sandwiches during the show, so you even get some food for thought. Since its development outing in Brighton, where it won the Brighton Fringe LGBTQ+ Award in 2017, it’s fundamentally the same show in terms of structure, but it pushes further in places now. I feel braver with the material. There’s now an interview with a friend of mine, journalist and author Kuchenga, and I’ve researched some of the family history my mum speaks about which has provided some really interesting results.”
What was the experience like of talking to your mother for the show? Did you end up talking about things you’d never discussed with her before?
“Well, she was incredibly nervous. But she didn’t want to know any of the questions beforehand, so the discussion we had was completely live, unscripted and absolutely fascinating. It was incredibly exciting, actually, as I genuinely found out things I never knew. You can hear from my reaction that it’s brand new information.”
You ask her at one point if she thinks you’re a top or a bottom. What was the most awkward question to ask her? Which of her answers surprised you most?
“Firstly, it’s a trick question because I’m vers. But it was actually some of the questions about her and my dad, their relationship and why they married, that surprised me the most. They were also some of the most awkward. My mum still isn’t comfortable talking about sex, so I just wanted to make sure I navigated that with care for her. It’s about respecting her honesty and trying to get to the bottom of why that might be.”
Would you say it’s strictly a gay or LGBTQ show or do you tend to have pretty mixed audiences?
“I like to say the show is explicitly queer but absolutely for everyone. There are universal themes that hit regardless of your sexuality. It’s about upbringing, parental relationships, retracing your steps, pleasure and how we process the things that happen to us (good and bad). One of the first development showings in 2017 was in Blackpool and I was terrified I was going to be chased out of the town with torches for showing work that is so full on and explicit. But it was received, in front of an incredibly mixed crowd in terms of age and background, with such love that I thought if this can work here it can work anywhere.”
What kind of Sex Education did you have at school if any?
“It was of no relevance to me whatsoever. It was heteronormative. Procreation focused. It didn’t answer any of my questions and I remember it being uncomfortable. Like something the teacher just had to get through. I feel like that’s so similar for many of us.”
What do you think of the current debate in the U.K. about including mention of LGBTQ people in lessons at school?
“I saw a tweet from Patrick Strudwick that hit me like a tonne of bricks that said “LGBT+ inclusive education is suicide prevention” and it’s stuck with me since I read it because I completely agree and I think everyone needs to hear that.”
What do you enjoy about the Edinburgh festival experience? How would you describe it for anyone who hasn’t been?
“Well, this is my sixth time at the Fringe and so I guess I’m a bit of a veteran now. A stalwart. It’s the largest international arts festival in the world and you get to see the most incredible shows and artists in one place. The atmosphere is electric. You can see the theatre makers of tomorrow alongside old school legends. For artists and those involved, it can be a really important festival for shaping your career. Personally, I love that I get to see my friends from all over the world in one place. I try and swim every day and look after myself in the chaos that the festival can be. There’s nowhere else like it in the world.”
When will you be performing Sex Education in Edinburgh and how can people buy tickets?