Interview with Harry Clayton-Wright
We’ve waxed lyrical about the wonders of the London alternative entertainment scene before – but this time we really want to marvel at the gems this gorgeous city attracts, polishes, and spits out.
Harry Clayton-Wright is an entertainer, performance artist, mischief-maker and internet provocateur who came to London from Blackpool with a huge sack of talent and a willingness to work hard – and has become one of the most exciting performers around. We sat down with him this week to find out more about what he brought to this wonderful city, what he got from it, and what loveliness he’s taking with him to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Credit: Stee Louw
1) How did you get into the work you do? Have you always loved performing?
My first experiences of performing were in church plays and high school drama club, including a production of Animal Farm that remains a highlight. Hay on the floor, it all felt incredibly immersive. During my last year of college in Blackpool, studying for my national diploma in performing arts, I was spotted during our variety revue showcase by representatives from Butlins andthey offered me my very first job in Skegness. Dream come true.
It was a story covered by the local paper and the five of us chosen were all very excited. I was 18 years old hosting a Blue Brothers experience show, with no prior hosting experience, dressed as an American reporter complete with a nasal accent, and I must have been quite annoying to be honest.
It was through this I definitely put in the hard graft of learning how to win over audiences that maybe aren't buying what you're selling, what to do when you die a death on stage and got a taste of the hard work involved in delivering a run of shows.
I got involved in the London cabaret scene when I was 22. Following a series of ridiculous YouTube parody videos that had over 1.5 million views, I was invited to perform at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for a club night called Push The Button. The RVT became a regular stage for my work with Saturday nights at Duckie, the annual panto and other club nights or shows. Some of my fondest memories of cabaret are associated with that building.
I loved the creativity and instant feedback you can get with that style of entertainment.
Have an idea on Monday, put it on stage Friday. I'd make an act, perform it once and retire it immediately just because I was enjoying the challenge and process of creating work and saying different things within the form. What I learnt was that I love the process of making and putting on a show more than anything.
Entertaining people and making audiences laugh and smile definitely feels like the best way I could have spent my twenties, I've been so fortunate to do this all around the world and I look forward to pushing it even further and continuing the adventures as I head into my thirties next year.
2) You have done probably one of the most anxiety-inducing things possible: broadcast a conversation you had with your mum about sex in your show Sex Education. Is there anything you would be scared to do on stage?
At this point, I definitely get more nervous when the work has explicit emotional content. I'm totally cool with nudity, showing my body, even inserting household objects, but there's something about delving into deep emotional depths that creates more risk, higher stakes and can sometimes be really quite terrifying.
3) Coming from Blackpool, you say on your website that the town has "left stains that simply won't wash out" – has London added to those stains? And, if so, how has that changed how you perform?
I feel like any place we live in leaves a mark on us - like getting spaghetti Bolognese on your favourite t-shirt which you still wear because you love it. The laughter lines on your face and frown marks on your forehead are daily reminders of the life we've lead, the places we've been and the people we've met along the way. Growing up in Blackpool with its heritage of circus, entertainment and variety definitely informs my interests, taste and who I am today.
I feel my experience in London is very much the same. I've seen some incredible work on stages, in clubs or walls of galleries that have made me want to be a better artist and forced a re-evaluation of whether I'm reaching my full potential with the work that I'm making or involved with. London has also given me friends for life, incredible career opportunities and the most wonderful memories that I can't wait to share with my grand-puppies.
4) We have absolutely loved watching you perform with Briefs– how did that relationship come about?
My relationship with Briefs grew over many years. I first saw the boys perform at the Lowry in Manchester, July 2012 with Briefs: All Male, All Vaudeville, All Trash and I got to meet Mark and Fez - creators/founding members of the troupe - after the show. I really enjoyed it and thought they were just the loveliest.
I remember going to see Briefs: The Second Coming for the very first time in the Spiegeltent in George Square and was completely blown away by the whole thing. I knew I'd enjoy it, but they'd all taken the work to a different level. Presenting queer variety as absolute spectacle with such attention to detail, humour, joy and vibrance. The cast, the group numbers, the costumes, the lighting design. Anyone who saw that show will know the feeling I'm describing, specifically when watching Royal T for the first time and seeing Dallas Dellaforce stomp it out on the treadmill.
As I was blogging the Fringe for Gay Times that year, I actually interviewed the boys on camera for an In Bed with Briefs piece we did and it's amazing to be going back to Edinburgh this year with Briefs, but actually in the show this time.
Fast-forward to Autumn 2016 and Fez and Mark rang me up - completely out of the blue - to ask if I'd be interested in joining the cast for what would be their new show (Briefs: Close Encounters) and I just remember screaming "YES! I'LL DO IT!" down the phone. I was told I could give it some thought but I didn't need to. That was a life-changing phone call and it's been such a spectacular ride thus far. Full of hard work, laughter and more than the occasional KFC. I feel like we've gone from being firm friends to becoming family. We're all so proud of the show we made. It's a truly spectacular team.
5) What're you most looking forward to at the Edinburgh Fringe this year?
Self-care! This will be my first sober Edinburgh, so I'm going to really look after myself and take myself on some spa dates. That and performing every night with Briefs: Close Encounters, of course. Plus, I really can't wait to watch some incredible shows.
Here are just a few from my extensive list that I'm excited about seeing:
6) Your work is often reviewed and described as being important and uniquely insightful – particularly into elements of LGBTQ+ culture – does that add huge pressure when it comes to creating your next project?
I do feel like it's better to go into making your work without feeling too much external pressure. I tend to start the process from a place of creating what I want to see on stage, so that means I'm excited by the idea. I think that then translates to audiences and resonates because they feel connected to the material because they know I am. It then feels honest, real and comes from a special place. Though a bit of pressure is a good thing, too. A deadline can really light a fire under your ass.
Credit: Stee Louw
7) How do you come up with your performances? Do they come into being organically or is there an element of sitting down and thinking and planning it all out?
I've learnt I work really well in the context of a residency and when given time in a rehearsal studio, theatre or an arts office environment. The opportunity to play when nobody is watching. The quiet to write. A good Wi-Fi connection. The joy in trying to crack a plot line or theatrical effect or costume or dance routine. I keep a notebook with me at all times and write things to remind me of my inspirations.
8) Have you still got projects in your box of ideas that you would love to do or artists you would love to collaborate with? If so – what and who?
Heaps! I've got loads of ideas of things I'd love to make, across varying genres and budgets. I'm always open to collaborations as well, with artists from all practices, or just people who might be up for trying something new and making something happen (whether they call themselves an artist or not). One of my big goals is that I'd love to do some more acting and be in a play or two, I want to produce and craft more video work, theatre, create some visual art and just keep on collaborating with amazing people and pushing it further and further to see the scope of what can be achieved flourish and grow from the basis of working hard and having fun.
9) What can our readers see you in next – and why should they come?!
Briefs: Close Encounters is playing the Edinburgh Fringe, which will be its Scottish premiere, at the incredible Assembly Hall throughout August. You should come for a great night out. Circus, drag, burlesque, contemporary dance, comedy, warp-speed strippers from outer space. It's an awful lot of fun.
I'll also be performing my solo theatre show Sex Education at the Marlborough Pub and Theatre in Brighton on the 11th and 12th October. You should come to that because it's a very honest, funny and moving look into how we learn about sex and how that shapes us later in life, featuring an interview with my mum and a study of the gay porn my dad bought me when I was 14. Something for everyone.