My name is Harry Clayton-Wright. I’m a performance artist, entertainer, theatre-maker and internet provocateur from Blackpool, a seaside town in the UK.
I’m about to do one of the most momentous shows of my life at Sydney Mardi Gras. A show about sex, a show about my life, my choices and my parents.
My route into becoming a theatre-maker, I’m now aware, isn’t typical.
I’ve been making autobiographical work for a long time, I just didn’t always know I was making it. On April 14, 2010, almost a decade ago, when I was 21 years old, I propped up two cameras on a pile of DVDs from my mum’s bathroom in Blackpool and filmed myself singing Part of Your World, a beautiful torch song from Disney’s animated movie The Little Mermaid, from the comfort and safety of her bathtub.
Complete with bubbles, props, feeling and a snappy edit, I pressed send and uploaded my performance of the song to YouTube, complete with a brief explanation of my love for Ariel and the song in question.
My favourite song from my favourite Disney musical was written by Howard Ashman, the incredible lyricist famous also for writing Little Shop of Horrors with musical partner Alan Menken. Ashman was an Oscar winner for his work on Beauty and the Beast, it was the first-ever Oscar given to a person who had died from AIDS. Even before I understood the many-layered meanings of that song, where those lyrics had come from, Young Harry really felt them.
Ya see, before I knew I was queer, I could feel that I was different to the others.
The things I was being taught in school and in life didn’t relate to me. The people around me weren’t like me. There was something missing. I wanted to feel like I belonged. I’m so sorry that I have to do this, but yes, I wanted to feel part of that world.
The song spoke to my heart and for that reason, however many years later, I recorded a video of myself singing that song in the bathtub at my Mum’s house and uploaded it to YouTube.
Nearly 10 years later, at the time of writing this article, it only has 10,152 views.
I wasn’t invited on Ellen. I didn’t appear in a Super Bowl commercial. But something did happen. A writer from Gay Times saw the video and posted it to their blog. An acknowledgement from the longest running magazine for gay and bisexual men. I was over the moon!
January 2013, I was unemployed.
A running theme for that year. I’d just moved to London and not only could I not get a job interview, I couldn’t even get a reply after sending my CV. Disheartened but pragmatic, I decided to ask my friend Cribble (aka Scott Coello), an animator and filmmaker, to help me make a video CV, something that would undeniably help me stand out from the crowd and grab attention.
We didn’t just want to make a standard video CV though. We decided to make it completely ridiculous: green screen handy work; floating cats; explosions; me flying off into space and self-combusting into nothing.
I was aware it wasn’t conventional. I just wanted to be noticed and get a god damn reply. We shot it in an afternoon, it was edited within a day or so, and we pressed upload.
The payoff was fast.
Within days I’d been invited to speak on Sunrise, the popular Australian breakfast TV show about my video CV going viral (it wasn’t really, but who was I to correct them?). My heart was beating out of my chest. There I was about to speak to Kochie, somewhere between the news, the weather and the Cash Cow (something I still don’t fully understand), broadcasting from a green screen studio in London.
I’d taken something that was happening to me and made art with it and that art was now being seen around the world and going into people’s homes. The payoff was fantastic. It was an example of following my gut and it resonating with people and creating opportunity.
That same year, three years after my Little Mermaid video, I received a phone call from the then editor of Gay Times asking what I was doing the following week. Between work, or resting as it’s called sometimes called in the biz – or unemployed if you’re being technically correct – the answer was very little. The video CV had got me a little bit of freelance work, but it was sporadic.
He asked if I wanted to fly to Walt Disney Animation Studios in LA to interview the directors of The Little Mermaid for the magazine.
An unfathomable yes.
I’d gone from performing a song in my bathtub to being flown around the world to be in front of the people who made this movie.
I got to thank them for making the film and talk about the influence of Divine and Joan Collins’ on Ursula. I got to tell them I’d dressed as Ariel and performed the song in the bath. I wanted to communicate how much it meant to me and be ever present, while being jet-lagged and needing to conduct a filmed interview.
I don’t think my feet touched the ground that day. It was such a dream come true. I’d taken something that meant a lot to me and made art with it. The payoff was fantastic because it had come from a very real place. The lesson was that my instinct to make that video in the first place was correct.
October 2015, I made the decision to become sober.
I’d not been dealing with life too well and complete escapism was my coping mechanism. With the booze and chemicals leaving my system and clarity returning, I started processing my sexual experiences: good, bad, everything in between.
My instinct was telling me I wanted to explore that, to interrogate why I’d lived what had happened to me. I’d learned from previous experience to follow and honour that instinct.
Realising I was completely unprepared for the world of sex, like most people, I stated thinking about sex education and the lack of it for LGBTQ+ people which made me question: What does it mean that we didn’t receive it properly?
Would I have made different choices?
Could my life have turned out differently?
I decided to explore this with the support of The Marlborough Theatre in Brighton, Shoreditch Town Hall and with funding from Arts Council England.
Two years in the making and with the help of friends, I wrote and put together my first ever theatre show, Sex Education, an autobiographical look at how we learn about sex and how it shapes our lives, specifically focusing on the role our parents play.
I interviewed my mum where we finally had the chat about sex (this piece of recorded audio plays throughout the show). I also dug under the bed and found the gay porn my dad bought for me at 14 years old, which we also see in the show.
Debuting in May 2017, it won a Brighton Fringe award in its first season and I quickly realised how much it resonated with people and how this conversation is so needed. It’s a space for us to mourn what we didn’t have, to safely explore that and to reflect on how we move forward.
I saved up all my money, worked harder than ever, borrowed some too, and took Sex Education to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019.
Self-producing the run was one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done, but I’m as thrilled as I am relieved that the gamble paid off.
My instinct to take the show to Edinburgh was right. It was nominated for a Total Theatre Award, received beautiful reviews, created meaningful conversations, played to sold out houses and I received an invitation to perform the show at Sydney Mardi Gras. The biggest YES of my life.
If I could go back in time and tell myself as young queer child from Blackpool what would be happening in a few weeks time, I would simultaneously be amazed and probably also not want to believe it in fear of it not coming true.
At the end of this month, I’ll be at Sydney Mardi Gras to perform as part of one of the world’s largest celebrations of pride.
This invitation is a milestone that means so much to me in relation to the core part of my being and I am so proud to be bringing this show. Because of what it means. It’s standing in front of people who have gone before and fought for rights, against injustice, who have lived proudly and bravely and made change happen by being themselves. That’s a world I’ve always wanted to be part of.
If you take one thing from reading this article, take it from me: Trust your gut, follow your instinct, make art. Who knows where it will lead you?.
It may not be immediate, anything that’s worth having will take years to build with lots of hard work and dedication, and what you’re doing may involve unconventional choices that cause people to turn their heads, but it will be your path and it will be your success you’ve built that speaks to who you are.
Sex Education plays at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, February 25-28, part of Sydney Mardi Gras 2020