In Conversation with Harry Clayton-Wright

Harry Clayton-Wright is an entertainer, performance artist, international mischief maker and internet provocateur, once described by The Mirror as a “deranged manic gay bloke”. He’s performed widely in cabaret, theatre and live art and has a prominent internet presence: his videos have had over 2.5 million views and his output is uniquely queer, sex positive, visually arresting and explicitly exhibitionist. We sat down to chat about sex education, performance and pushing the limits of decency.

So what are you working on currently?

I’m currently in Briefs: Close Encounters at the Underbelly Southbank. It’s a mix of circus, burlesque, drag, comedy, cabaret, performance art. It kind of encapsulates everything that is entertaining. As you can see from the lineup, we’re all massively different. And we say it tests the limits of masculinity, taste, and decency – which I think is a really good phrase to sum up what we do. I perform as a character called Delia Objectophilia, who is a neurotic middle-aged housewife who falls in love with her lamp in her living room, which then comes to life as a six-foot-something lumberjack and throws her around in a contemporary pas de deaux to the music of Kate Bush. It’s a lot of fun.

How did you get involved? How did it come about?

I’ve just been on the same circuit as them for the past few years. We met in 2012 initially and have known each other for ages and last year they invited me to join the gang to make a new show with them. We went to a gorgeous property by a river in rural Australia where two of the boys live, and all pitched up and sat together working out what we wanted to say, what skills we all have, what would be fun to perform on stage every night. Then Fez, who’s the director and the host, threaded it all together. Developing it was a lot of work, but in the best possible way. Like it was an exhausting process, but we’ve all made something we can be incredibly proud of.

What were you working on before?

I was in a show called Miss Behaves Gameshow for a couple of years. That toured internationally; I was the glamorous assistant. I performed on a project called Carnesky’s Ghost Train in Blackpool for four years, which was a theatre show on an actual fairground attraction. Such an amazing and ambitious show. I’ve had a really great few years of finding myself in positions that have really interested me. And I think that’s been the key to my happiness and why I’m still working: There are still many exciting things to do or say.

Have you found that queer performance has gained more prominence and influence in recent years?

Well with House of Air for example, (available on Vimeo, warning NSFW), which was Brendan Maclean’s music video, it was really well-made, and I think that was the key to its success. And it’s not to say that if things aren’t well-made, they won’t get seen, but it’s interesting to see a film of that calibre online that had such explicit queer content and see the huge reaction it generated. The level of detail that went into it – shooting on 16mm film, the styling, the love – Brian and Karl the directors were just completely brilliant.

I think the key to a rise in prominent queer performance has been a nice marriage between what is seen or appears as commercial and then subverting within that. I think it’s really interesting to play within that space artistically. Because it is amazing that drag is so popular at the moment, with Drag Race, but then the subversion by some of the artists who work within that field is brilliant. They’ve got such wide audiences and they’re using their platforms to push boundaries and make work that is really entertaining and high-end as well as political and queer. I think it’s an exciting time.

Photo credit: Eivind Hansen

Exciting how?

Briefs, for example, is a really LGBTQIA+ friendly celebration of life, fronted by a 7-foot Samoan drag queen, that is currently running for three months on the Southbank. And because of its position and platform, being the headline show at Underbelly Festival, and the amazing reputation the show has garnered over the years, we get the pleasure of performing to audiences of all persuasions. The show is political and queer and it pushes boundaries, but it’s also entertaining as hell, which resonates universally. We celebrate identity through performance and are able to represent ourselves as individuals through what we do, and audiences love being able to escape reality with us, especially in this current climate. Being able to go to work and deliver a life-affirming message of hope is both humbling and kick ass fun.

How did you get into performance and cabaret?

I started a performing arts course when I was 16, in Blackpool – because if you’re going to learn to be a performer anywhere, it should be Blackpool. Blackpool is a gay-friendly resort with one of the longest-running drag revue shows in the country there, called Funny Girls. I was constantly around entertainment. I did performing arts at college but knew I didn’t want to go down the straight acting route, I always wanted to experiment. I started working when I was 18. My first job was hosting a Blues Brothers experience show at Butlins. I learned a lot of my craft on stage in front of audiences who weren’t always on my side.

Then, I worked on a show called Carnesky’s Ghost Train in Blackpool when I was 20, where I dressed up in drag as a half-dead Eastern European woman, with local dancers and showgirls, running around in the dark in this incredible theatre piece about migrant women who were smuggling themselves across borders and disappearing. It was a ten minute show that we’d perform on loop for eight to ten hours a day. So they built an actual ghost train on Blackpool promenade and we’d perform on it, running around in the dark, screaming, performing in magical illusions, swinging from a trapeze, delivering this story about disappeared people during a time of famine and war to unsuspecting tourists and the people of Blackpool. It was an incredible job and there’ll probably never be anything like that show again.

When did you leave Blackpool?

I started making videos on YouTube and then would come down to London to perform cabaret and comedy pieces I’d made at the RVT. I’ve just continued hustling and trying to challenge myself year on year. It’s a hard industry, but you just have to be persistent. Never give up. I made my first solo show in May, joined Briefs this year: I feel like I’ve really been pushing myself more and more the older I get. I didn’t go to university, I just started working, which I think was for the best. I just thought that if I kept doing it, I’d just keep learning. I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn or try new things.

Photo credit: Eivind Hansen

Is there anything you still want to try?

I’d really like to do more work in front of camera. I love doing live performance but being in front of a camera feels like a muscle that I’ve not fully exercised and I really want to learn more about the nuances of performing and acting on screen. I’d like to write a book – but I’d also like that book to include lots of nudes, while I’m still in that headspace of wanting to use my body in that way. And I have done for the past few years. I’d like to collate lots of the images, write some stories, and put it all together somehow. Then just more live performance around the world.

What’s next?

I’m going to be taking my solo show, Sex Education, to Blackpool. I just did it at Brighton Fringe, where it won an award, and at Shoreditch Town Hall. The show is about how we learn about sex and how that affects us later in life. I interviewed my mum and asked her, twelve years later, why she didn’t speak to me about sex. That was a super interesting conversation. The show also features the gay porn my dad bought me when I was 14. I revisited those DVDs and found out what I’d learned from them. It was a really interesting experience, to delve into sexual history, and not just about proclivities that I enjoy, but also why and how and if my sexual education had affected the interesting decisions I’ve made in the past.

It’s much more of an open conversation about choices and experiences, that have been either brilliant or traumatic, with regards to sex. It’s been good to work through a lot of stuff through art and that show was about going into a lot of my previous trauma and trying to unpick it. I wanted to make a piece of work about where I am now. And it’s helped massively thus far. And opened me up conversations that have been really lovely and cathartic. I can’t wait to do the show on home turf and see what happens…

Follow Harry on Twitter and Instagram and keep up to date with performances on his website.
Briefs: Close Encounters is on until 30 September; tickets available here.