Interview: Harry Clayton-Wright readies tearaway teen, Rebecca, for Adelaide Fringe Festival first

Entertainer. Performance artist. International mischief maker. Internet provocateur.

Three descriptions of British artist Harry Clayton-Wright, that are more than fitting. An entertainer unafraid of pushing boundaries of trashy comedy and cabaret, toeing the line of cheeky risqué and the all-out ribald, Clayton-Wright’s work mixes endearing charm with a maniacal confidence that has made him a popular fixture on many a global festival stage.

During next year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival season, Clayton-Wright makes his debut in presenting his Slumber Party. A first for the Adelaide Fringe, the immersive theatre event takes place over 107 hours, from February 28th through to March 4th. The audience will be introduced to Rebecca, Clayton-Wright’s teenage brat creation – a homage to the wild spaces of the teenage girl’s imagination, Rebecca’s bedroom is open at all hours of the day and night for the public to visit and interact with.

Totally live and improvised, Slumber Party is an ambitious undertaking, but Clayton-Wright has been working this show since 2015, since it was first unveiled at Glastonbury.

“It’s very exciting,” he says, as the full program for the Adelaide Fringe has been unveiled today. “This will be both the Australian premiere of the piece and my first solo project Down Under. It’ll also be my fifth time in Adelaide, making it my most visited Australian city. Last time I was at the Adelaide Fringe, in February/March of this year, we were there with Club Briefs and also doing some late night installation work with the RCC curated by Briefs Factory at the Neon Forest – think strippers of all persuasions, with lots of glow paint, on top of a shipping container – so this definitely feels like the logical and exciting next step.”

BRIEFS hit the Neon Forest in Adelaide with Betty Grumble.

Being brought out to Australia with BRIEFS in 2017, and then being taken around the world with the boylesque company in the months following that initial Adelaide Fringe season, Clayton-Wright reflects on the chaos and whirlwind that has become his life.

“Working with BRIEFS has taught me an awful lot about so many things,” he says. “Having been such a fan of the company before joining, getting to learn firsthand how they work is fascinating. I love the ambition Briefs Factory shows have. Both in scale and audience experience. As a company who receive no support as an organisation, no funding to tour and very little to produce their work, there has to be a commercial mind in the process of making things. If every penny counts, how can we maximise on everything we’re doing? How can we make political theatre that is as entertaining as it is commercially appealing but still theatre? What is interesting and important to us and how do we put that on stage in a way that will surprise?”

Presented by the Briefs Factory, Slumber Party is already emerging as a highlight of the Adelaide Fringe Festival’s 2018 season.

“I’m delighted that Briefs Factory are presenting Rebecca and her Slumber Party in Adelaide.” Clayton-Wright says. “They’ve very much been behind me developing work alongside touring with BRIEFS, which keeps us all interested, engaged and very busy. But it’s also a lovely experience to have as not all companies are as supportive with their artists.”

Rebecca invites Adelaide into her bedroom next Fringe Festival.

As for Rebecca, where does she come from? Injecting a solid dose of anarchy into the mindset of a social media-addicted, party-loving young girl, Clayton-Wright takes us through the genesis of such a character.

Rebecca first surfaced in 2015 at Shangri-La, a legendary field at Glastonbury Festival. She was inspired by those who had risen to fame on social media, trash bags, party monsters and was a vessel for exploring political ignorance. Shangri-La is full of all types of amazing political art and the field was split into two: heaven and hell. Rebecca was deep in the muddy trenches of hell. She wasn’t a judgement on why people wouldn’t be engaged politically, she was an exploration.”

“Also, my younger sister is around the same age as the character,” he adds. “I’d hear her talking with friends and found those conversations fascinating. That rhetoric and dialogue found its way into her vernacular. I worked closely with the brilliant Kaye Dunnings, the director of Shangri-La, Cola Phalquero an amazing drag performer (Europe’s Sexiest Drag Cockroach) and James Barnett, an extremely talented documentary filmmaker, throughout the first staging and fantastically, we pulled it off. It was exhausting and sometimes slightly traumatic, but we did it and at the end there was a 26 minute documentary James edited together that both chronicled and celebrated what we made.”

“I knew we hadn’t seen the last of Rebecca. I’ve been waiting to revisit her ever since. The world has changed in such a short space of time that I’m excited to see how this has altered her views and who she is, how she behaves and who she keeps as company. So much has transpired in the global political landscape that it seems impossible for anyone to ignore… I don’t think she’s indifferent anymore.”

(Photo Credit: Michael Chapman)

Reflecting on that Glastonbury debut, Clayton-Wright describes the effect Rebecca had on the throes of festival-goers who had no idea what they were in for.

“Showing at Glastonbury and presenting durational drag performance there, at such a huge and mainstream festival, was so exciting. You know before the weekend begins that thousands of people will see your work. It’s a terrific platform. And we had the whole gamut of reactions. One of the most memorable is that on our last night, the window was smashed in. People aren’t indifferent to Rebecca and that’s the way she likes it.”

“It’s very exciting to be presenting this kind of work at a Fringe festival,” Clayton-Wright says of his upcoming Adelaide Fringe debut. “This piece will be free to view, for everyone – which isn’t your typical Fringe model – making it accessible to audiences from all backgrounds and open to those who might not be used to seeing drag or performance art. That we get to reach such a diverse audience makes it feel like a fantastic opportunity for interesting encounters. Plus, that there are so many brilliant performers in one place, I’m hoping that they’ll come and play and entertain and surprise.”

107 hours though, is a long time. A long time to keep people in that constructed environment. For Clayton-Wright, it’s not this that worries him about the upcoming Slumber Party.

I worry more about breaking character because I’m finding it so brilliant and funny that I just want to laugh.” he admits. “The lunacy of what can happen in the moment is so exciting. It’s a fantastic playground for discovering jokes and stories you never knew were inside you.”

Harry Clayton-Wright (Photo: Kate Pardey)

With 2018 just on the horizon, Clayton-Wright anticipates another busy year of performance and work. Thriving on stages around the world now, the artist hailing from the Lancashire coast in England’s North West remains grounded about where success has taken him so far.

“I’m a queer performance artist from Blackpool. I first started performing when I was eighteen years old in working class holiday resorts in the UK. I’m from very humble beginnings and mostly just hoped I’d carry on working after every job ended. That’s a little less of a worry now, having found a theatrical voice and knowing I can make my own work, but sometimes it can get real dicey and you never know where the next meal is coming from until a phone call happens that can change your life… Thank you, BRIEFS!”

“Sometimes I’d crash on sofas for weeks at a time, trying to figure out what was next.” he remembers. “There was a lot of generosity from those around me, friends and family who’d let me stay, or help me make things, or just let me chew their ear off about ideas or ambitions for the future. I’m really very lucky to have found my way into global touring, where I’m given a platform for my ideas and humour, and I’m just making sure I enjoy it as much as possible in the moment. That this is my job is a dream come true. I am 28 now, I’ve been working for a decade; it’s nice to take a moment to stop and give yourself that little pat on the back, but let’s continue upping the ante and keeping it interesting.”

Harry Clayton-Wright (Photo: Kate Pardey)

Where does the desire to push personal and performance boundaries come from, for this 28 year old from Blackpool? Engaging with audiences of all demographics has seen Clayton-Wright become the subject of many an emotional response through his work with BRIEFS, as well as his own shows and work in the UK.

“My favourite thing about performing is that very special dialogue with an audience.” he says. “Letting them in, allowing them to get to know you, and then pulling the rug out from underneath us all and seeing what happens in the space. It’s a live experience for a reason and I’d like us all to feel something. Laughter, shock, sadness, curiosity, disbelief, joy.”

“My work always comes a place of personal experience,” he furthers. “For a few years I created from a place of trauma. Now as an artist who is sober, catharsis, kindness, body positivity, queer politics and curiosity are of highest importance. But I’m still a masochist who wants to lock myself up in a bedroom dressed as a teenager for 107 hours to see what happens. I want to learn and develop every time I do something. As an artist who didn’t have professional training, I’m constantly growing through practical experience and that keeps the world exciting and me hungry for more.”

Harry Clayton-Wright’s Slumber Party (and Rebecca) makes their debut at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2018. For tickets and more information, visit the website here

Lead Photo Credit: Kate Pardey.