Sex Education, Sobriety and Self Care // Harry Clayton-Wright

Sex Education, Sobriety and Self Care

The all-consuming beast that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is over for another year and I’ve been asked by TSOTF to write about my experiences at the festival, particularly in relation to sobriety. As someone who is approaching four years sober, I’m very happy to be given the opportunity, alongside the wonderful FK Alexander, to write about this experience as it isn’t talked about enough. 

Having done a fair few Fringes - this was actually my sixth full run - as a blogger, a PR intern, a production assistant, and as a performer with my work in cabaret productions, I decided to throw my hat in the ring this year by including Sex Education, my debut autobiographical theatre show, in the programme. Self-produced and self-financed, I knew I’d learned enough over the years to be able to give it my best shot, which was handy as I also didn’t have the money to be able to pay anyone to help me produce this run anyway. Being based in Blackpool now, a big part of the reason I moved back home with my mum at the start of the year was to be able to afford to do the Fringe. As has been widely discussed, the costs of presenting a show in Edinburgh have indeed risen over the years. But as an international arts marketplace it felt important to be there. I felt like I had a piece of work that needed to be seen, was ready to be booked, and that the time was right to have this conversation with audiences. I also thought people would enjoy the show. I was delighted to be accepted into the Summerhall programme - my first choice in terms of venue - where I knew the show would be safe and looked after. Positioning for your work is so important in the context of the Edinburgh Fringe and complete honesty, I’m very afraid of drunk patrons around this work. I managed to escape relatively unscathed in a festival that sells A LOT of drinks. 

This was my second sober Fringe but my first with all of the responsibilities of presenting my first ever piece of solo work in the largest arts festival in the world, and I knew in advance that two things would be very important: accommodation and self-care. The first was actually sorted through Instagram. With the experience of Fringes gone by having stayed on a camp bed in a living room and tricky accommodation previously, I knew I wanted to stay with a local, in their home and not some dodgy cupboard a landlord was charging through the teeth to use, with no hot water and party flatmates that would make me feel miserable. A friend put a callout on Instagram in January and a lovely couple (Doug and Mark with their incredible cat Trev) got in contact. AirBnB superhosts (their place is beautiful) we spoke on the phone and I put a deposit down the next day. We actually met in March when I went up to do some work and had a WhatsApp group going for months before the festival. I can now thank Past Harry for the foresight in knowing how useful this would be to my mental health during the run. Sex Educationis an incredibly honest and exposing piece of work and having a lovely, chilled place to go home to after the show each night was a gift. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m happiest in the bath. I don’t want to think about the risk it’d put me in to not have had this in place and am lucky to be able to know what is best for me and to have had this plan work accordingly. I worry about highly personal works and this festival very much. How can we look after people in an environment that isn’t regulated? I made some incredible friends in Doug and Mark who I look forward to hanging out with again. And in terms of expense, it was actually very reasonable, as I heard of people paying much more for a lot worse (mice, lack of hot water, parties).

The second thing on my list, self-care, was something that I also knew I had to budget in for this run. Having been to the Fringe many times before, I knew that one thing I could do for myself was to get a spa membership. This was the fourth year I’ve used the spa to look after my mind and body during the festival, and it was also the year I saw the most artists there, day after day. The hot tub became live art soup. I’m very grateful to the artists I got to spend time with, in the pool or sauna or steam room. Chats or hugs or sometimes just silence, it became an artist community centre and safe haven to cope with the pressures of the outside world. A place to listen and look after each other. It was also, for me, an important and rare sober space in the festival.

Sober spaces during the Edinburgh Fringe are few and far between, which is an often-overlooked conversation when it comes to what it means to be putting your work in this context. Consumption is everywhere and it’s a hard thing to avoid, so in all honestly I withdrew from a lot of the festival to be able to cope with the workload and responsibility. I wanted for this run to be the best it could possibly be - it cost so much to present the work in this context, I didn’t want to blow it or jeopardise it in any way by being shaken, tired or anxious. Having felt overwhelmed at the start of the run, I didn’t do any nights out. I never went to the artist bars. It was straight home after the show. I was almost always in bed before midnight to get a full eight hours sleep. At first, I felt like withdrawing meant I was missing out on networking and being seen, the fun times. Maybe I was, but I also knew that I’m at my best when I’ve slept and much more ready to seize the day and concentrate on the work. I’ve gotten the Fringe party animal days out of my system. I’ve been a mess in front of my peers and for me it doesn’t end well.

There’s a reason I’m sober and I’m on the other side of those days building different types of friendships and working relationships. I talk about sobriety online so it isn’t a shock for people. They don’t expect me to join in. Did I feel like a let-down for not going out to see enough shows? Yes, absolutely. Am I going to see these works when they inevitably go on tour? One hundred percent. And I’d just like to say, I don’t begrudge anyone needing escapism during a festival like this either. I understand, I’ve been there, but unfortunately I cannot be around it. It’s too hard for me. But the need for escapism during a festival like this and the over-accessibility of alcohol and lack of sober spaces is part of a bigger picture of the arts’ reliance on socialising over alcohol. A lack of care for those who put themselves through this month shouldn’t be on those who are leaving broken and poor, it’s important for the festival and our industry to be talking about this way more than we do (which doesn’t feel like often anyway). 

And this is just one topic on the list of other difficult conversations that we need to have about the Fringe. About accessibility, the overwhelming whiteness of the festival, representation, class and the regulations that needed to be put in place years ago to have avoided the escalation of costs. I’d definitely like to see more accessible case studies in the future, and more action to follow them up. I believe TSOTF are one of the only organisations paying people for their time and labour to feed back about the festival, and that’s something that should change too. Give us transparent examples of how Fringe festivals have gone for a variety of participants. From solo shows to big companies. From wins to losses. What can be traced back to having done the festival? What did their budgets look like? Tell us some honest tips and tricks and even hard realities.

Sex Education had a really lovely run at the festival which I’m thankful for. It looks like it will have a touring future and I am beyond delighted by this. I made some wonderful friends and I’m very grateful for the audiences who came and the lovely words about the show. But it’s important to also recognise my incredible team who supported me throughout.Simon, my amazing technician who has the best energy in the world. StorytellingPR who run the Summerhall press office and looked after me during the festival (letting me come in and work with them, drink coffee and even occasionally let me nap).  Summerhall for being incredible. The Marlborough in Brighton for commissioning the show, Shoreditch Town Hall for supporting the development and Arts Council England for funding it. David Sheppeard for producing the original run, who will work with me on building a tour. Brian Lobel for directing the show and the constant kindess and checking-in through the process. Leah Shelton, Duncan Jarvies, Rosie Powell, Kuchenga, Ophelia Bitz, Scott Coello, Greg Bailey and Sarah Ferrari. And of course, my lovely Mum. For her beautiful interview. For agreeing to be in the show she can never see. For letting me live at home this year to be able to afford to have the opportunity to try and advance my work. Their labour was put in to making Sex Education happen too, and an accounting of the experience should acknowledge their contribution.

I’m very happy to have survived another sober festival and a shoutout from my heart to anyone else who has achieved that too. Because it isn’t an easy thing to navigate.

You are incredible.

-       Harry Clayton-Wright