In 2017, a School Report study published by Stonewall found that almost half of all LGBTQ pupils still face bullying, half regularly hear homophobic insults, and many suffer low self-worth, self-harm and attempt suicide. Writer and director Ben SantaMaria understands this all too well, having experienced it for himself growing up as a gay man in 80s Britain. Realising that these problems haven’t gone away for young people today, he wrote the autobiographical show Really Want to Hurt Me as a way to explore what has – and more importantly, hasn’t – changed since his own teenage years.
Following sold-out dates last year in London and Edinburgh, where it was shortlisted for the Brighton Fringe Award for Excellence, Really Want to Hurt Me recently embarked on a tour of the UK, performed by Ryan Price. As the tour got underway, we chatted to Ben about the show’s journey so far and the impact he hopes it will have for audiences over the coming months and beyond.
Can you sum up briefly what Really Want to Hurt Me is all about?
It’s a bittersweet and dark comedy with dance sequences that gives the audience an intimate sense of what it was like to grow up gay in the ‘80s. The story has a lot of parallels with the same challenges that young LGBTQ people are experiencing today. It follows the life of a schoolboy in Devon from 1984-86, as he lives through all the upheaval and self-discovery of his teen years, having to hide and repress his identity to survive the pressures of being bullied and being forced to conform. He escapes into the pop and indie music of the 80s era, which promises a more liberated life ahead for him, and into theatre to enjoy playing other characters instead of the false self he has been made to be in real life.
Why was this a story you wanted to tell, and why is now the right time to tell it?
It’s an autobiographical play, so I’d reached a point where something in my mind was telling me I needed to explore my past and work out how much what happened in my formative years is still affecting me. Short answer: it shaped me more than I even realised! But with all of the arguments about expanding education to be inclusive of LGBTQ people’s lives, and research still revealing how many young LGBTQ people continue to be bullied and hear negative messages about themselves that lead to isolation, low self-esteem and self-harm, the loneliness and traumas I experienced clearly haven’t vanished into the past as some relic of a bygone era. I think we need to honour and keep revisiting LGBTQ history to see what’s changed and what still needs to change for further progress.
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the show?
We’ve already taken the show to Exeter, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in London to Soho Theatre, Theatre503 and the Old Red Lion. Audiences there have responded so positively and openly to the show, either LGBTQ people of my generation saying “that’s my story” or younger people telling us it reflected their lives. It’s also been brilliant to have non-LGBTQ people say that the show made them understand at an emotional level what their friends and family went through. I’d love audiences of all kinds to feel immersed in the schoolboy’s world and through that to reconnect with their own teenage years and any time they overcame feeling like an outsider.
What’s the show’s journey been to this point, and how have audiences responded to it so far?
It started out as a short scratch piece in 2017 when I was invited to contribute something for the Monday Club’s showcase at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in London, commemorating 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. So many of the acts there, whether spoken word, dance or film, all touched on the same issue of surviving school traumas, which just reinforced how much remains the same today. An Arts Council grant was the lifeline that led to all of those other show dates we clocked up last year. As the play’s so grounded in small-town life, away from the London stories we hear more often, it was important for me to take it on tour around the UK this year, back to the South West and all around.
What have been the biggest highlights and challenges since you began writing the play?
The highlights have been all of the venues we’ve visited and the ones on our tour this year. It’s absolutely incredible to me that my personal story has gone on this journey around the UK and had such beautiful responses from our audiences. The biggest challenge has been staying true to my Devon adolescence, making the boy’s story as intimate and honest for the audience as possible, and developing and redeveloping it until only the essential remains, to make it speak from the heart.
What are you most looking forward to about taking the show on tour?
I love visiting new venues and because the play’s partly about the huge importance of so-called ‘regional’ theatre, amateur dramatics and those drama teachers who give so many outsiders a sense of purpose when they’re growing up in their small towns, it’s really satisfying to be bringing it to lots of towns and cities where people can hopefully feel that their lives are reflected in this story. We’re also running free LGBTQ writing workshops at some of the venues – in Sheffield, Exeter, Harlow, Cheltenham and Nottingham. Anyone aged 14+ can book a place by contacting the venue and come along to try writing from their own life experiences, whether they’ve written before or not.
In your view, what can we as both a society and individuals do to combat the bullying and intimidation still faced by the LGBTQ community?
My experiences growing up tell me that what’s needed is a healthy sense of community to support those who are targeted as ‘other’ and ‘different’. Inclusive education that acknowledges the realities of everyone who’s in the classroom. Normalising peer protection – again, through education – instead of normalising bullying as something you just have to get through as a young person. It seems to me, having grown up in a period when bullying was even more pervasive, that we’re at a point now where great advances in inclusivity and diversity are smashing against another catastrophic surge in fascism and monoculture. Reaching out collectively, whether it’s helping others whenever it’s safe to or joining a larger group to tackle hate, is always the answer. As my play illustrates, you can’t thrive alone.
Really Want to Hurt Me is on tour around the UK until October – for details of dates and venues, visit flamingtheatre.co.uk.
Writer and director: Ben SantaMaria
Performed by Ryan Price