REALLY WANT TO HURT ME is a critically acclaimed new dark comedy with dance sequences about growing up as a gay teenager in ‘80s Devon. It offers a fresh small town and rural voice, compared to the more familiar big city LGBTQ stories, and explores surviving bullying, suicidal self-hate and heartache to a classic ‘80s pop and indie soundtrack featuring Culture Club, Eurythmics, Tears for Fears, Kate Bush, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins and more. We had a chat with the writer and director, Ben SantaMaria, about the play.
Hi Ben. Tell us more about the show
Really Want to Hurt Me is a semi-autobiographical dark comedy I’ve written and directed, which is performed by Ryan Price. It’s about the innocent highs and crushing lows of growing up as a gay teenager in ‘80s rural Britain. It features dance sequences and a soundtrack of Culture Club, Eurythmics, Tears for Fears, The Smiths, Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins and other classic pop and indie music from the era. So it’s also about escaping into the joys of music like your life depends on it – because in a way it does, when you think about how deeply we invest in our favourite songs to deal with our darkest and loneliest times.
The play takes audiences into the most intimate thoughts and awkward experiences of a schoolboy growing up from ages 14 to 16 in Devon, taking us from 1984 to ‘86. Constant pressure to be straight and act ‘masculine’ makes him feel like he’s living in George Orwell’s “1984”. We see his struggles with school bullies, his brushes with teenage heartache and his suicidal self-hatred when he feels he has nowhere to turn. But there’s plenty of humour too, like his confessions about his accidental first orgasm with his best mate, and his escape into fantasy in the bursts of dance. Trying to tape the Top 40 off the radio without the DJ talking over the songs. Dancing defiantly to his Walkman to stay alive. The show weaves in nostalgic details like these that older audience members can really relate to, whether they’re LGBTQ or not. And at the same time, the boy’s fears and frustrations speak directly to the problems young LGBTQ people are still dealing with.
The 80's were a contradictory decade for many reasons. It was a decade when it was still not easy to talk about homosexuality (not as today, at least) but, for example, music was pushing people to see and know more about it. I remember Boy George, of course, and Bronski Beat, but also Dead or Alive, Erasure, Freddie Mercury or Madonna, and others. What do you remember about the music of that decade?
My memories of the music from the ‘80s are of escapism and fun and having a fantasy space where you could be dramatic and moody, but also of showing us new and different ways to be in the world: smashing norms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity – and that’s just in Culture Club! Even when it was more hinted at or heavily coded, the most interesting music wove in plenty of subversive versions of reality that you could cling to, like lots of little lifeboats in a sea of conservative drudgery. And there was such an incredible range of music, even if you only look at what was in the charts. Acres of atmosphere in it, compared to a fair amount of the thinner-sounding mainstream music today. Prefab Sprout – who are also in our soundtrack – or Bronski Beat or any of the acts you mentioned all have a real weirdness and often a mystery about them, that’s still there when you hear them blast out in the show now.
Things have changed significantly since then. In the 80's it was sometimes hard to meet other gay people - almost impossible if you were living in small realities. Nowadays, you can tap your phone and find a guy in a few minutes. Do you think about this change as an improvement? Have things really changed?
That’s one of the main questions that’s come up for me, refining this play over the last year and a half into this final version. Have things actually changed all that much? Older and younger audience members alike have told us they’ve been really affected by the show, and felt strong connections with their own lives. And we’ve had post-show discussions with the heads of the charity Schools OUT, which works for greater inclusivity, who confirmed my general sense that unless you’re extremely lucky with finding a supportive school, the same problems of isolation, phobic abuse, internalising negative social messages and ending up feeling unworthy are still a regular experience for so many – possibly even for the majority of LGBTQ kids. One of the main reference points for me deciding to write the play was Stonewall’s 2017 School Report study, which 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. The statistics about disproportionate numbers of young LGBTQ homeless people reveal the same problem.
Straight audience members have said they’ve been touched by the show too, and of course most people of any background have deep anxieties they live through growing up, that they still wrestle with when they’re adults. But for the particular life experiences of gay, or LGBTQ, people? As far as I can see, there’s a more knowing attitude in a lot of younger queers now, which can be powerful, and at other times numb and detached. But they’re mostly just as traumatised from being made to feel deeply ‘wrong’ or ‘other’ as earlier generations were. I asked a group of LGBTQ people about this a few months ago and a young queer woman said that having access to more material on her phone didn’t mean she felt any less of an outsider for having to search for some kind of validation on it, alone, to make up for not being welcomed as part of the community from an early age. All of this creates – I was going to say ripple effects, but it’d be accurate to say heavy tremors, that mean the major victories in how we’re more socially included today are still undercut by a lot of endemic mistrust of, and ignorance about, LGBTQ lives. So one of the things I really worked on with Really Want To Hurt Me was to try to make my personal story reach out to young LGBTQ people living through similar struggles today, as well as to older generations who survived those years like I did.
Really want to hurt me is at Soho Theatre Thur 13 December. sohotheatre.com/shows/really-want-to-hurt-me/