Hijinx was founded in 1981 as a small-scale touring company, with the goal to make theatre accessible for all. Born from a passion for performance, collaboration, and creativity, the company nurtures safe and encouraging spaces where neurodivergent and neurotypical actors could be equal partners in innovation.
Professionals and non-professionals alike are supported and celebrated: its first community group, Odyssey, was set up in 1999, and in 2008 Hijinx launched its flagship Unity Festival, the only one of its kind in Wales and one of the biggest in Europe.
Hijinx is the only organisation in Wales that provides professional drama training to learning disabled and/or autistic people: it opened its first Academy in 2012 and now operates five of them in hubs across Wales (Colwyn Bay, Carmarthen, Aberystwyth, and Cardiff). Their recent forays into film and TV now inform the curriculum at their academies. Suffice to say, Hijinx are up to a lot — exactly as their name suggests.
Making authentic theatre
A Hijinx production doesn’t start with a set script. It starts with a room, and a collection of creative people — artists with learning disabilities and/or autism are always in the room working alongside neurotypical performers. Initial ideas are explored, focus grouped, and reworked: a structure and script emerge, developed through improv and experimentation. Rehearsals are then recorded, transcribed and edited into what becomes the final script.
‘It’s not idea-led but group-led,’ explains Artistic Director, Ben Pettitt-Wade. ‘In all our processes we ensure that artists have complete ownership of what that work will be.’
For Chief Executive Sarah Horner, Hijinx’s greatest success is its investment in people: not just in their work, but in their whole journey. ‘We’re pioneering in this space,’ she says. ‘Part of the joy of working collaboratively is showing other organizations and artists a different way of creating work.’
‘Nothing about us without us’
‘This is so important for us', says Sarah. ‘We don’t talk on behalf of others: we want to amplify the voices of the artists we work with, and ensure what we’re putting on stage or screen is true and authentic.
‘The challenge for us as a production company, is that the artists we work with don’t have the opportunities that other actors have,’ adds Ben. ‘Many cannot go to drama school or live away from home. We take a very holistic approach. We have to provide those opportunities, to be able to make what we want to make.’
‘We’re always very keen to promote where we’re from in our productions,’ Ben attests. ‘And if that’s not evident in the production itself, then we add it in.’ One such example is Meet Fred, a collaboration with Blind Summit about a cloth puppet who wants to be a real boy. While touring in France, the actors took their bows below a surtitle which read: “Thank you, we’ve been Hijinx Theatre from Wales (not England)”.
Meet Fred is one of Hijinx’s landmark performances: a global hit, staged over 250 times to 25,000 people in 130 cities. Its authenticity is credited as the secret to its success: a story with the ability to connect with different audiences across the world.
‘We have to push Wales as its own unique place with a strong identity,’ says Ben. show like Meet Fred helps people to recognise where we are and who we are.’
While Hijinx may be a comparatively small company, their ambitions couldn’t be grander. ‘We want people to be able to make a realistic living, and to be looked after and feel secure,’ Sarah affirms.
‘Working inclusively incurs additional costs that other organisations might not, and it’s a massive investment of time and money. We can see the impact of what we do; the change it creates in people we work with, and with their families and support networks. We feel responsible for amplifying that.’
But things are changing for the better. The rise in digital media consumption during lockdown, compounded by the relative affordability and accessibility of online content, means that hybrid/blended theatre is becoming increasingly popular, allowing more opportunities for Hijinx and their performers.
In addition, Hijinx has an appreciable impact on people’s confidence and happiness; people start to live independently because of the skills they help develop. From an economic perspective, every £1 invested in Hijinx generates nearly £5 worth of social return.
Unity Festival: Bringing it all together
Nowhere are these incredible performers better showcased than in the Unity Festival, one of the largest inclusive disability arts festivals in the world. Spanning film, theatre, dance, clowning, street performance and more, Unity has taken its actors around the world.
‘The festival has such an important role to play in bringing artists here to experience the richness of what Wales has to offer,’ Sarah says. ‘Putting on such a vibrant, eclectic and amazing programme of work, situating that here in Wales and seeing the conversations and reciprocal visits we had after a range of shows, is really valuable.
‘That is a quintessentially ‘Welsh’ experience — and we’re very much inviting people to Wales to experience that ‘Welsh’ hospitality.’