Hijinx is a Welsh theatre company who always include learning disabled actors in their productions, run a number of ‘Hijinx Academies’ which develop learning-disabled talent and host the biennial Hijinx Unity Festival. Joe Turnbull speaks to Chief Executive Clare Williams about the company’s international work, including plans to export its academy model overseas.

Woman sitting next to banraku puppet

Hijinx's Meet Fred. Photograph: Tom Beardshaw

In summer 2016, Hijinx took Meet Fred, their production about a potty-mouthed puppet beset by troubles in dating, housing and losing his ‘puppet living allowance’ benefits, to Edinburgh Fringe. It was a critical smash, gaining four and five-star reviews from the likes of The Stage, The List and The Herald. Believing in the show’s quality, this may not have come as such a surprise to the company. But what they didn’t expect was for a production with such British cultural references, to set them on a massive international journey.

A promoter from AC Orange, the largest private performing arts company and the largest chain of theatre management in China, was impressed by Meet Fred. “In China, they have thousands of young people flooding into cities from the provinces looking for the things that Fred is looking for: somewhere to live, a relationship, a job,” explains Clare Williams. “So, for those reasons, AC Orange saw it as a very pertinent production relevant to a Chinese audience.”

Initially, AC Orange had intended to buy the production and remake it in Chinese. “There were obstacles to that,” Williams notes. “Fred is a bunraku, Japanese-style puppet which requires three people to operate. There’s not a lot of skill in that form of puppetry in China. I proposed that we not only bring over Meet Fred along with our inclusive cast (with three learning-disabled actors in it) but that we also run workshops with the idea of replicating the work that we do in Wales in a Chinese context.”

The promoters were sceptical, “People with learning difficulties in China are very misunderstood – they are seen as lazy, if they are struggling at school, there’s very little recognition of disability.” Whilst negotiations over the transfer of Meet Fred were ongoing, AC Orange representatives came over and spent a day in a Hijinx Academy.

“Initially they didn’t see the relevance of what we were doing. They just wanted to buy the show because they thought it was funny,” recalls Williams. “But seeing our academies and understanding our ethos and why we make the work we do, they were completely seduced by it and wanted to replicate it in China.”

Having grown from one academy in Cardiff supporting seven people in 2012, Hijinx now run five academies across Wales supporting 70 aspiring learning-disabled actors with professional, vocational training.

“We know there are a lot of people with learning difficulties who have a natural charisma and ability to perform. And they each want to have a creative voice. But if you’re 19 and you’ve left special school, it’s almost impossible for you to access drama or film school, because you don’t have the requisite qualifications. We set up Academies with the same expectations for actors attending a mainstream drama school. Each student has 800 hours contact time a year. And they learn skills in acting, improv, script work, clowning, acting for film/TV, audition techniques and so on.”

“Hijinx Academies are on-going, our actors don’t graduate after three years. This wouldn’t be appropriate for these people who need continual support. We also source work opportunities for our actors, sometimes in the shows and films that we make, but we also adovacate for others to cast inclusively and we’re also now working closely with TV and film studios to put pressure on them to include learning-disabled characters in their storylines to cast authentically.”

The burgeoning relationship between Hijinx and AC Orange has led to the latter signing a memorandum of agreement with Arts Council of Wales to programme more Welsh work – further building on an agreement signed by the Government of Wales and the Cultural Ministry of China in 2015.

“We’re on the vanguard and Hijinx are currently piloting this agreement to see how it works. AC Orange are touring major west end musicals. But it’s amazing that they’re interested in touring a small scale non-profit arts company, such as Hijinx. It’s such a steep learning curve. There’s no one we can turn to for advice to ask ‘how did you find touring China with a small inclusive company with learning disabled actors’?”

Hijinx facilitators posing with a group of Chinese participants

Hijinx delivering a workshop with Ed-Ability. Photograph courtesy of Hijinx

Meet Fred toured to Shanghai in May of this year as the first step in this new partnership.

“The promoters were incredibly nervous about how the audiences might react,” explains Williams. “It’s quite wordy, quite rude, quite ‘in your face’, and doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. Fred is not a victim. We didn’t change anything at all, despite the very specific references to the British welfare system. But the frustrations of how to pay/support learning disabled people is the same the world over. And it applies to anyone who is marginalised; it’s transposable.”

“Shanghai audiences are very young and very educated. Although there were surtitles, most were following the script (in English). They were up and running with it so quickly. Strange contextual things happened. At one point, the audience must pretend they are 6-year olds at a birthday party. Fred approaches the audience and asks someone ‘how old are you’. That’s considered to be really shocking in China. You can ask someone’s salary and expect a straight answer, but you don’t ask their age.”

“Fred, in the English language production has a profile on Guardian Soulmates. In Shanghai, we changed this to a well-known dating site in China. They loved that. They all got out their phones and started trying to find him on the site! At the end of the show, the audience lined up en masse to have their photos taken with Fred. He has kind of gone viral in China. AC Orange see him as very merchandisable. There’re some bonkers ideas about sequels, the wife and children of Fred, and Fred becoming a spokesperson for all sorts of issues.”

Alongside the performance, Hijinx delivered two workshops, including one with 27 young people from local disability organisation, Ed-Ability. This month, senior representatives will come to Wales to see how Hijinx operates at all levels, learning about their business model, policies and ways of operation. In January 2019, two actors and four facilitators from Hijinx will lead a month of workshops for 90 young learning-disabled people in Shanghai. “We’ll then use those tasters to run a summer school in 2019 to pilot the scheme,” Williams explains.

“Our model might not be compatible with the way their welfare system/state work, but at least we can have a good stab and better understanding of what can be achieved. The first stage is about finding participants. The second stage with the summer school is about training the facilitators who will lead this so it can be sustainable. In future, we’d then go out to monitor and evaluate the work which is being done and hold their hands through making it work. The last thing we want to do is parachute something in and then walk away and leave them.”

Despite being a relatively small company, Hijinx have big international plans. In 2018 Hijinx will tour to 67 cities in 16 countries over 4 continents. Other international work has included sending actors out to Lesotho, Africa where attitudes towards disability are highly entangled with religious beliefs. The aim is eventually to roll out the academy model there, as well as in China.

“It’s not about being patronising, but where people with a learning disability have quite a rough ride, we wanted to be able to demonstrate what could be achieved when given the right opportunities.”

To find out more about Hijinx, visit their website.