Ben Pettit-Wade (BPW): I’m Ben Pettit-Wade and I am currently artistic director at Hijinx in Cardiff in Wales. I was also formerly administrator at Spare Tyre Theatre Company. Umm (laughs) I think I started in about 2000 and was there for around about four years. Ahh, so yeah, that’s me.
Arti Prashar (AP): That’s some Journey now that you’ve made, actually. And how would you describe your journey? And it’s mainly been in the participatory arts world?
BPW: Absolutely. Ermm, I think since joining Spare Tyre umm that became something I was passionate about. Spare Tyre I think kind of appealed to me because umm I, I felt that they work they were doing umm seemed very important. Umm so hence I made the application and and I didn’t get the job.
BPW: Yeah! I was not the first choice.
AP: (gasps) ooohh
BPW: And I remember, and I ermmm. Claire err (laughs) called me to, to tell me that I hadn’t been umm chosen because It went down to the last interviews and she phoned me and she said “sorry we think umm we think you weren’t quite ready for ready for the role” or something or other. And I remember saying “no sorry, I think you’re wrong”
BPW: (laughs) Which totally didn’t leave her off the hook at all. Umm and I was really disappointed. Umm but then but then it was about a couple of weeks later I got another phone call seeing if I would come down to London.
AP: And join the company
BPW: And join the company yeah.
AP: So so you were –
BPW: It could never have happened and I could never have been part of the Spare Tyre. It was a chance thing and it was umm and my work now obviously is very much centred on umm working with learning disabled adults and that you, that is completely down to my experiences I had when I was with Spare Tyre.
AP: I was interested to say that you, you thought that what you were doing at that time was important. Do, do you remember what, what is it that struck you about what they were doing?
BPW: Umm I think just because it was across a variety of communities at the time, it was it was really umm very varied and I’ve always had a thing umm you know I, when I was growing up in West I grew up in West Wales umm my family weren’t umm it wasn’t a very affluent area that I grew up in. I was always kind of an outsider as well because my parents are English and when you grow up in Wales and your parents are English you’re considered an outsider (laughs) no matter what you do. Umm but I didn’t, I didn’t have you know I couldn’t go to for example drama school or something like that because my parents could never afford to be able to cover my fees umm to do that. So I went to a university, which was fine and it all went, but it wasn’t a sort of an “actor training course”. Umm but I always felt that it was people that had, that were better off within society that had the opportunities. The real opportunities to, to access the arts at the top level. So I think what I saw in Spare Tyre was a company that you know gave, believed in the ethos that everyone umm should be able to access their creativity. And I think I learned that more when I was, when I was with the company. You know before when I was making the application if you like, I wasn’t as experienced in in community theatre. Umm but having worked with the company what what strikes you over, over the four years I was there was that kind of real commitment to ensuring that and uhh the quality of kind and of community level participation is of the highest standard and the importance in that and the time needed to dedicate to that. And I think as an organisation there’s a real stubbornness to kind of stick to your guns and not think “I’m gonna, I need to grow and we need to grow and we need to change. We always need to be innovative” and and yes there’s innovation but it’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to kind of become bigger and bigger organisation. I think there’s a real kind of sense with Spare Tyre that the innovation is in the, in the detail.
AP: You found yourself back in Wales.
AP: And umm and what’s that been like for participatory arts and what you’ve done?
BPW: After Spare Tyre I went and I lived away from the U.K. for a couple of years umm the majority of it I spent working teaching English in Poland. Umm and during that time actually what I, what I worked out, I missed the group, the incTheatre group. It was people like Bob and and David Munns and and Ell- is it Ellie, Ellie?
AP: It is Ellie (laughs)
BPW: Umm that came to my mind and that sort of, and being around that group. So when I joined the company one of the first things that I introduced umm was the Hijinx Unity Festival. Umm and the, so the Unity Festival is an inclusive arts festival. So it’s for companies like, like Hijinx and like Spare Tyre and that’s very much because my, having worked for both organisations I felt that the work we were both doing was was fantastic but didn’t get the recognition. We had an opportunity to create a partnership with quite high profile venue to offer a platform umm for companies to perform. So Spare Tyre actually came down for the first festival that we ran which was lovely.
AP: Yeah, with DarkInc. (laughs)
BPW: Yeah, with DarkInc! Which was brilliant, lovely kind of link to be able to kind of bring both the companies together. The festival has, reflects the sort of growth umm that the company and participatory arts I guess within Wales has had in the ten years I’ve been with the company. Umm because from that kind of first festival which we did for, I don’t know, maybe about a five grand budget or something (laughs) now it’s become this big umm event that encompasses sort of theatre performances, international programme and street performance and, and all sorts and it’s something that people, umm you know, really want to be part of in terms of part of the programme. Umm and I also think, in Wales at least, it has helped to push to the forefront umm some of the companies that are working inclusively in disability arts and disabled artists as well umm over the ten years.
AP: How do you weigh up the issues around community and professional theatre?
BPW: In terms of the festival, it’s a really fine line. Do, will an audience want to pay to see this? That aren’t an audience of friends, fans family and pe- associates of the performers. So that I mean, that’s the kind of cutthroat if you like for me difference between what gets programmed umm on the stages. In the ticketed programme for the festival because we’re constantly trying to fight the battle and convince people that, you know, there should be no stigma attached to this work. Umm but there is.
AP: There is huge.
BPW: There is (laughs) and that stigma, put bluntly, is that it will be of a lower standard. Or that it wont be for me. We also have our community group if you like, Odyssey Theatre.
BPW: Which is actually, is what umm influenced the company to start working inclusively 15/20 years ago. Umm and they’re still running and so they put on a Christmas show and they get their experience and performance experience through that. So many of our students go through academy the Odyssey and them umm at some point end up in one of our touring productions.
AP: Your curiosity, actually. That works really well with our kind of, you know, participants. Let’s play with that a little bit more and see what happens and then they were markers and stages of where you could take it next in a way before you got to where you did.
AP: And, and I suppose that’s… that’s our tough lives at the moment. Isn’t it? To produce something amazing?
BPW: It kind of goes against the whole umm devising process as well in a way. Which is so important for me. If it’s going, if the voice is going to be from at least equally from a learning disabled artist on that process then the devising process is key to that.
AP: You you’ve kind of already said that you felt that umm Ace England [Arts Council England] have been quite brave in the way that they’ve kind of funded organisations and umm they’re being seen as a little bit of a lead. Umm and so they’re pushing very much the kind of culture of diversity agenda and participatory arts and participation. So where do you think that, the future lies for organisations like yours and mine?
BPW: It, at the Wales Millennium Centre you know we’re one of a resident company that and the, there’s a collection of seven resident companies if you like. And all the other companies are pretty huge national organisations in terms of Wales. And obviously they’d be talking from a perspective of a huge organisation that has this one little arm that does their community work.
BPW: And is the add on
BPW: To the big beast
BPW: And we’re coming from an (laughs) organisation that this is big beast for us. This is exact- this is what we do. In a way this is our lives. And (laughs) I think that passion for, that the smaller organisations have for, for the work is always I hope going to have a stronger voice. I hope we will, we will always have a place just because it’s our lives. This is what (laughs) we do. There is no, there’s no other kind of big beast to worry about. We’re not the add on. Umm so I think that puts us in a stronger position. I can demonstrate one exercise.
AP: Oh go on!
BPW: That, that actually was one of Denny’s exercises that he kind of learned from a, I think a kind of Russian clown school that he attended.
AP: Oh I’m going to miss it this time (laughs)
BPW: Ooohhhhhh! Great, lovely reaction (laughs)
AP and BPW: (cheer and laugh)
AP: Okay, put it down. We’re doing this again (laughs)
Ben is the Artistic Director of ‘Hijinx’, an inclusive theatre company based in Cardiff and working internationally. Before ‘Hijinx’, Ben worked with us as an Administrator for several years.
Ben spoke to us about what he learnt during his time with us, and some of the stigmas around participatory arts.