Ben Pettitt-Wade, Artistic Director at Hijinx Theatre, spoke to Grant Powell MBCS about how a move toward tech during COVID-19 has led to an innovative and immersive dimension of theatre.

Hijinx Theatre, based in Cardiff, specialises in working with neurodiverse actors to provide enriching experiences in the performance arts. Bringing together live theatre with innovations in technology has resulted in some unique performance arts experiences that have pushed boundaries, involving actors in exciting projects on a global scale and treating audiences to something outside of the ordinary.

Can you provide some background to the Hijinx theatre and your work providing opportunities for neurodiverse people?

Hijinx as a theatre company has been around for over 40 years, and I've been here for almost 18 years — a lot of my career. It's always been a touring theatre company, and while it was still fairly small scale when I joined, it has always had the focus on access to the arts for learning disabled people that it has now, though it’s transformed over the years; originally, we were creating work for that community, and then it started to become about creating work with that community. All of our productions now involve our learning disabled artists at their heart, and I work alongside them directing and producing our output.

Right from when I joined it was clear that for us to be able to produce the work we do, our artists needed some form of training to increase their ability level, and prepare them for what would be expected in a professional rehearsal room. And that's why we introduced our training academies in 2012, to offer a long term opportunity for our artists to access that relevant training that they might not otherwise be able to.

In both our training and in our theatre, the reason we do what we do is to raise awareness of the opportunities out there for neurodivergent or learning disabled people.

How did you make the jump from regular theatre productions to incorporating technology?

This new way of working was largely instigated by the pandemic — suddenly we were in a situation where our traditional form of reaching people and creating our work just wasn't available. But we didn't close down, we didn't furlough anyone, and part of the reason for that is because, as a theatre company, we're very much focused on the community we work with. Keeping in contact with our network of artists became of paramount importance. Our immediate concern was how to keep running our training without being able to get everyone together in the room.

We settled on Zoom in terms of video conferencing, running weekly training sessions, but then also started incorporating a version of Metamorphosis. This allowed us to mimic the way in which we would typically work in a room in terms of improvising, creating the work alongside our artists, and also producing essentially a live performance. Live theatre has always been key, and even though we're working with different technologies, we still try and replicate a live theatre experience throughout that whole time period, and the reliance on technology to remain in operation really got us thinking about how we could start to produce some really innovative performances online.

Can you tell us about the Eye See AI project and how it brought together neurodiverse performers from different continents?

Eye See Ai is a research project which allows virtual exploration of two cities, Hanoi and Cardiff, using augmented reality (AR) technology. Driven by a dedicated app, audiences are able to access six short theatrical performances — three in each city — inspired by chosen landmarks.

A mixture of movement and puppetry performances were devised by Hijinx together with facilitators and actors, and alongside collaborators Mắt Trần Ensemble, a group of Vietnamese puppeteers, Tòhe, a social enterprise with a mission to make creative playgrounds for disadvantaged children, and VTT, a technical partner who built the Eye See Ai app. Using funding from the British Council to help support international collaboration for those working in the performance arts, we were able to visit Vietnam, spend time with our collaborators and discuss how we could harness the power and potential of technology to do something together with their and our neurodivergent artists.

A big part of the project was about the cultural exchange — learning a lot about Vietnam while we helped them to learn about Wales. Of course, this was a very different way of working for us, and complicated in terms of communication. But the end result was absolutely fantastic, both from the point of view that it resulted in a great project, but also for the level of cultural enrichment and new life experiences that it provided for our neurodiverse actors.

What led to the creation of your current project, Meta vs Life?

Meta vs Life is a dual live and online experience which is part immersive theatre, part escape room, part murder mystery. We had the idea some time ago of conducting a mock séance in a theatrical setting, and this idea bubbled away in the background until the opportunity finally arose. The platform we're using for it is called Gather Town. It’s essentially a virtual environment, but given the look of a 90s videogame. We actually started using it during the pandemic because we were missing the office environment. It allows you to move across a virtual room and chat with other participants. We started thinking about what it would be like to use this platform to make a production, and so Meta vs Life became designed around exactly that.

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The premise is that we have six people who join online and they play the role of the dead, and six people who join us in person who play the role of the living. During the show the living make contact with the dead online, via the seance initially and then via telephone, and then eventually via an arcade machine, and they work together to solve various puzzles which reveal the mystery of how the dead met their untimely end. It's about collaboration and the effective use of communication to solve a problem. Digital camera feeds enable those online to see the live action, and there are various ways in which the online world can interact with the real world. Switches are used which turn on various things for those in person that help them solve puzzles. It all runs via Slack, so that a stage manager knows exactly where and when they need to physically activate an item in the space.

What are the main challenges compared with more traditional live theatre?

With Meta vs Life in particular, the syncing of real life with an online platform can be quite challenging. Something might go wrong during a live show and, fine, you'll normally see actors finding a way through it, but online when you’re presenting stuff live, there are so many variables that you have no control over. It might be the case that your Wi-Fi goes down, or there’s a power cut or a glitch of some kind. Whatever it is, it can really damage the experience. Luckily, so far that side of things has been okay for us, but there's always a risk. Aside from that, on the positive side I feel that there is a real tension that you don't get necessarily in live theatre, and this can actually help to create quite an exciting atmosphere.

Do you typically go through a rigorous process of planning and testing?

Yes, we have a process of research and development with all of our projects. With Meta vs Life, we ran a week of R&D on it last year and prior to that we had some sessions in 2021. The process is very much about exploration, finding out what works and what doesn't, so that we have a degree of confidence in what we’re capable of putting together as the project nears fruition. We worked with Escape the Room, a fantastic company based in the United States that had experience of creating escape rooms on the Gather Town platform. It has been really important for us to have a partner who is an expert in this field to help us address any issues, to manage the application programming interface (API) and fully support us in all of the technological aspects that make this work.

What’s next? Will there be a second run of Meta vs Life?

It's a really difficult one to think about remounting — and it's not so much the online element, but the in person part. A lot of work goes into building the locations so, ‘never say never’, but I think it was probably a one off. But, like all of these projects we will have learned such a huge amount from Meta vs Life by the time it’s over.

Next up for us is the Hijacked Unity Festival this summer, where we invite a lot of other theatre companies similar to Hijinx to come from all around Europe to perform and to take part in a wide array of events. Aside from that I have been working on a show with the Sherman Theatre here in Cardiff called Housemates. It went very well and we’re gearing up to do a big tour of that in spring 2025. For us, it's on another scale, going into medium scale venues, and hopefully we’ll get a London run as well at some point. It’s all very exciting.

On the tech side there is now an opportunity to take stock and carefully consider our next foray into this area. The fusion of tech and theatre is certainly something that I'm very interested in continuing to pursue, especially after seeing how audiences and our artists have responded so positively to it.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

We've really embraced the potential of technology as a theatre company. Although we were initially forced to do it because of the pandemic, we've certainly enjoyed finding new and exciting ways to use technology and to present our work. As a company, one of our strengths is flexibility and the willingness to adapt. Embracing technology has given us a fantastic way to do exactly that.