“Unity Festival’s visiting acts always comment on how much they love coming to Cardiff” – Ben

Ben Pettitt-Wade photographed by Adam Chard

For the last nine months I have been planning and organising Hijinx Theatre’s annual Unity Festival – a two week event that sees a variety of award winning inclusive arts companies descend upon Cardiff. I have to say I’m exhausted! We’re a Cardiff-based inclusive arts company with a very small team. In reality we don’t have enough staff or resources to be doing this, thank goodness for volunteers! But every hour spent is worth it for Cardiff, the arts and the performers.

Having worked in Liverpool, London and Seville (albeit briefly) and Cardiff, I can honestly say that Cardiff is on a par with these cities in terms of the inclusive art scene and the work being produced, but it’s the audiences that differ. I’ve sat in packed 1,000 seat theatres in Seville watching a piece of inclusive dance, we wouldn’t get that in Cardiff, and that’s something we are trying to change through Unity Festival. We believe in the work we present and believe it should be enjoyed by everyone.

We started in 2008 with an audience of 1,500 people and year on year the festival has grown in both size and ambition to become one of the largest inclusive arts festivals in Europe, with more than 7,000 people enjoying performances in 2012. Last year will always be unforgettable. For the first time we received £100,000 of funding from the Arts Council of Wales which meant we could start thinking big and turn what were pipe dreams into a reality. We brought Back to Back Theatre from Australia over for the Festival; they performed for three days in the middle of Queen Street. It was incredible.

This year we’re lucky to have secured the same funding and as a direct result of the Paralympics we are welcoming more home grown acts than ever before. Our mission is to build on the Festival each year while staying true to its core – to provide a platform for the inclusive arts, offer more opportunities within the spotlight for disabled artists and expose their amazing talents.

For the first time, Cardiff audiences will be able to enjoy spectacles including modern fable The Iron Man (a colossal iron puppet the size of a double decker bus) from London-based Graeae Theatre Company, who can be credited with kicking off the whole movement in disability arts in the 1970s. As well as Three Acts of Play from Candoco Dance Company, UK pioneers of inclusive contemporary dance; it will twist your perceptions of who can dance and who enjoys it!

We are also showcasing international acts, Sevilliano flamenco Cia Jose Galan, back by popular demand following a near sell out last year and jaw-dropping acrobatics from French company Cirque Inextremiste. I saw this show in Marseille and I guarantee it will blow you away.

More than anything I love the feel good vibe that the Festival creates and can’t wait to experience it again. Our visiting acts always comment on how much they love coming to Cardiff, how friendly people are and the great reception they get. So, people of Cardiff, I’m asking you to come and see for yourself the brilliant theatre dance, music and comedy on offer and help make this year the best yet with the biggest audience!

Ben Pettitt-Wade was born in London, grew up in Carmarthenshire and has lived in Riverside for the last six years. Following completion of a drama degree, Ben’s acting career was cut short when he broke his ankle in rehearsals; he then joined Spare Tyre Theatre Company in London where he co-ordinated inc.Theatre, a training course for learning disabled actors. It was here that Ben discovered a passion for working inclusively and specifically in drama with learning disabled performers. Since then he has amassed over 10 years experience in this field, in Cardiff, London and Seville. Ben is responsible for the Hijinx Academy, the Hijinx Pods, the community projects,  forum theatre pieces, and the Unity Festival. He currently lives in Riverside.

Unity Festival runs from 12-22 June 2013, and offers both free and ticketed performances across the city at Wales Millennium Centre and Sherman Cymru. Visit www.hijinx.org.uk/unity for a full programme or see @HijinxTheatre on Twitter. 

Ben was photographed in Cardiff Bay by Adam Chard

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