ED2018 Caro Meets ED2018 Interviews ED2018 Theatre

Ben Pettitt-Wade: The Flop

By | Published on Thursday 16 August 2018

If you read our preview issue earlier in the month, and in particular the Three To See section, you might be aware that we’ve had our eye on new Hijinx production ‘The Flop’ since before the Fringe began. Since then we’ve sent a reviewer along to check it out, who confirmed my suspicions that this show was one to watch.

To find out more about the play and its source material, as well as the inclusive group behind it, I arranged to have a chat with Ben Pettitt-Wade, director of ‘The Flop’ and artistic director of the company.

CM: Right, let’s begin by talking about the story you’re telling here. What is the show all about?
BP-W: The show is about the Marquis de Langey who was put on trial for impotence in Seventeenth Century France.

CM: How did you come up with this? Is it based on truth?
BP-W: Almost accidentally really. I had joked that the show would be called ‘The Flop’, a clown show about erectile dysfunction. During one of the R&D’s one of the performers did some research on this and found a mine of information about the impotence trials.

In Seventeenth Century France a husband could be sued for impotence and have to prove his virility in court by having sex with his wife, in-front of an audience of judges, lawyers, midwives, priests and family members. Of course the whole concept seems ludicrous – and horrendous – to us now, but technically impotence was illegal as you had to be able to produce an heir.

The story we follow is a true story of the final trial of this nature to take place in France. Our main point of reference for the show was a book called ‘Trial By Impotence’ by Pierre Darmon which is a detailed and quite amusing account of the entire peculiar episode in French history.

CM: Why did you think this subject matter would work for you?
We made this production with clown supremo’s Spymonkey and the story of the Marquis de Langey lends itself superbly to a clown production – it is ultimately a story about failure, or societal attitudes towards failure – a subject which is perfect to explore through clowning.

CM: It sounds hilarious, of course, but does it have any serious points to make?
BP-W: As a company Hijinx productions always includes performers with learning disability in our casts. Therefore we always look for parallels between the people telling the story and the story being told. In ‘The Flop’ we see two people that have little control over their own lives and are forced to conform to societal pressures – a theme that is extremely pertinent for many people that we work with, and not just those with learning disability.

CM: Can you describe how you devise something like this? How did you go about putting the show together?
BP-W: When I make work I always like to explore the devising process through a particular skill. For our 2016 show with Blind Summit, ‘Meet Fred’, we worked with puppetry. For this show we explored the devising process through clowning with help and advice from Spymonkey, therefore the process was always about finding the game within a scene, and then exploring that game. Therefore the final show is simply a series of interwoven games that the performers play, either through the text, or physically. I also video all improvisations, so the script is eventually transcribed and edited from these improvisations. It is quite a long process, and we are still making tweaks to the script even now.

CM: What made you think this would be a good show to stage in Edinburgh?
BP-W: Clown performance has quite a good profile in Edinburgh, with many incredible clowns from all over the world performing here during the festival. A part of me wishes we hadn’t called it ‘The Flop’, there was a huge risk we could have ended up with egg on our face, but thankfully people have been enjoying it and our audiences have been good so far.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Hijinx now – how was the company created, and what inspired its inclusive ethos?
BP-W: Hijinx was formed over thirty years ago as a small scale touring company, then around twenty years ago the company became interested in working with performers with learning disability and set up a community group called Odyssey.

In 2010 we made the commitment that all our professional productions would include performers with learning disability within the cast. However, it is almost impossible for a person with learning disability to attend drama school or university, so we set up our own Hijinx Academies to offer this training to our students and prospective performers in our productions.

We now have five academies around Wales and are working with over seventy adults with learning disability. Our ethos is that it should become commonplace to see a person with learning disability on our stages and screens, and ultimately this will help to break down prejudice within society towards the learning disabled community.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the company in the future?
BP-W: Hijinx has trebled in size over the past four years or so: we tour our work throughout the year, sometimes two productions at once. In this year we will have toured to China, the US, South Korea and throughout Europe extensively. We really are riding the crest of a wave right now, therefore our current ambition is simply to consolidate what we have, hang on and survive the ride.

CM: Do you have any plans for other/new projects in the pipeline?
BP-W: We are working with the wonderful Frantic Assembly on our next production titled ‘Into the Light’. I will take a back seat on this one as it will be directed by Frantic Assembly Artistic Director Scott Graham and associate artist Krista Vuori. ‘Into the Light’ will premiere in Spring 2019 in Cardiff before a short national tour.

CM: You’ve performed here before of course – what is it about the Festival that made you want to come back?
BP-W: As an inclusive company it is vital that we are able to test our work in a competitive market place such as Edinburgh. It forces us to become ruthless in our own assessment of the work and think about the audience always – it is impossible to be self-indulgent with your art on the Fringe. There is no better place to test and develop your work for the better.

CM: How are you enjoying being here this year…? Is everything going smoothly?
BP-W: It is going wonderfully. We are very lucky to have an apartment which is extremely close to Summerhall, which makes things incredibly easy for us logistically. For our three cast members from the Hijinx Academy this is their first Fringe, so they are having a fantastic time and getting to see so much incredible work on their doorstep.

We are really happy with how everything is going, we’ve had some nice reviews in now and it feels like word of mouth is starting to spread about the show.

CM: What are you all doing when not doing the show? Have you managed to take in other shows you’d recommend?
BP-W: We try to catch a couple of shows each day, taking full advantage of our Summerhall pass, but also venturing further occasionally. I’d recommend Lady Rizo at Assembly, a fantastically magnetic performer. Also loving ‘Sugar Baby’, from another Welsh company Dirty Protest.

CM: What’s next for you after this?
BP-W: I leave ‘The Flop’ cast on the 22nd to fly to Helsinki as we are performing our puppet show ‘Meet Fred’ at SAMPO Festival on the final weekend of August.

‘The Flop’ was performed at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival 2018.