2021 Weston Charity Award winner Hijinx Theatre recently completed its Awards experience. Sarah Horner, Chief Executive at the charity, took some time out to talk about her experience.

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What is Hijinx?

Hijinx is first and foremost a theatre company, and we're an inclusive theatre company, so we work with learning disabled and autistic people around Wales, and we've got a really broad range of activities. We make theatre productions, as you would anticipate, but we work on those with our Hijinx actors and neurotypical actors working as equal partners, so everything we do is inclusive.

We do the same in film, so we have a relatively young film unit. We're kind of making our own film projects and hope to make a feature film in the next couple of years. And that's all supported by our Hijinx Academies - they provide professional drama training for learning disabled and/or autistic people around Wales, so we've got about 70 people training through those. We also have a busy community arm, people learning life skills through drama, inclusive young people's theatre groups and the community theatre group.

It’s super busy trying to provide as many opportunities as we can in-house, but also alongside that is a very important advocacy and kind of change-making agenda for the wider sector, because we can't be the only people who are increasing opportunities for learning disabled and autistic performers. We act as an agent for all of our Hijinx actors. We submit them for roles outside the sector and we employ them to do communications training. We'll go into a utility supplier or solicitors or a transport provider and help train their staff to communicate more effectively with learning disabled people, but always with our Hijinx actors and that lived experience at the heart of the training, and then also trying to work with the wider sector to get them to change their practices and for them to create more inclusive work. We work collaboratively in a lot of our film and theatre projects, almost all of them. And we know that around 90% of people who work with us in that way then become more inclusive in practice. So “advocacy via doing” is really important.

Why did Hijinx Theatre apply to the Weston Charity Awards?

We saw it as a really great opportunity to spend some time looking forwards. The pandemic has been really challenging for all charities and particularly charities in the arts, so having the opportunity to have that support around us to look at our longer-term strategic thinking and where we were going to be going next as a charity was a really incredible opportunity for us. We grabbed it with both hands, and we've been working since last autumn with a fabulous group of Pilotlighters who have really helped us to be able to get out of that firefighting mode and get into a longer term, more strategic approach, which has been really valuable.

How has participating in the Pilotlight 360 programme benefitted Hijinx Theatre?

I think the programme has had a number of different impacts, and it's probably different for different members of the team who've been involved in the work that we've done. Personally, for me as Chief Exec, I only joined Hijinx about five months before the pandemic hit, so I didn't have a sense of what business as usual was, it was just kind of “emergency mode – how are we going to get through the next, day, week, month”, and we couldn’t really think any further forward than that. So to have a group of people to provide a bit of a safety net for exploring things, bigger things, bigger questions, and challenge us on our ambitions was really helpful. I think the other thing that it does is, as a team, it helps bring you together around a singular focus. You might have different responsibilities across the charity on a day-to-day basis, but actually bringing people together and lifting up lots of different stones and figuring out what's happening is a really valuable thing and I think we'll take that forward.

I think the time that we've spent together as a team has really helped us to be able to go on in the future and work strongly and be able to have quite honest and open conversations about things. As part of Pilotlight 360 we've gone through lots of the tools and mechanisms that Pilotlight uses to help us identify different key issues and different objectives, and there was one meeting in particular that I think we all remember, where the Pilotlighters challenged us to pick the three most important ones and they made us do it separately. They sent us all off for five minutes to come up with the things that we thought were most important from our own individual perspectives, and actually, it completely aligned. The three of us all came back with the same three priorities and suddenly the mists cleared, and we were like, “right, okay, that's what we need to do”. And I think that process of just giving everybody space to express what is most important and find that common thinking is a really useful tool that I think we’ll take with us.

Coming to the end of the Pilotlight process, and with the support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, I think we've got a much clearer idea of our longer-term strategic objectives and what's really important to Hijinx - being able to think, outside of our activities, organisationally, what we need to put in place in order for everything that we do to be as successful as possible. I think we're a more confident organisation. I think we're more confident leaders of our organisation and I think we've got clarity.

I think the other thing that it's done is it's helped bring our trustees and our staff team closer together, certainly from a leadership perspective, so that we've got a shared sense of where we're going. We're very aligned now and feel like we've got much more momentum and energy moving forward, and bigger ambitions. I think ambition grows through this kind of process and then you can actually see it starting to take shape and how it can happen. In terms of the ambitions we've got coming out of Pilotlight, it's about being more confident about who we are as an organisation and what we bring to the sector, what change we create and also what we need in order to flourish. I think being able to articulate quite clearly and quite boldly when we're applying for funding from different directions, actually, this is what needs to happen. This is the potential of what Hijinx can offer and this is what we need in terms of support to make that happen. And I think we probably feel more equipped to have those conversations than we were previously. 

It's a well-known phrase that it can be quite lonely being a Chief Exec. Even when you've got a fabulous team around you. And I think what I've really valued is having that space, having a bit of reassurance - but not being given all the answers - just having that gentle challenge and the conversations we have in the Pilotlight meetings. It just makes you feel more secure and have more clarity about where you're going and where you're taking your charity. I think that's been invaluable, and I hope that I might be able to keep in touch with those Pilotlighters - I hope they'll be able to see the change that they might have helped create.

What would you say to someone else applying to the Weston Charity Awards or Pilotlight 360?

When I was looking at applying for Pilotlight for Hijinx and I spoke to someone who'd been through the process before, and been through the programme, she told me just to trust the process. I didn't quite know what she meant at the time. But I think the most important thing, going into Pilotlight 360, is to have trust in the process and to go through it. It can feel quite tumultuous to start with because you're taking everything apart, but actually, there is that lightbulb moment where it all seems to coalesce and start to make sense. So yeah. Keep the faith. It's worth it.

This is an edited transcription of an audio interview.

Related Charities

Listen to the full audio of this interview along with testimonials from One Roof Leicester and Young Asian Voices on completing their Weston Charity Awards experience: 

Audio file


If you lead a charity based in the North or Midlands of England or Wales, you too could be eligible to apply to the Weston Charity Awards.  

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