Jess Thom says the word “biscuit” close to 16,000 times a day. And that’s not the most interesting thing about her.
From October 12 the British performer is at Melbourne Festival for Backstage in Biscuit Land, a comedy show that couldn’t stick to the script if it tried.
Thom has an unfair ability as a comedian – she has Tourette syndrome. The neurological condition causes her to “tic” uncontrollably – in her case with rhythmic chest banging and vocal outbursts.
She now wears a glove to stop her knuckles getting “cracked and bloody”, but says her chest has since calloused and adapted to the habit.
While “biscuit” is currently her main tic, she regularly comes out with surreal beauties such as “Pikachu is wanking your toes!”, “Moon, do you miss Neil Armstrong tickling your pits?” and “Santa Monica Lewinsky!”
They’re so good she’s spent the past four years chronicling the best ones (nearly 6000 so far) on her website, touretteshero.com. People are free to “use” them however they want – as inspiration for visual art, music or creative writing.
Thom says a tic feels like trying not to blink – the need to move is overwhelming. Tourette syndrome is a big part of who she is. She explains having to start 99 per cent of phone calls to new people explaining her condition (the other 1 per cent are market researchers – “I let them take their chances”).
Backstage in Biscuit Land, which she performs with Jess Mabel Jones (who Thom says her Tourette syndrome nicknamed “Chopin”), is about giving people permission to laugh.
Interestingly though, the show was borne out of one of the worst moments in Thom’s life. When she was at the theatre several years ago as a punter she was asked to move to a soundproof booth next the stage after audience members complained about her.
“It was a deeply humiliating and upsetting experience,” she says. “As I sat sobbing in the soundproof booth I promised myself I would never set foot inside another theatre again.
“But that’s not a promise I kept, thankfully,” she says, laughing.
Backstage in Biscuit Land isn’t just about the “surreal world” Thom’s tics create around her, but also her belief that “If you make theatre accessible, you make it better.”
She talks about a growing movement in the UK called “relaxed theatre”, which welcomes people who find it difficult to follow conventional theatre etiquette – which can include people with Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities or autism; people who have new babies; or “just people who have very loud laughs”.
She says it it can make for really dynamic theatre because, “It gives the whole audience permission to relax and respond naturally.”
It’s an interesting year for Thom to bring Biscuit Land to Melbourne Festival. Also headlining the festival is the new show from Back to Back Theatre, Lady Eats Apple. Back to Back is a company from Geelong that exclusively uses a cast of disabled actors. Its shows have earned praise from Edinburgh Festival to the New York Times.
What does it mean for disabled people to make art in such a visible way?
“Representation is absolutely crucial. Seeing people that reflect your experience on stage makes you feel like you can occupy that space too,” Thom says.
“Disability is normal,” she continues. “It’s not a niche issue. But it’s vastly underrepresented on screen and on stage.”
And the reverse – what’s it like for disabled people to watch non-disabled actors “play” them?
“The practice of ‘cripping up’ (non-disabled people playing disabled roles) is deeply damaging because it’s not true representation,” Thom says. “Disability isn’t just about mimicking the symptoms of a particular condition. It’s about a cultural experience and often an oppressive one.”
The big thing for Thom is getting more disabled people in visible spaces. To do that we need to break down the barriers that block them.
“Disability isn’t about being less able. It’s not about needing to be fixed,” she says. She refers to everyday oversights – buildings with stairs only, a neglected disabled toilet – that reminds a certain group of people the world isn’t made for them.
She says with the right environments and support, disability doesn’t have to be a barrier.
“The barriers are things other people create.”
Backstage in Biscuit Land is showing as part of Melbourne Festival at Malthouse Theatre in Southbank from October 12–16. Tickets available here.
The show will then travel to Brisbane and show at Cremorne Theatre, QPAC from October 19–23. Tickets available here.