“If you find something funny then laugh”, says Jess Thom, a London artist with Tourettes syndrome. Alienated by the diagnosis in her early twenties, Thom took the advice of a friend: “You have a crazy language-making machine, and it would be a shame to waste it”. She founded the Touretteshero project to celebrate its creativity, with this show finding its title in ‘Biscuit’, a word she utters 16,000 times a day.
Thom wields a wheelchair from which she’s positively bursting in excitement, her ticks released in incredible crescendos: “Biscuit. Hedgehog. I love cats!” She demystifies the syndrome, including its branding as the ‘swearing condition’. Only a few people are believed to have curse words in their regular repertoire, and thankfully Thom is one of them: “Fuck it!”.
Tourettes comes with its dangers too. The performer reveals that the she is prone to daily fits, a fact that brings incidental tension to the performance. The audience has to prepare itself for the possibility.
Its political edge spells out stories of segregation, of attending a show by the comedian Mark Thomas at the Tricycle Theatre and being asked to leave the auditorium to watch from behind the sound booth. For her that was antithetical to theatre and its unities of people coming together.
Now she’s set out to remake theatre-going, and she’s not alone. The immensely charming and intelligent Jess Mabel Jones (a.k.a. Chopin) is at hand in both medical aid and stage management capacities, trying to keep the leading woman on-script, a task that lends a lot of comedy. The story of their meeting is one of new possibilities: Jones was performing in a stage version of Beauty and the Beast on a night where Thom, in attendance, kept uttering ‘Alan’. By cosmic chance, this was the name of an ex-lover to the actor playing Belle, allowing her to access her own heartbreak in performance.
Championing accessibility in theatre, Touretteshero make a case for the ‘relaxed performance’ model of play-going: showings that welcome audiences with Autistic Spectrum Conditions, learning disabilities and other sensory disorders, where noise and movement are strictly monitored. It’s a model that needs to be adopted a whole lot more because Thom is too good not to have in the room, whether onstage or in the seats.
Backstage in Biscuit Land runs at Pleasance Courtyard (Pleasance Two) until 30 Aug. For more information and tickets, see the Fringe website.