Jess Thom, Actress With Tourette's, Is Making Theater More Inclusive
Jess Thom wants to make going to the theater more comfortable for people with disabilities. But her plan has nothing to do with the comfier seats or wider aisles. Instead, Thom wants to bring theater to those who may find it challenging to sit still or remain quiet for the full-length of a performance.
Thom’s mission is an incredibly personal one that stems from her own frustrations as a theatergoer with Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary physical movements and vocalizations known as tics. Because of her Tourette’s, Thom can’t sit through a show without her muscles twitching, or randomly saying words like “biscuit.”
While Thom struggled as a theatergoer, she thrived on stage. Wanting to create a positive atmosphere for others, she created “Backstage in Biscuitland,” a two-woman show highlighting her journey with Tourette’s.
Biscuitland – a play on Thom’s tic of the word biscuit (which she says around 16,000 times a day) – brings to life the surreal world Tourette’s creates around her. She calls Biscuitland a “creation of spontaneity, creativity and disability,” a story she tells through comedy, puppetry and singing.
“To me what’s important is using humor as a tool and challenging people to think differently and promote inclusivity,” she told The Mighty.
One way the show promotes inclusivity is through “relaxed performances,” a growing movement in British theater that Thom is bringing to the U.S.
“Relaxed performances offer a warm welcome to people who find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theater etiquette,” she said. This gives the audience permission to relax and behave as they naturally would, and “includes people with learning disabilities, movement disorders, autistic spectrum disorder, other neurological conditions like Tourette’s and those with young children or babies.”
Making theater inclusive is extremely important to Thom. “There’s so much amazing theater,” she said.” I don’t want anyone to miss out because of preconceptions about who it’s for or how it should be enjoyed.”
“When my tics intensified [back in 2010], I found access was difficult and I was limiting my life because of people’s responses to my tics,” she added.
Back then, Thom found it hard to talk about her tics. However, a conversation with her friend, Matthew Pountney, provided the push forward she needed. He called her Tourette’s “a crazy language-generating machine” — to not do something with it would be wasteful.
So they joined together to create Touretteshero, an organization (and superhero persona) that allowed Thom to reclaim her humor and creativity.
Since then, the organization has been working to raise awareness of the condition. promoting inclusivity, as well as getting “Backstage at Biscuitland” on the road.