Jess Thom, who has Tourette Syndrome, says that, ages ago, a friend of hers described Tourette’s as a “crazy, language-generating machine”. He also told her that she’d be nuts not to use her condition to make art. That friend was right. Very right. Extraordinarily correct.
Backstage in Biscuit Land, which Thom wrote and performs with fellow Brit Jess Mabel Jones, explores Thom’s experience of living with Tourette’s. And, as it turns out, Tourette’s is a remarkably reliable producer of startling comic moments. In its relentless unpredictability—its immediacy—it is also fantastically theatrical.
Thom and Jones, who goes by the nickname Chopin in the show, chat with one another and address the audience directly. As they did so on opening night, I learned a lot about the syndrome, a neurological condition that results in involuntary verbal and physical tics. Thom repeats the word biscuit several hundred times a day, for instance, even though she has no particular interest in cookies.
Backstage in Biscuit Land does a very good job of letting us know what it’s like to live with Tourette’s. Thom asks audience members to stare at one another for as long as possible without blinking, for instance. That’s kind of what it feels like, she explains, to try to suppress a tic. Different people experience different symptoms and they do so at various intensities; Thom is subject to debilitating fits that can come at any time, night or day, and, at their strongest, she says, her impulses make her feel like her insides are burning. That’s a detail you won’t forget. In terms of beginning to have an informed relationship to the experience of Tourette’s, though, the most compelling aspect of Backstage in Biscuit Land is simply spending time with Thom—and with her verbal and physical tics. Her verbal tics sometimes feel like conversational static. And her dominant physical tic compels her to punch herself in the chest so often that she has to wear padded gloves so that her knuckles don’t start bleeding.
If you’re not used to them, these symptoms might appear to present barriers. But Thom and Jones model a relationship that glows with grace and mutual acceptance. They both simply roll with the incongruities of Thom’s speech. Jones laughs easily and fulsomely. They play well together and that releases both emotional richness and a hell of a lot of fun.
Comedy is essentially about juxtaposition and surprise, and Thom’s Tourette’s opens the door to a treasure trove of both. On opening night, in a section about the difficulties she sometimes has, Thom cited, “an ordinary task like using a hairdryer to blow an octopus into oblivion.” In an improvised interview sequence, she announced the subject: “velociraptors which sucked your mother’s nipples”. And, for some reason—I can’t remember what—she declared, “Geraniums have 40 uses and all of them have to do with dusting hippos.” Watching Backstage in Biscuit Land is a lot like tobogganing down an unpredictable hill. And, as with tobogganing, it results in a lot of screaming laughter.
At its core, the show is also very moving. Watching it, we get to know and like Thom, so it hurts when she tells us how she has been excluded. Some of the most touching material in the piece deals with her experiences of being told—implicitly and quite explicitly—that she doesn’t have the right to be in public space. Sitting in her wheelchair, she says right off the top, “This is the only seat in the house I won’t be asked to leave.” And she makes an impassioned argument for relaxed performances, which welcome audience members who may need to make noise or move around. To my knowledge, Carousel Theatre for Young People is the only company in Vancouver that currently offers relaxed performances. We can do better. (Note to producers and publicists: if you let me know about your relaxed performance dates, I will note them in my reviews.)
At the beginning of the first performance of Biscuit Land’s PuSh Festival run, Jones declared, “Tonight, we are performing in solidarity with refugees all over the world.” Right on. The message to refugees and to theatregoers must always be: Everyone is welcome.
BACKSTAGE IN BISCUIT LAND by Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones. A Touretteshero production. At the Roundhouse as part of the PuSh Festival on Monday, January 30. Continues until February 1.
For tickets, phone 604-449-6000 or go to https://www.ticketfly.com/venue/24727