Friday, May 20, 2016

Backstage in Biscuit Land: Welcoming All

Courtesy of Touretteshero
"Hands on buzzards."
"Biscuit wave."
"Pony cunts."

Suddenly, Jess Thom looks sheepish. That last phrase was unplanned.

Language is slippery and in Backstage In Biscuit Land we are led by a loose tongue. Well, that's not quite accurate. Our guide is neurological because the artist behind the show has Tourette's Syndrome. With physical and verbal tics, Jess Thom cannot always control what she says and how she moves. The result: she says biscuit, hedgehog, and cats a lot. But she is also a creative font of phrases, words, and juxtapositions that make you laugh and think.

The show is unrestrained and lively. Devised and performed by Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones, Jess Thom is the host with her trusty sidekick Chopin (Jess Mabel Jones). It has the high-kick energy of a kids morning show and the wacky props to go along with that (all the items on stage were generated by Jess's tics at one point in time or another--a loaf of Steve, a dinosaur balloon, ducks in costumes, an anvil with the word "Dinner" written on it).  They sing slightly dirty songs, play fake game shows, encourage the audience to do the "biscuit wave" and embrace a sense of play.  Ultimately, Backstage in Biscuit Land is an unusual personal monologue that drifts into almost non-stop improv as Jess's verbal tics provide frequent misdirection.

She may be trying to tell you serious and important things when her tics insert their mischief. Yet, they don't derail the storytelling or the evening. That's the point. She embraces these asides and she harnesses them to make this a story about life with Tourette's but also about what happens when we try to isolate and segregate the unexpected from the planned.  Her going off script creates joy, laughter, and pleasure. Why don't we allow our theater spaces the same kind of flexible attitude?

Her message of inclusivity springs from a painful episode Thom experienced at the theater in 2011 where she was asked at intermission if she wouldn't mind moving to the sound booth at a show because other patrons were threatening to leave because of her tics.

At this point in the show, when she tells us this uncomfortable story, she has already charmed us with her word play. She's created genuine warmth with Chopin in their goofy, vaudeville doubles-act.  Then she hits us with a tale of segregation and isolation.  She lightens the mood immediately after but the work has been done. She's gotten under our skin. We must confront the question of who's experience we are giving primacy to in theater spaces.

Thom is an advocate for the "relaxed performance" which means the rules of theater etiquette are loosened.  She lives and demonstrates what a relaxed atmosphere can create. In the audience at her show last night, a baby cooed, people ticced, and there were bursts of robust laughter (and no audience policing or tsking that followed). In relaxed performance, audiences members are permitted to get up and move around.  Everyone is welcome (and as I spoke to Thom about a few months ago, the "relaxed" label allows anyone to fit under its umbrella).  No one is self-conscious about the things that "uptight" performances tend to frown upon.

In a time where there seems to be a relentless effort to get audiences to conform to some unwritten rulebook of what is "proper," Thom gives everyone a space to make the evening their own and no one misses the strict rules for a moment (and you get a cookie!).  For Thom, this flexibility is a necessity, but she makes us think about all the people we are excluding when we do not also make this a priority for all.