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Features Published 11 August 2014

Tic, Tic, Boom

Jess Thom, Touretteshero and star of Backstage in Biscuitland, on creative heckling and accessibility on the Fringe.
Jess Thom

When I arrived at the Fringe I made a promise to myself: I’d only go to shows if I’d been able to speak to the performer beforehand. I don’t imagine anyone else operates this policy, but most people don’t take hundreds of “Biscuits” and “Hedgehogs” with them wherever they go.

I’ve got Tourettes Syndrome, a condition that means I make movements and noises I can’t control, called tics. For me, sitting quietly through a performance is neurologically impossible, so it seems only fair that other performers should be aware of this.

Until I arrived in Edinburgh last week I’d only ever seen nine shows in my whole life. For a thirty-four-year-old theatre-lover that’s not very impressive. But as someone with Tourettes my experience of live performance has often felt difficult and intensely emotional. But even though my relationship with theatre’s been fraught, I’ve continued to love storytelling and comedy which is how I’ve ended up at the Fringe with my own show, Backstage In Biscuit Land, at the Pleasance.

A week into Edinburgh, the number of performances I’ve seen in my life has already doubled. But I’m aware of a change that’s much greater than simply the statistics; it’s a shift in my understanding of my right to access theatre on equal terms with everyone else.

For anyone who’s seen my show this may seem odd, as one of its central themes is how my confidence in going to see theatre has grown. But even so I’ve sometimes doubted myself, and felt unsure about the balance between my right to see things and other people’s right not to be interrupted.

But some of the most exceptional moments my tics have created haven’t been while I’ve been on stage but when I’ve been in the audience. During Come Heckle Christ I found myself demanding Jesus (AKA Josh Ladgrove) choose between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and cum! And during Laurence Clark’s Moments of Instant Regret they accused him of having a deep-rooted desire for “Dancing cats.”

Afterwards Laurence said that, far from being a distraction, my presence brought out the very best in him as a stand-up comedian and he described the performance as one of the most exhilarating of his career.

This warm and welcoming reaction from fellow performers has made Edinburgh a complete joy. I can now say, hand on heart, that Tourettes isn’t a barrier to seeing shows. In fact getting my tics out the Fringe has proved to me what I’ve always suspected, that making theatre genuinely inclusive has the potential to make it better for everyone.

Jess Thom’s Backstage in Biscuitland is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, until 16th August 2014.

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Jess Thom is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine