15 October 2016

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL: Backstage in Biscuit Land

Melbourne Festival
Backstage in Biscuit Land
13 October 2016
Beckett Theatre
to 16 October

I was sitting on the couch singing a song to my cat and included the lyrics "she likes it hard in the face". If you've been to Backstage in Biscuit Land, you know that I'm living biscuity.

There's one more chance to see this extraordinary, hilarious and attitude-changing show on Sunday*.

Performers Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones (known as Chopin) guide each other and their audience on an unforgettable hour of theatre that – even with an emergency script – can never be repeated.

Thom describes herself as an artist, writer and part-time super hero and tells us that the show is like an "octopus impersonating a lemongrass plant". She has Tourette syndrome and her uncontrollable, and unpredictable tics – that include her saying "biscuit" up to 16,000 times a day – create a new show every time.

Her long-time friend Leftwing Idiot (Matthew Pountney) helped to co-devise the show by insisting that the "crazy language generating machine" that is Tourettes was being wasted if it wasn’t being used creatively. And the Tourettes Hero website encourages everyone to use her thousands of tics as a catalyst for creativity. How can "The hippopotamus of outrageous fortune" not lead to something brilliant? "How many leap years does it take to change a cat into a dragon?"

Backstage in Biscuit Land. Melbourne Festival. Photo by Jonathan Birch

By explaining the misunderstood neurological syndrome and talking about some of her experiences – such as being asked to sit in a sound booth in a theatre, at a show about inclusion – she ensures that it's impossible to leave and not understand the condition. And she invites everyone to laugh with her at her tics.

Which is mostly easy because they are "more exciting than an otter having sex with an avocado" and funnier than any metaphor I could try to construct. But the uncontrollable laughter can turn and bite when her motor tics look painful or we see a bruise or an injury, or when she and Chopin explain what will happen if she has a ticcing fit, which happens multiple times every day.

Her regular "biscuit", "hedgehog", "fuck" and "cat" quickly become normal as she tells us her stories or her tics make a story for Chopin to act out; I will never look at an image of Mother Theresa and not laugh.

As a piece of theatre, they’ve developed ways to control and celebrate the uncontrollable, but what really hits home is realising how closed off our theatre shows and spaces are. We continue to deny people the right to be in a pubic space because of difference or disability.

Is Thom’s own show the only Melbourne Festival show where she could be in the audience?

So, it’s time to change that and make theatre that welcomes difference. It doesn’t have to be every show, but Thom reminded us – based on touring this show for two years – that when you make theatre inclusive and build access into every element of the work, you make it better.

Imagine what shows would be like if we allowed everyone, including ourselves, to react naturally?

*Or head to Brisbane where it's playing at QPAC.

And here's Richard Watts's Smart Arts interview with Jess Thom. She's starts at 00:50:55. But why not listen to the whole show.

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