Jess Thom’s “warm and incredibly funny” show takes to the Toronto stage
Most of us only know of Tourette Syndrome as someone shouting inappropriate obscenities as a cheap gag in a TV show or movie. Backstage In Biscuit Land, playing now at World Stage, offers a true view into the condition led by Jess Thom, whose tics include saying “biscuit!” 16,000 times a day.
Thom is generous with her audience, warm and incredibly funny. She invites us to laugh at both her more absurd Tourette’s interjections and at jokes she makes about her experiences.
Some of these interjections – verbal tics – take the form of little songs. Some play on current events, placing figures like Donald Trump in some sort of surreal situation (yes, even more surreal than the actual election activities taking place in the US right now). For those who might have only seen Tourette Syndrome depicted as the yelling of profanities, this is eye-opening.
Although Thom does not shy away from profanity. She has a tic that acts like a charming exclamation point, biting her knuckles with a grin whenever she says something particularly dirty. Tourette Syndrome is not just about verbal tics; there are physical ones as well. Thom now uses a wheelchair as her legs are not reliable for walking, and she has a stigma-challenging, empowering section about her love of her wheelchair, how it is a boon to her life.
Joining Thom onstage is “Chopin,” the nickname of another Jess, Jess Mabel Jones. Chopin helps Thom do some of the physical work of moving props around, she keeps the show on track by helping Thom stay focused when her tics distract her, and she is there to take care of things if Thom has a “fit” where her tics overwhelm her completely.
She also has her own place in the story; she tells us how she was acting in a play that Thom came to see and that’s how they met. That may not sound remarkable — except that people like Thom, who are literally unable to stay silent for an hour or two, are not usually welcome at the theatre. Backstage In Biscuit Land has the format of a loose series of anecdotes, but they interweave around the narrative trajectory of Thom finding a way to fulfill her love of theatre.
For Thom, being on the stage itself is the ultimate expression of being included in theatre, but the show itself is an argument for all shows everywhere to include relaxed performances. Relaxed performances allow not just people with Tourette’s or other neurological syndromes to enjoy a play, but also people with learning disabilities, people on the Autism spectrum, etc. They are also open to people with babies, which makes a show accessible not just based on disability, but on family status, given the prohibitive cost of childcare.
The only tiny issue I had with the show is that it was occasionally difficult to make out what Thom and Chopin were saying as the sound was very low. Given the accessibility thrust of the show, this seems like something they may want to address for audience members with hearing disabilities.
Thom’s wonderfully playful personality, the dynamic of whimsy and caring between her and Chopin, and the “anything might happen” feel of the show make it a hilariously wild ride.
- Backstage In Biscuit Land is playing at World Stage, 235 Queens Quay West, until May 28
- Performances are Wednesday to Saturday at 8PM
- Tickets are $24 for adults and $15 for youth (up to 29 years) and full-time students
- Purchase tickets at 416-973-4000 or online
Photo of Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones provided by the company.