Stuart Macbeth meets Jess Thom - who has managed to laugh at life with Tourettes

Jess Thom’s award winning play Backstage in Biscuit Land is a two woman show combining comedy, puppetry and singing with Jess’ own unique perspective on life.

Unique, because its 35 year old creator has Tourettes Syndrome. Jess estimates that she will say the word “biscuit” 16,000 times a day.

In the time it takes to soft boil an egg, Jess will have said “Biscuit” around 40 times. “”Hedgehog,” Squirrel” and “crisps” are other words she has become fixated on since the age of six.

It wasn’t until she was in her mid twenties, and studying at the Royal College of Art, that Jess was finally diagnosed with the condition. The result? A performer who is neurologically incapable of staying on script.

Yet that, Jess tells me, is where the fun begins.

“Every show is different” she smiles. “Tourettes gives me access to a spontaneous creativity that I wouldn’t otherwise have. “Biscuit” is my most frequent vocal tic, and Biscuit Land is the surreal world my tics create around me.”

Jess’ Tourrettes manifests itself in involuntary movements, and vocal outbursts.

“Tourettes is one of the most frequently misunderstood conditions on the planet” she explains further. “People often think of Tourettes as the “swearing disease” but in fact only 10 percent of people with the condition have obscene tics.

“Anything I’ve ever known can become a vocal tic. What I say doesn’t usually relate to what I’m thinking. So I say biscuit about 16,000 times a day. But I don’t think about biscuits nearly as much as I talk about them!”

Tourettes has had a big impact on Jess’s life. In 2010, she founded the website to raise awareness about the condition through daily blog posts. Jess also holds talks, and stages creative events at venues such as Tate Britain.

The website’s name derives from her Tourette’s superhero, whom she devised as a way of engaging with children about the condition. South Londoner Jess has also appeared on TV, most recently a part of BBC4’s Live from Television Centre. All this has contributed towards a wider understanding of Tourettes.

“There has been a big shift in awareness of but many people remain uncomfortable discussing it” she softly asserts.

That’s something Jess wants to change with her play.

Backstage in Biscuit Land was inspired by Jess’ many experiences as a theatre punter. They include one at the Chipping Norton theatre, one of four Oxfordshire venues her play visits on its 41 date UK tour.

“I was asked to sit in a separate area because of all the involuntary noises I was making during a show” Jess reveals. “At the time I promised myself I’d never set foot in the theatre again, but it’s a promise I’m glad I didn’t keep.

“By taking to the stage I’ve found the one seat in the house I won’t be asked to leave! It’s given me the opportunity to share the message that making theatre inclusive makes it better.”

Backstage in Biscuit Land came together in April 2014 with funding from Leeds theatre company Unlimited, and support from Battersea Arts Centre, where her tour finishes in July. Support was also received from the excellent Graeae Theatre Company, who specifically provide a platform for deaf and disabled performers.

“We opened in Edinburgh in August 2014” recalls Jess. “The response to the show was phenomenal. We won the Total Theatre Award for best emerging company.

The Total Theatre Awards were established in 1997 and are presented to companies who stage exception theatre work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“Crucially, taking the play to Edinburgh did a lot to increase awareness of ‘Relaxed Performances’.

“Relaxed performances offer a warm welcome to people who find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre etiquette. They take a laid-back approach to any noise or movement coming from the audience and they give everyone the freedom to relax and respond naturally.”

Reviewers have applauded Backstage in Biscuit Land for its adventurousness, its pioneering spirit, and the power of its spontaneity. So there is much to look forward to for audiences seeing – and hearing - Jess in action at the Mill in Banbury, the Old Fire Station in Oxford, the Cornerstone in Didcot, or the Chipping Norton Theatre.

“I hope Oxfordshire audiences will enjoy the joyful and inclusive atmosphere of Biscuit Land” Jess says. They should expect comedy, spontaneity. “And” she adds finally, “a lot of biscuits.

“As one reviewer eloquently put it: “You’ll definitely laugh, you may cry, you’ll probably get a biscuit.”

Jess grins: I’ll go one better and guarantee you one!

Backstage in Biscuit Land

• On Tour – visits Banbury Mill Theatre (March 23), Chipping Norton Theatre (March 24), Oxford Old Fire Station (April 5) and Didcot Cornerstone (April 8).

• See venue websites for tickets