Jessica Thom has Tourette Syndrome. Words like “biscuit” and “hedgehog” involuntarily cascade from her mouth. Her hands reflexively pound her chest.
And she’s found a way to convert her condition into a superpower.
As "Touretteshero," a costumed warrior equipped with fantastical verbiage and a shiny blue and white suit, the British performance artist and comedian channels her tics into art.
“Touretteshero was a creative response to living with Tourette’s,” Thom said in a recent phone interview from New York, where she had just launched the North American tour of her show, Backstage in Biscuit Land. “I wanted to reclaim the laughter surrounding the condition and challenge misconceptions in a creative way.”
In Biscuit Land (the title of which references the performer’s impulse to say the word “biscuit” thousands of times a day) Thom tells the story of her life and her journey with Tourette’s through comedy, puppetry, song -- and tics. “My unusual neurology means I have superpowers,” Thom said. “I can collide strange ideas to create surreal, new concepts.”
The artist has come to see her her tics as a creative asset -- “a crazy language generation machine.” As such, her shows are full of unpredictable yet arresting imagery and wordplay. On opening night in New York two weeks ago, for instance, Thom’s tics were busy channeling celebrities. The performer has no personal recollection of the stars she mentioned while on stage. “I’m afraid I have to focus on the show so I try not to pay attention to specific tics,” she said.
But fellow company member Matthew Pountney has better powers of recall. “You talked about Donald Trump rifling through Chopin’s mother’s sock drawer,” Pountney said, referring to a character in the show played by puppeteer and performer Jess Mabel Jones, aka Chopin.
Biscuit Land was a huge hit at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the world’s biggest alternative performing arts event) and is now being seen in the U.S. at major venues in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles in addition to its run in the Bay Area as part of this year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival. The tour coincides with Tourette Awareness Month here in the U.S.
But the theater has not always been welcoming to Thom. One time when she was sitting in the audience at a show, she was asked to move to the venue’s sound booth because of her tics. “It was humiliating,” Thom recalled. “I promised myself I wouldn’t go to theater again.” Instead of forsaking the dramatic arts forever, though, Thom came up with a creative plan: “I decided to go to the one seat in the house where I wouldn’t have to leave -- the stage.”
Thom doesn’t want anyone else who doesn’t conform to traditional norms of theater-going etiquette to suffer the same embarrassment. “All our shows are relaxed performances,” she said. “You don’t have to follow the usual conventions.”
Backstage in Biscuit Land plays Thursday, Jun. 2 - Sunday, Jun. 5 at the Fort Mason Center as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. For tickets and information, head here.