Me, my mouth and I and a discussion about accessible theatre

© BBC  [ Image description: Image shows a white woman wearing a black hoodie with the hood pulled down across most of her face against a black background. Her mouth, which is the main focus of the photo is wide open as though she is screaming]

Performance Live: Me, my mouth and I is a BBC documentary that was shown on BBC Two and can be seen on iPlayer for the next 5 days (from the time this post was published). It follows the rehearsal process for Jess Thom’s, (also known as Tourettes Hero) performance of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at Battersea Arts Centre.

Whether the play is to your liking or not, the documentary is still a worthwhile watch because of what this live performance, documentary and Jess’s work is trying to do from a theatrical and social perspective. Which is to spark conversations about making theatre as an industry much more accessible for disabled audience members, performers and anyone wanting to work in backstage or administration roles. To make it much more inclusive, understanding and reflective of society as a whole. Which is something that as a former stage manager who had to give up due to illness/ disability and someone who for years felt even being in the audience was unachievable I can thoroughly relate to. And yet theatre is still my passion and lately, I’ve been trying to explore how accessibility can tie into that. So that’s the reason I wanted to write a blog post about this documentary as a way of continuing that important conversation.

But even if you have no interest in the theatre this documentary is still a worthy watch in terms of learning and challenging our way of thinking about “disability, representation and social exclusion in the arts and in society in general.”

So why is this an important issue for Jess? Jess has Tourettes syndrome and experiences both vocal and physical tics. She also uses a wheelchair to help her get around because she suffers from chronic pain and fatigue. The theatre for Jess has often been a place where she felt rejected, segregated and unwelcome. In the documentary she talks about a time where she went to the theatre to see a comedian and even though she had contacted the comedian and the venue beforehand and explained to them about her condition and the audience had been made aware that there was someone with Tourettes in the audience (at Jess’s request) she was still asked to move because she was disturbing other audience members and made to sit behind the glass of the sound booth. An experience that left her humiliated, emotionally damaged and vowing never to enter a theatre again. However, rather than stay away completely Jess decided that rather than be put in that position again she would, in her words, “occupy the only seat in the house that she wouldn’t be asked to leave- on stage,” where she could create accessible theatre that welcomed varied audiences rather than isolated them.

What I personally loved about the documentary and the main reason I wanted to watch it in the first place was to see some of the ways Jess is championing accessibility in theatre and what she was implementing to bring that about. Obviously, the most notable one is being a disabled performer and not in a “small role” but in a leading role and played by someone who is actually disabled. And not just a performer who uses a wheelchair but one with different neurology as well. Allowing others to see themselves represented on stage and leading the way for anyone that might have an interest in performing but have always felt that they couldn’t due to their disability.

And obviously having had such a negative experience in the theatre and being all too aware of how “we still make a world for a very particular mind or body,” one of the key aims of this performance was to be “as accessible to as many people as possible. As a play that talks about exclusion it felt really important to us that we weren’t creating barriers or excluding anybody from the experience.” It was fascinating to see the role of the BSL interpreter for the live performance develop and be integrated into the performance including how they made the decision that all Jess’s vocal tics throughout the performance should also be signed so that a deaf or hard of hearing audience received an equal experience to that of a hearing audience. Allowing everyone in the audience to have the same experience. Which is something that seemed much appreciated.

The live show also started in a relaxed performance style with the audience getting to see and hear from Jess as they entered the auditorium and she explained the process of what was going to happen, which can be helpful for audience members with a whole range of conditions such as being on the autistic spectrum, learning disabilities, anxiety and dementia. Having read some of Jess’s blog I know she champions relaxed performances and is working with Battersea Arts Centre on becoming a relaxed venue.

After the performance, the audience was also invited to discuss their experience with other audience members and add their voices to the much-needed conversation about how theatre can become more inclusive and welcoming.

So whilst my brain is fizzing with ideas and my eyes are always on the lookout for changes that could be made/ adapted I wanted to continue this discussion with you.

What barriers do you face as a disabled person wanting to experience or participate in the Arts?

What would make going to the theatre more welcoming for you?

What would help alleviate any anxieties you have about going to the theatre?

Or even if you have absolutely no interest in theatre whatsoever but thinking about being disabled in wider society what do you think would make the world a more accepting place?

What changes need to be made to our social constructs and infrastructure?

I’d absolutely love to continue this conversation and hear your thoughts so please don’t be shy, leave me a comment or reply on my social media.

You can learn more about Jess Thom on her website or her Twitter @touretteshero

I’m looking forward to writing more blog posts on this topic soon.


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