Jess Thom on Touretteshero’s production of Beckett’s ‘Not I’ and the irrepressible character ‘Mouth’

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Following excellent reviews from a run of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I’ in Edinburgh last summer Touretteshero and Jess Thom are bringing the show to Battersea Arts Centre this March. Jess talks to DAO about her reasons for taking on Mouth – whose monologue is known within Theatre as a marathon demanding a virtuoso performance.

Jess Thom in conversation. Credit: James Lyndsay

There are plenty of examples of non-disabled actors “cripping-up” and pretending to have lived experience of disability. I believe this is almost always damaging and runs the risk of reinforcing negative stereotypes and assumptions about what having an impairment means.

So we chose to go in the opposite direction – we’re claiming Mouth as a disabled character and understanding her experiences from that perspective. We’re not willing to wait around for writers to come create decent parts for disabled performers to play, we’re diving into the canon and finding them for ourselves.

During the run of my previous show Backstage in Biscuit Land, I had lots of interesting conversations with venues about what shows they thought could and couldn’t be made accessible to disabled people. This got me thinking about the type of cultural curation that goes on around work for disabled people. We wanted to take a piece that’s traditionally seen as challenging and demonstrate how you can make it accessible to as many people as possible.

We have worked with Beckett scholars, academics, circus designers, DJs and costume makers to bring this production together. We’ve had input from other disabled performers and directors as well as a Deaf theatre maker who worked on the BSL translation of the piece with us. I’m really proud of the team we were able to assemble, of the breadth of their knowledge and the diversity of the background and skills.

Not I isn’t performed very often, so by taking on this role as a disabled performer I am hoping to change some of the academic discourse on the text itself. I want to show that the character of Mouth is only as isolated as her community makes her. We’ve re-interpreted the stage directions in a way that works for my body and agreed with the Beckett Estate that my performance will come with extra “biscuits”!

When we took the show to Edinburgh in summer 2017 we had to scale back on some of the set in order to set it up quickly enough every day. For the run at Battersea Arts Centre we will have a lovely soft flooring that is comfortable enough for people to sit or lie out on if they want to. We want everyone to feel comfortable and included in this production.

Touretteshero Not I

Jess Thom and Charmaine Wombwell in Not I. Image courtesy of Battersea Arts Centre

The performance splits into four sections: a warm introduction into the space by myself and Charmaine, our BSL performer, the performance of Not I itself, a short film about the politics behind the piece and how we went about making it, and finally a group discussion about what people thought of it.

We wanted to make sure people felt comfortable in the space and that they knew what was going to happen and we chose to put the film after the performance of Not I itself for two reasons – firstly I need a safety net in case my tics intensify to a point where I lose the ability to speak (this can happen several times a day) and secondly because we wanted people to experience the performance itself before any explanation of why, as a disabled performer, I chose to take on the role.

We have the conversation at the end to make sure everyone’s had a chance to share how they feel about it if they want to.

We don’t have a fixed idea about how people should respond to the show. I’m hoping that people will feel engaged, challenged and moved. I hope it speaks to the many people in our society who experience systemic oppression of one kind or another. I want us to share that experience together and to hopefully feel more confident and resilient in the process.

Battersea Arts Centre have been incredibly supportive creative partners over the past few years and we’ve really enjoyed working with them on Not I. All being well the show will have a long touring life, both nationally and internationally over the next couple of years.

Beyond that, we’re planning an immersive children’s performance that combines our love of play, performance and visual art. We’ve got other plans in the pipeline beyond that, so all I can really say is watch this space!

Not I is a Touretteshero and Battersea Arts Centre Co-Production on show from 28 February – 17 March. All performances are accompanied by a BSL interpreter/performer and are relaxed. This means that if you tic, shout or move about, you’re more than welcome. And the great thing is, everyone can benefit from a relaxed performance.

Please click on this link to the Battersea Arts Centre website for more information.