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Blog - Colin Hambrook

Jess Thom: Embody the change you want to see you in the work you are making

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Headshot of actress/ comedian Francesca Martinez

Francesca Martinez

There’s a bit of a revolution going down at the Battersea Arts Centre. The recent Rest & Resistance festival, curated by Jess Thom and Touretteshero, was the beginning of a new inclusive approach being spearheaded by the arts centre to considering what it means to be a relaxed venue.

To give some background to Thom’s journey and the need for the arts sector to wake up and smell the roses, I went to see Jess Thom and Francesca Martinez in conversation on Saturday 9 March in a panel titled Why Rest Why Resist?

Firstly, what a travesty it is that over 20 years on, Francesca Martinez is talking about her stint on the children’s soap Grange Hill from 1994–1998 as the most enlightened part she has ever been offered. Why does television repeatedly feel it has to continually ignore the history of disability arts and feel it has to dole out impairment-focussed storylines and the usual tropes about disability to get an audience? The Undateables and the current The House of Extraordinary People come to mind immediately but there is a pantheon of film and television out there that follows the freak show or the tragic but brave ‘wannabe’ tradition that gets regurgitated over and again.

a young white female wheelchair-user is portrayed against a red brick wall

Jess Thom. Photo © James Lyndasy

“There may not be opportunities to fuck a goat”
It was terrific to hear Jess talking about the importance of her connection to Francesca Martinez. Jess had had a devastating experience at the Tricycle Theatre when she was told to go to the sound booth even after Mark Thomas had given the thumbs up to her being in the audience, her tics being a cause for complaint by an audience member. A year later she saw Francesca perform when she was touring ‘What the Fuck is Normal?’ Francesca realised it was a chance to embody the message of the show to invite Jess along: “it’s important to acknowledge just because you are a disabled person does not always mean you are offay with every impairment. I saw this as an opportunity to learn and indeed it was a brilliant show apart from the fact that Jess’s tics were often funnier than my own punchlines.”

Francesca transformed Jess’s experience of theatre, sowing a seed for the beginnings of Touretteshero and the show Backstage in Biscuitland, which exploded on a tour from 2015-2017. Jess realised that with all her struggles to be accepted in an audience that she could simply be herself on stage, without having to make excuses for her impairment issues. Matthew Pountney – the other half of Touretteshero – was supportive at a time when Jess’s tourettes was getting worse.

He saw the potential in Jess’s tics and told her it would be wasteful not to use the them as a creative tool. “It’s therapeutic to turn everything you’ve been told was negative and to turn that into performance using humour. I had a successful job as a play worker and wasn’t really looking for another career, but I initially wanted to find ways to create access to opportunities for disabled kids. The beauty of working with children is that they ask questions and listen to the answers.”

“God is moving to Watford on Sunday”
It is all too easy to take on the negative messages the world imposes on us as disabled people. In advocating for disabled people Jess sees art as a vehicle for creating change. She takes a socialist attitude towards rest, seeing the potential in her Changmaker programme with Battersea Arts Centre to taking a positive attitude towards making a venue work in a ‘relaxed’ approach embedded within the fabric of the building. BAC is young and energetic enough to take on radical ideas and create a precedent for the arts sector that we desperately want to see and I look forward enormously to seeing how the policies that are formed at this part of the process, begin to impact on how the centre operates.

At this time we need to see arts organisations take a leap of faith and stick their necks out, because the reality is that polite, middle class world of the arts and heritage will simply continue to use platitudes like ‘disability confident’ as excuses for continuing to exclude. Despite the Arts Council’s worthy talk of being pro-disability, we are seeing Access and Equality posts being reinvented as Diversity, which inevitably means access – and disabled people – are being pushed to the back once again. Unless we shout and keep shouting, nothing will change.

Francesca summed up what is happening: “On the one hand we see increasing developments in technology for creating independence in our lives, but in a time when people are being demoralised for needing social care and access to work packages. Fear around diversity is a division that keeps us separated. There is an increasingly judgemental attitude towards using resources. No matter how capitalism tries to paint us, we are not isolated economic units to be valued by the amount of money we can prove as a value of our worth to society. As a society we should be proud to support everyone, but everything feels very fragile at this time. The political climate is devastating. How can we have a future generation of disabled artists if we can’t leave our homes?”

Under the banner of being ‘relaxed’ Touretteshero are taking it upon themselves to think about disability arts in its broader context as being about artists making the work they want to make, without having to justify who they are or having to fight barriers. Disability is either be seen as a burden or a gift, depending on peoples attitudes. The BAC are taking a positive stance towards turning the role disability plays within their diverse organisation totally on its head.

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