Jess Thom sewing the seeds of a revolution in Battersea

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The Festival of Rest and Resistance: A reflection on attending a day of events at Battersea Arts Centre from DAO journalist Kate Lovell

The title of this festival could soon become my personal activism mantra. I am still learning how to rest. I am learning to acknowledge that rest, in the theatre industry particularly, is in and of itself an act of resistance. In a working culture where people can be heard trying to out-do one another in how many hours they went without sleep or how many days they lived on vending machine chocolate bars alone, to take time to rest and practice self-care in the theatre industry is a radical act.

Jess Thom’s festival is a call to arms for the theatre industry: much needed and potentially revolutionary. I hope that theatres are watching and listening: a wave of change is rippling forth from South West London.

Thom, Touretteshero’s artistic director and Change Maker at Battersea Arts Centre, is calling out the industry: seeing the same stories told by the same people quickly gets very boring. But the way theatre operates, its long unquestioned etiquettes and relentless working hours are inaccessible to swathes of people trying to make it in the industry, particularly disabled artists. Yes, we’ve talked about this before, and we’ll talk about it again. But Thom turning BAC into a fully relaxed venue is a tangible act of resistance against the assumption that theatre can only be enjoyed if we sit down, shut up and don’t move a muscle for ninety minutes.

a man lies in bed comforting two other individuals

You Have to Forgive Me by Brian Lobel

Walking into BAC on 9th March, the first image I see is of two men swathed in purple waffle dressing gowns, lying together on a double bed, snuggled up watching a DVD on a lush furry bed spread. Brian Lobel’s You Have To Forgive Me, You Have To Forgive Me, You Have To Forgive Me creates the perfect picture to set eyes upon for a festival putting rest at the centre of its being. We can enjoy art from our beds – whether it’s taking in a box set in our bedroom whilst recharging our batteries, or a one-to-one theatre piece inspired by Sex in the City under the beams of a beautiful listed building.

My first stop is to see Jess Thom in conversation with Franscesca Martinez at Why Rest? Why Resist? I was scheduled in for weeks to cover this festival, but with my fluctuating condition, I was unwell when it came around. That’s when the importance of Thom’s commitment to turning BAC into a relaxed venue was felt personally.

Headshot of actress/ comedian Francesca Martinez

Francesca Martinez

I was able to invite my husband to attend with me, and our having a young daughter who would need to attend with us was no issue due to the relaxed policy. This meant I could attend the event with a companion: without one, I would never have been able to make the journey across London. I also knew that we wouldn’t have to stress about our timing and weekend public transport disruptions: there are no latecomers to a relaxed performance. I knew that if I became highly anxious and overwhelmed, I would be free to take a breather in the provided chill out space and return to the events whenever I felt ready. This made it possible for me to attend the festival, to do my job as a journalist. This feeling is new and important to me as a disabled artist and writer.

Further testament to the importance of a relaxed venue was a disabled woman who said as part of the Why Rest? Why Resist? discussion that this was her first theatre visit in fifteen years. Thom is bringing people into theatre spaces who have felt excluded for too long. Thom and Martinez talk about their journeys into the arts world, both in many ways borne out of the discrimination they faced as disabled women.

Martinez was desperate to secure a role in Grange Hill she was put up for, first and foremost because she loved acting, but also to allow her to escape the bullying she endured in school environment. Thom had faced exclusion and humiliation within theatre spaces who squirreled her away into sound proof booths or stand-up comics who felt it perfectly acceptable to make the show about her Tourette’s, with neither permission nor compassion. Thom wanted to change the industry from the inside.

Both Thom and Martinez highlight how being disabled necessarily politicises you, and that disabled artists expend more energy than non-disabled artists. Why is this? Because we must find the energy required to make change within the industry to make space for ourselves in the first place, we then have to have more energy to make our art,  and finally, we have to manage our impairments somewhere amongst the crusading and performing.

Both women talk about having burn-outs early on in their careers where they were unable to continue burning the candle at both ends: they had enforced time outs. Martinez highlights how living in a capitalist society is part of what drives the guilt we feel when we do take time to rest. Capitalism reduces humans to an economic unit, and if we are not ‘creating’ or ‘giving’ outwards, then we are made to feel useless. Thom draws our attention to Heart and Soul’s two-year residency at the Wellcome Trust – they will be examining human value from a learning disability perspective.

The gruelling hours that theatre artists are expected to put in during a rehearsal and production process is something that the industry is yet to address. Before I had encountered the social model of disability and understood that I was a disabled person, rather than a broken one, I believed that I had to keep up with my peers in terms of hours worked and artistic output. It was sink or swim in the fast torrents of intense rehearsal periods and production weeks that see you rarely leave the theatre space for days at a time.

I worked hard to hide the fact that doing 60+ hour weeks would send my symptoms spiralling out of control and make me incredibly ill. I have walked into rehearsal rooms feeling heavy with illness and put on my familiar mask to do the long day that directing demands, shouldering all the responsibilities, often also writing the script for the same piece.

The process can be punishing for anyone, let alone people who manage chronic illness. Rest is an act of resistance: but my most enjoyable directorial work in recent times was when I ‘came out’ as disabled to my team. We had regular breaks, we worked shorter days. Everyone was happier and more productive. Rest is an act of resistance, vital for disabled artists, but it’s a shift in culture that would benefit everyone working in theatre, if we can get the message out loud enough. I am put in mind an old Oasis lyric, and after attending the BAC festival, I am certainly ready to start a theatre industry revolution from my bed.