Biscuit. Hedgehog. Biscuit.
In her show Backstage in Biscuit Land, which arrives at Harbourfront Centre on Wednesday, the performer Jess Thom offers three monologues, one that involves an experience she describes as "humiliating." Thom had attended a performance at a London theatre, where during the intermission she was asked by the front-of-house manager to move from her seat to a sound booth.
Thom has Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary verbal tics. In her case, the condition manifests itself by the Londoner saying "biscuit" and "hedgehog" repeatedly and uncontrollably – up to a reported 16,000 times a day. After patrons at the theatre complained, Thom was separated from the rest of the audience.
Initially the incident discouraged Thom from attending theatre productions thereafter. But then, in an act of rebellion against what she saw as an exclusionary practice, she decided to develop a play that dealt with the issue of accessibility and exclusivity in the theatre world. The result is Backstage in Biscuit Land, an autobiographical, puppet-happy, absurdist and somewhat spontaneous piece in which a wheelchair-bound Thom asks just one thing of society: to relax.
"I've been made to feel unwelcome and excluded from performances," says Thom, speaking last week from New York, where Backstage in Biscuit Land made its North American premiere. "I don't want the experiences I've endured to be repeated by other people."
To that end, Backstage in Biscuit Land, part of Harbourfront Centre's World Stage program, is presented as a "relaxed" performance, in which theatregoers who are disabled or who have noisy children or who are on the autistic spectrum or who have Tourette's are encouraged to attend.
Whether in the guise of her superhero alter ego on stage or as an artist educator and workshop facilitator, Thom has dedicated herself to the empowerment of people with Tourette's in particular and to theatre inclusivity in general.
"There's so much available theatre," Thom says, her sentences fluidly peppered with the innocuous two words she cannot help but say. "I don't want anyone to miss out because of preconceptions on how it should be enjoyed."
Relaxed performances, now common in Britain and slowly growing in Canada, are not just about allowing for spontaneous noise. Traditional theatre etiquette provides for the expectations of stillness and silence. In loosening that atmosphere, the goal is to provide a less anxious environment. So-called "sensory-friendly performances" involve the absence of strobe lights and violent technical effects, and feature houses that are half-lit.
At Harbourfront, World Stage artistic director Tina Rasmussen endeavours not only to accommodate theatregoers who have sensory disorders or neurological conditions, but she's been working with the staff to make adjustments to ensure the experience is positive for everyone.
To Rasmussen, programs such as relaxed performances are just part of a bigger discussion. "How do we make theatre more attractive to more people, and for it to be a place that reflects our humanity and to reflect our lives."
As for Thom, her goal is simple. "My aim," she says, "is to change the world one tic at a time."
Asked about the caped-crusader costume she wears on stage, Thom explains that it refers to a life-changing realization. "I came to understand that my tics were my power, and not my problem. And I'd like to encourage other people to find their powers too."
Biscuit. Hedgehog. Bravo.
Backstage in Biscuit Land runs until Saturday at Harbourfront Centre Theatre (416-973-4000 or harbourfrontcentre.com).
When the Oscars diversity debate erupted earlier this year, filmmaker Jenni Gold noticed one minority group was conspicuously absent from the conversation.
"They would talk about women, they would talk about ethnicity, they would talk about sexual preference – but they wouldn't talk about disability," says the writer-director.
"It was like the forgotten group."
Gold looks at the under-representation of people with disabilities and deaf people in media and onscreen in her star-packed documentary CinemAbility, which is screening at Toronto's inaugural ReelAbilities Film Festival that runs Thursday through May 19.
Billed as the first of its kind in Canada, the fest has films by, or about, the experiences of people with disabilities.
The fest also has free family programs and is "accessible in every way," says artistic director Liviya Mendelsohn, noting all the venues are wheelchair accessible.
The screenings will also have open captioning and be sensory friendly with lower sound and some light and space for people who process differently. Several films are also accompanied by audio description for those who are blind or low-vision.
Panel discussions will be supplemented by American sign language and organizers are taking access requests individually to try to accommodate all.
ReelAbilities got started at a Jewish community centre in New York in 2007 and has since grown to 13 cities in the U.S.
Mendelsohn says the field of films available for such a fest is getting bigger.
"The ReelAbilities national office in New York is now taking submissions and they're getting lots and lots of submissions each year," she says.
"There's really a bit of a moment happening around disability and film."
Of course, as Gold's film points out, there's still a long way to go.
Featuring interviews with experts and stars including Jamie Foxx, Ben Affleck and Marlee Matlin, CinemAbility looks at how disability and people of other minority groups have been treated in the media and onscreen. It also examines the power the media has to influence society and society's understanding of any particular group.
"The employment rate of people with disabilities is the worst of all, it's incredibly low, and we're talking about people that are capable of work," says Gold.
"It's more looking at what someone can do and not prejudging them about what they can't do because of what you think. … When you add people of different types to your work environment, it leads to a more rounded experience, new ideas. It's a better fabric."
Gold has muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair. She says she's had to overcome prejudices and create opportunities for herself in Hollywood.
"As a female director, I also know that the numbers of female directors working are appallingly low as well – so when you add a female director who uses a wheelchair, you have to create your own avenues."
Gold notes people with disabilities offer a special "artistic depth" in the entertainment world.
"I tell people that I think I'm a better director because I have a disability," says the founder of Gold Pictures, who also does narrative feature films.
"Growing up with muscular dystrophy, I couldn't always do something myself so I'd have to direct other people to do what I wanted. And what does a director do? They get actors to do what they want."
Gold has an infectious sense of humour when talking about such issues and purposely injected that lighthearted approach into her film.
On the misconception that someone with her condition might get tired on a film set, she quips: "I get tired less than everybody else because I'm sitting down all day. I'm not having to run around."
She also notes with a laugh: "I tell them, 'I get to set at 12 miles an hour, my chair can. I get on set quicker.' "