Biscuits and Beckett In Brooklyn
A week ago today I did my last performance of ‘Not I’ in New York. We were there for two weeks as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. There wasn’t a suitable space for the show at The Public, so we were hosted by the lovely folks at BRIC instead, in their super flexible ballroom.
Though we’ve been back for a week I’ve only just re-adjusted to Greenwich Mean Time so it’s taken me a while to find the energy to write about our incredible trip.
BRIC is in Fort Greene in Brooklyn and we stayed in Bed–Stuy which is near by. We’ve visited both areas quite a lot before and they feel similar to our neighbourhood in London, so we felt at home very quickly. This is a post about our brilliant Brooklyn life and the friends new and old who made our stay so special.
This year I’m aiming to do a drawing a week that sums up a part of my life. With a bit of luck this’ll mean that by the end of the year I have a series of postcard-like drawings of life in Biscuit Land. Part of my routine in New York was working on one of these drawings which is a very personal map of our New York City.
I’m going to use the drawing above and some simple headings to tell you about our time away. This will also help me zoom in and look at different parts of the drawing and give a more thorough image description of this very detailed, colourful image for anyone who needs it.
In the bottom right hand corner of the main drawing is our hotel. It’s an old industrial building that’s been turned into a very comfortable and stylish hotel. In my drawing the building has the shape of an A incorporated into it because it’s called the Brooklyn A Hotel. The lights are on in the building and the shadows of people moving about inside are visible through the windows. To the left of the hotel is a massive building that looks a lot like a castle. When we first visited the hotel a few years ago this building looked abandoned, but now it’s definitely back in use – although what it’s used for is still a mystery!
Outside the hotel I’ve drawn our whole New York team leaving on the twenty-minute walk to BRIC. There are seven of us. I’m furthest on the left in my new blue wheelchair and wrapped up in my super-warm lilac jacket. Next to me is Lindsey, our American Sign Language (ASL) performer. She lives in Washington DC so she stayed with us during the run.
Just behind Lindsey is my PA Claire: she has blonde hair and is wearing a cool speckled hat. Leftwing Idiot’s pushing my wheelchair – he did lots of the pushing while we were away. On one of the times he went exploring on his own he said he was walking down the street looking at his hands, confused as to what to do with them!
Next to Leftwing Idiot is Erik, our production manager. He has long hair tied up in a ponytail and he’s wearing a great scarf that his girlfriend knitted him. Reena, our producer, and Pete, our sound and lighting technician, are at the back of the group walking side by side. It was a privilege to be with such a wonderful group of people. We did loads of hanging out, laughing and eating delicious food together.
But it wasn’t just our team working to make the show a success. Our BRIC Producer BJ made us feel very welcome and looked after us and our audience brilliantly. Here’s a detail from a different drawing showing her holding a pad of paper and wearing a bright pink sweater.
Emily, on the left of the detail above, also works at BRIC. We first met her when we took Backstage In Biscuit Land there in 2016. We’ve been back several times since. We’ve even sat on the floor of a studio space at BRIC eating chocolate hummus with Emily and her family – an experience I’ll never forget.
Nate works for The Public Theater and was the producer assigned to us for the whole trip. It was great getting to know him and he made sure everything went smoothly, from managing tickets to running out to get me some pain killers when I got a migraine mid-way through a show! There were lots of other people from The Public too, including Mark who put the festival together and worked hard to make sure we were able to come.
There were loads of people working with us on different aspects of the show. This detail shows Stephen, Colleen and Warren from the tech team up in the sound and lighting booth. At ground level Leftwing Idiot is sitting with our talented ASL consultant Alexandria Wailes along with her interpreter Monique. Their help was crucial to ensuring that the ASL translation and performance were ready to go.
It wasn’t just people working on the show that made our time in New York so full of joy. We met up with loads of friends, both those who live in New York like Simi who’s drawn with her power chair in the detail above, or Honey who we used to work with in Stockwell, but who now lives in the city. And pretty much every time we’re in New York we meet up with Leftwing Idiot’s close school friend Illy and her family, and this trip was no exception. The Festival meant there were lots of people from out of town visiting as well, so while the show was our main focus, we got see loads of other lovely people too.
I’d never have dreamt that I’d perform a Samuel Beckett play in New York. In fact less than a decade ago I wouldn’t have set foot in a theatre to watch a show, let alone perform in one.
Before we went to New York this time, I hadn’t performed ‘Not I’ since the end of our UK tour in 2018. I’d been doing regular run-throughs of my lines to make sure they stayed in my mind, but that’s nothing like as intense as performing the show in front of an audience. Fortunately, it was only after our opening show that Leftwing Idiot told me that a critic from the New York Times had been in.
It might not sound cool but I cared about this review. It’s not so much because I want people to like our work, but more because I want as many people as possible to connect with Disability Culture and inclusive practice, and reviews can help get people interested.
There’s also a particular type of pressure that I feel as a disabled performer, which is being made to feel like I’m representing a whole group of people, not just myself. I’d hate people to be put off engaging with the work of other disabled artists because they’d seen something I’d done and thought it was rubbish. I try not to take this pressure on board – but that can be easier said than done.
The piece in the New York Times was great and the reviewer seemed to really get the show and why this play is important to me. It felt like a very honest and open article. The critic had seen the original New York staging of ‘Not I’ in 1972 so it felt particularly significant that he wrote:
“But far from masking Beckett’s brilliance or diluting the play’s power, Thom’s speech patterns make uncanny sense of “Not I,” in the process making it more overwhelming.”
There may be some Beckett fans who wondered whether, because of my tics, I should be allowed to take on this role, so it felt very validating to read this.
Being back working at BRIC was brilliant: it’s full of wonderful people, the spaces are so flexible, and they’d created a great chill out room and a resting space. I did a drawing of our life at BRIC too. You can see the gallery space at the bottom of the image, and the steps up to the foyer and café area with people chilling and working, On the right are some of their TV and podcast rooms and at the top of the image is the studio space with sunlight streaming through the windows. The Ballroom has our set and team in it rehearsing and the container that came by sea is parked up outside. There’s an amazing energy to BRIC – and sometimes this is quite literal – the cold, dry weather and manmade fibres led to a lot of static shocks all round! Blue and green sparks flashed between me and Claire on a few occasions.
We ate a lot of great food! Leftwing Idiot’s a vegan and when we’re touring we often use an app called Happy Cow to direct us to places with good vegan options – it’s taken us to many amazing restaurants all over the world and New York is no exception. We also got to visit some old favourites too. We couldn’t be in Brooklyn without making sure we ate plenty of pizza and a few doughnuts too. There was a fantastic smoothie place on our walk from the hotel to BRIC so stopping off for a drink became a key part of our routine.
January in New York should be cold, and mostly it was, but we also had one incredibly sunny weekend – we hung out in the park in t-shirts and had our first outdoor meeting of the year. Our final weekend was super-snowy which I loved! It’s amazing the way snow changes how the city sounds – everything was quieter and gentler. Leftwing Idiot did a great job of pushing me through the new terrain – only losing control of the chair for one moment on a slippy kerb. He was quick to regain his grip though, but selflessly, he got very wet feet in the process.
I love New York and fall more deeply in love with it each time we stay.
My highlights included long hot showers after the show, laughing and lounging with the team in our hotel suite, walking through Brooklyn’s varied streets, encountering marvellous Manhattan views, big trucks, Biggie murals, graffitied microwaves, watching trash bags race along the road on a breezy day and the snow settle on the coldest.
We’d originally been scheduled to take the show there last year, but the logistics didn’t work out. We heard this at a time when my pain and fatigue were particularly intense, and when it was first suggested that the trip should be delayed by a year I was worried about whether I’d be well enough to perform the piece at all.
Reflecting on this trip has helped me realise how much better I’m doing health-wise at the moment – my pain is still present, but I have more ways of managing it and I’ve changed my routine to help me pace myself and manage my energy levels.
I felt so lucky to be part of Under the Radar and to get to make and share art with so many great people. I know that lots of people worked very hard to make this trip possible – thank you all for sticking with it!
My final biggest thanks goes to everyone who came to see the show. Conversations, ideas and memories from this trip will stay with me for years.
Just love your drawings. Looking forward to Friday and having a huge hug x