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To Every Ticlish Reader!

Posted Tue 5th Sep 2017 at 09:55
by Chris Coxon


All round performance artist, Chris Coxon, shines a light on his creative career in our latest blog.

When people ask me what I do, I find it a little hard to answer. The easiest answer I can give is that I am an actor. That is certainly what I had always wanted to do since as long as I can remember (barring a couple of months when I was 7 and wanted to be Cliff Richard - I soon got over that), and I have been lucky enough to spend most of the last ten years working as an actor. However, that answer is not entirely accurate. Other jobs I have had in that time include: musician, dancer, singer, sound designer, sound engineer, choreographer, director, playwright, voiceover artist, tightrope walker, juggler… Even the term actor carries such variety. My passion began in musical theatre, but my career as an actor has seen me working as a cross dressing nun in the West End, spending 6 months as SpongeBob Squarepants incarnate, being eaten by a dinosaur in a (admittedly rather strange) feature adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, dressed as a butler and dancing around with that annoying opera singer in a commercial for a well-known price comparison site, playing a rock-androlling teenager despite being in my thirties… I could go on. (You’ll be pleased to hear I’m not going to.)
My point is that, like a lot of others affected by TS, my creativity is very important to me. Diversification and versatility are key to securing work in the entertainment industry. I wouldn’t have been in such consistent employment as an actor if I had not also been able to dance, play instruments, or busk my way through circus skills. The term a jack of all trades definitely applies here – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I have found however, is that people want to put that jack into a box. For several years I have worked for a prolific theatre producer (he also owns a football club – yes that one), as an actor-musician, meaning that as well as playing one of the acting roles, I also play the bass guitar in the shows. It can be a little frustrating at times that I only ever get considered for musician roles – it seems that this employer has no idea that I am also a very proficient dancer for example. Despite this, I refuse to specialise. One of the reasons I love my job is that it is so multifarious. The opportunities for creativity are limitless.

So what? – What does this have to do with Tourette’s Syndrome? Well, at one point it looked like TS would hamper my creativity. I didn’t realise I had TS until I was 19 and in my second year of drama school. (Looking back, it should have been obvious throughout my childhood – the compulsion to bark like a dog during a maths class is not particularly normal, but then I never was…) I came back after the summer holiday and had suddenly developed a collection of severe and rather incapacitating tics – a jerking head, grunts and whistles, and occasional coprolalia. It looked doubtful if I would be able to continue my training as an actor. It was a scary time. I felt out of control. All of my concentration was now taken up with trying not to tic (with limited success) and any nuance or subtlety to the performance went out of the window.

Luckily, the faculty were very keen to try to understand and get me the relevant help. First, I was sent to a GP who suggested it could be a number of things, including stress, hyperactivity and OCD. His solution was Valium, which needless to say was not effective. After this I was sent to an excellent Harley Street hypnotherapist and councillor. While I still didn’t have a diagnosis (I wasn’t diagnosed for a further 3 years), he was able to help me come to terms with what was happening, find ways of coping with it and even embrace it. I would never suggest that hypnotherapy could cure TS, but it certainly helped me to find the concentration necessary to control it.

So eventually I was able to continue my acting training. I found a way to use the concentration needed to remember a script or create another character to focus my mind and control the tics. Add singing or dancing into the mix and I find it almost impossible to tic, as my body and head just have too many other things going on. I always particularly loved performing Shakespeare, as the rhythm of the text keeps the tongue and mind engaged. (Ten points to anyone who spotted the terrible Shakespeare pun in the title…) I went on to graduate, and was fortunate enough to go straight into the West End cast of Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Palace Theatre. I was pleased I had reached my goal and hadn’t let TS stand in my way, but I continued to be terrified that I might one day tic on stage. It still took a great deal of extra concentration to keep them in.

The big turning point for me came about 5 years ago, when, on a whim, I went to an acting class that a friend was teaching. (His name is Adam Stadius, and if you ever fancy an acting masterclass he is a superb teacher…) This series of classes focused on a technique created by Sanford Meisner. One of the principles of this technique is that “acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Characters are created by an audience. It doesn’t matter what an actor’s intention is. If the observer believes that what the actor is doing comes from a truthful place, the character is created completely in the onlooker’s head. There will always be a little part of the actor in the character – that can’t be removed. It was realising this that made me finally stop caring if I tic or not.

These days, I go through stages of barely noticing that I have TS, to occasional days or weeks where it’s as bad as it’s ever been. Generally, only those closest to me even know of my condition and it is peculiar when people that I have worked with before or have known for years are suddenly exposed to unexpected “creativity”. Much like I refuse to define myself as just-an-actor, I won’t be defined by my condition either. I think everyone has their own peculiarities, particularly in the dramatic arts. I’m certainly not the strangest person I know and I’m lucky to work in a community where to be so is no terrible thing.

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To Every Ticlish Reader!

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