Francesca Martinez will be performing What The **** Is Normal?! at the Tricycle Theatre from Wednesday 6 – Saturday 9 June, and will be joined by a very special guest each night. Click Here for more information.
To say that Francesca Martinez is up-and-coming would be a serious oversight – in actual fact, she’s been active since 1994. Beginning her career as an actor in Grange Hill, representing the series’ first main disabled character, then moving in to the comedy world (even balancing the two with her role in an episode of Extras) and coming to add motivational speaking to her already impressive CV, she’s no newbie to the circuit.
“It’s a very personal show; growing up being labelled “abnormal” from a very young age has meant that I’ve had this intense relationship with the word “normal” and this show is kind of based on that premise of, you know, what do you do when you’re labelled “abnormal” in a world obsessed with normality and fitting in? The show’s kind of my answer to that question. I think whatever you’ve got is normal to you, so I have this funny contradiction whereby the world labelled me “abnormal”, but I felt totally normal, and totally capable, and I think part of that was that I was lucky enough to grow up in a family who never defined me as disabled, they always just said ‘you’re Francesca.’
“It’s quite a rollercoaster journey – I went from a really happy kid, very loved, very confident, to you know, high school teenage hell where all that confidence was stripped away and I began to judge myself on these standards by which other people saw me, and that just made me into a shadow of myself. And then [in the show] I talk about the journey I went on getting Grange Hill, and how that really had an impact on me and restored some of my confidence, but fundamentally I was still wishing I was normal, whatever that was, and then I speak about really intense romantic encounters that totally changed my perception of what normal was and I guess the show is very much about questioning these labels, asking why they exist, who do they benefit, and ultimately the liberation of ripping them up and creating your own.
“It’s a universal show in the sense that it’s not about disability, but it’s about what it is to be human, to find self acceptance, and ultimately try and define yourself by your own values and liberate yourself from these pressures that exist within society to conform on many levels. I feel it’s quite a political question, because I think the concept of normal is used to control people and to disempower, so I’m really passionate about communicating the power you can reclaim yourself if you stick two fingers up to that idea and go, you know what, I’m going to define myself by my own means and take back control over my thoughts.”
The concept of definition is one that Martinez comes up against quite frequently in the media, being labelled as a ‘female comedian’ – a label that has slipped into common usage in the comedy world which is still, at least in terms of mainstream representation, fairly male-dominated – as well as a disabled comic.
“I find labels like that really misleading. Number one, I hate the word disabled, because it focuses on what I can’t do. It kind of perpetuates this myth that there’s a group of people who can’t do stuff and everyone else is perfect, but that’s actually really inaccurate.
“I also think it’s really disempowering to grow up having this label slapped on you and I talk about in my show how much I hate the word “cerebral palsy”, how it makes people so nervous. One of the things I say is that I’ve re-christened myself wobbly, because wobbly is a word I like, wobbly is cool, wobbly is not scary or off-putting. And it may sound really trivial – they’re words, they’re sounds – and in one way, I agree, but in another way, words really betray what we think of whatever they’re labelling, and it’s quite a big section in my show, I talk about the awful words given to disability, whereas there are other truly awful things that have quite nice names, like friendly fire. Why? Because those in power want them to sound acceptable.
“I think the way we label things is a very political area, and being a baby and having terrible sounding names slapped on you, it’s quite hard to struggle free of them and feel like you’re not a faulty piece of equipment. It’s something I struggled with for years and it’s ironic that I’m still labelled a disabled comic because from the first show I ever did I was questioning how we label each other, and in my experience the only normality there is, is difference. So these labels that try and separate people I find divisive, and in the end it just makes us all feel that there’s a secret club that we’re all trying very hard to fit into, when actually that club doesn’t exist, and a real revelatory moment was when I realised that I’d never met a normal person before. That was a really powerful moment because I thought, wow, they don’t exist. All that exists are people, and that was so nice for me, because I just felt, you know what, I’m not more different than anyone else, I’m just part of the human race.
“Where I’ve found issues [in the comedy world] is venturing into television. I think by definition TV is a more image-obsessed medium, and panel shows seem very scared of booking me – possibly because comedy and disability are not seen as natural partners. Jimmy Carr fought for months to get me onto 8 out of 10 Cats, but his producers wouldn’t have it in the end, and I think maybe it’s because [panel shows are] perceived as quite light hearted post-pub entertainment, and I think they just see me as a lump of disability that’s going to come on the show and bring the mood down.
“I think it’s quite bizarre because for the last 12 years of my career, I’ve been making those very same audiences laugh, no one’s run out of my shows screaming. I kind of understand it because I’m the first wobbly comic in the country, so naturally the doors aren’t open yet. In the same way though I do think, come on guys, what’s the worst that can happen? In live comedy there’s no grey area, people either laugh or they don’t, so I’m tested all the time. I’m only human and I do get a bit frustrated that they don’t feel like they can take the chance on me, but I also think it’s a matter of time, hopefully the more I show in my live work that I don’t induce pant-wetting fear the more likely they are to say, okay, let’s give it a go.”
Quite the opposite of inducing pant-wetting fear, Martinez says she’s been able to connect with audiences across the board.
“I do get disabled audiences, and I do perform at events for disabled people. I think it’s really refreshing for them to see someone on stage like me, because there are so few people in the media representing difference. One of the big problems is that the media could really do so much in terms of making difference seem normal, but it doesn’t.
“Funnily enough, I get written to and approached by loads of able-bodied people saying they found my show really challenging or it changed the way they thought about themselves, so it’s a real equal balance of feedback, because my show’s very much about trying to focus on the aspects of human life that we all share, and I kind of hope that my comedy would connect with and inspire anyone because I feel fundamentally we’re all dealing with the same challenges.
“I think comedy is a unique art form in that it allows you to cut through the chit chat and to just address topics, but in a really lighthearted way. One of the things when I started that I was aware of, is that you hardly ever hear from anyone different making jokes and talking about their life as a person. It’s always quite serious, or quite sad, so I was really happy that I could stand up there and humanise a scary label. It’s interesting, because some critics when I started said, oh she’s funny, but her material needs to broaden out from that issue, and I’ve always felt, it’s not an issue, I do exactly what every other comedian does, I talk about my life. Full stop.”
“I’ve always felt very passionate that while difference isn’t really covered in the mainstream, I’m going to do my best to be honest about it and share my life. I think comedy is such a perfect way to do that, because it does dispel nerves and fears very quickly. I do feel [that disability] is still the last taboo because if you look at the representation in the media, it’s next to zero, and when it is covered it’s often a very narrow depiction of people in wheelchairs. I also think maybe it’s because [the subject of disability] conjures up feelings of pity, it makes people confront questions of mortality. I understand there are complex reactions but I also feel the very solution to those feelings is exposure and relationships with all kinds of ability, because ultimately we are all people and that often gets lost if your contact is limited.
“I can understand why it’s been a difficult area for humanity to come to terms with, but I also feel like we need to deal with it. The funny thing is, disability is normal, because it’s always existed; there’s no point trying to cover it up or ignore it, it’s always going to be there. Another thing I touch upon in my show is the benefit of being different, and what it teaches you, and what it makes you confront, and I’m very grateful to my CP for teaching me certain things that made me happier. You never hear that anywhere, you just hear ‘disability’s awful’. And obviously we’ve just seen really recently, sadly with Amy Winehouse, how you can have externally everything – wealth, beauty, talent – and it doesn’t mean you’re happy or confident or together, but society tells us that is what you need to be happy. My show is very much about questioning that and proving otherwise.”
This feature was written by Caitlin Field, and originally published by The Skinny.
Francesca Martinez will be performing What The **** Is Normal?! at the Tricycle Theatre from Wednesday 6 – Sunday 9 June. Click Here for more information.