WERE IT not for her father, Francesca Martinez may never have had the courage to become a stand-up comedian and perhaps more importantly, a prominent voice in Britain arguing for a change in the way people think about ‘disability’ and what society deems ‘normal’.
Francesca is bringing her critically acclaimed comedy show, What the **** is Normal?! to the Róisín Dubh on Friday May 31 at 8.30pm, and it will be her first show in the city in more than a decade.
“I did a gig in Galway back in 2002,” Francesca tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “It’s crazy it’s been so long, I’m excited about coming back.”
Although born and reared in London, Francesca grew up in a family more continental than British. Her father Alex is Spanish and her mother is of Swedish stock.
“My Spanish grandparents lived just five minutes away,” she says. “We had them over all the time. I grew up with a Mediterranean culture with lovely food and a very warm, open, loving family.”
Francesca was born with cerebral palsy, a condition which made her highly self-conscious and contributed to her developing low self-esteem. “I was often unhappy at school as teenage girls can be quite bitchy,” she says, but the way her condition was spoken about was another factor.
“All my life I’d said ‘I have cerebral palsy’. It’s a really negative word. It’s a medical term. It’s a way of saying ‘I have something wrong with me’. They may only be words but they have a big effect. They made me feel like a failed object. I adopted that view of myself during my teenage years.”
Today, though, Francesca describes herself as Wobbly, rejecting the term cerebral palsy as a negative label given to her by others. How did she transform her view of herself and how did this lead to her becoming a comedian?
‘I hadn’t learned to be myself’
Francesca’s ambition “since I was a little child” was to become an actor. One of her teacher’s at school noticed this and told her that the iconic British teen school drama Grange Hill was casting for a disabled actor who had been in the mainstream education system.
“Everyone who knew me, knew I loved acting ,” she says. “I met the producers, had two auditions and on New Year’s Day 1993 I was told I got the part. It was a very good start to the year.”
Francesca enjoys joking how filming Grange Hill caused her to “miss nine months of school legally”. She ended up staying on the show for five years. “I realised this is what I wanted to do with my life.” Yet when her time on the programme finished in 1999 she experienced life as an unemployed actress.
This is where Alex Martinez stepped in, starting a process that would reignite his daughter’s faith in her artistic path and lead to her making a realisation which would revolutionise her life.
“There wasn’t a lot of parts for a Wobbly woman out there,” says Francesca, “so my father said ‘I will write you a film script where you play a stand-up comedian’. I read it and thought ‘It’s an Oscar winning part, but I can’t do it’.
“The terrifying thing about stand-up is that it involves you standing up before a crowd of people and being yourself and I hadn’t yet learned to be myself. I enjoyed Grange Hill but I was still lacking in confidence.”
To overcome it, Francesca went to comedy workshops but admits to having sat there “silent for six weeks” but “pressured to perform” in a live show at the end of the workshop, it went down a storm and convinced the Londoner that she was more than able to be a comedian.
“It had a huge effect on my confidence,” she says. “I saw I was able to be honest with myself and connect with people. A year later I won The Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award 2000 for Best New Comedian at the Edinburgh Festival. Afterwards I said to my dad ‘I want to thank you’. He said ‘I told you so’.”
‘Words have a profound effect’
On a deeper level these experiences allowed Francesca to stop considering herself ‘disabled’.
“It made me realise that if you appear comfortable and relaxed and honest about who you are, then that is a very powerful statement and that realisation changed my whole life,” she says.
Francesca also realised that language, that words and labels, are not just a manner of communicating and describing, they are also a method of conditioning and confining how people view society and individuals.
Nowhere is this clearer then in how Francesca describes herself. She does not use the term cerebral palsy, but describes herself as ‘Wobbly’.
“Years ago some kid saw me and said to me ‘You’re a wobbly lady’. It was non-judgemental and it was true so I adopted it, and by that I chose what I wanted to call myself,” she says.
“I don’t have to say I have CP. It’s not objectively true. It’s just a term others have chosen to call me. Wobbly though is not negative, it doesn’t make judgements, and it’s not scary. Words have a profound effect and I felt liberated. We don’t have to adopt society’s value system, we can adopt our own, so I began to do that with lots of things. For example I don’t walk badly, I walk like ‘me’. It’s the best my body can do.
“I started to take the judgement out of such ways of talking and thinking and it’s led to a shift in my own thinking and becoming a happier person - all this is at the heart of my show.”
What the **** is Normal?! Seeks to challenge audience assumptions about what exactly is a ‘normal’ person and about terms such as ‘disabled’ and ‘able bodied’. There is a strong polemical, challenging, element, but it also hilarious and entertaining. “Hilarious and deeply moving” (Metro ); “brilliant,” (Observer ); “Funny as hell” (Rip It Up Adelaide ).
The show asks an important question. What actually is a normal person? Who gets to define what is normal and why? And as values change so does society’s definition of normal, so can something that is always shifting be a proper standard of judgement?
“Disabled people don’t see themselves as disabled,” she says, “even though it’s assumed they are always thinking about being disabled. Everybody’s life is normal to them. We feel normal inside. Some people are bad at singing but it doesn’t define them. I can’t run fast but I still feel normal. Words like ‘able bodied’ and ‘disabled’ separate people. I want to get rid of labels. I am making a case for embracing yourself - I want to start a Wobby revolution!”
Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, from the Ticket Desk at OMG, Shop Street (formerly Zhivago ), and The Róisín Dubh.