Rain might have crashed down persistently, but it did not dampen that fun January morning in Starbucks a jot. Deafinitely Theatre's Artistic Director Paula Garfield was in need of the office at London's Diorama Arts Studios (which we'd previously used as our workshop space) so Andrew decided to treat us to coffee before getting back to - well, I'd call it dissecting our brains really, so hard did he work at stretching our imaginations.
'Without looking, how many people do you think are in this cafe?' he challenged us, and then it was, 'Give us ten things about this place in two minutes.' He seemed to work in ever-deepening layers, zooming into points of interest such as the two women chatting in the corner adjacent to ours, and getting us to create an imaginary character profile for each.
Even though it's a work-in-progress, Stephen Collins' delivery of his monologue is nevertheless mesmerising. He's picked a childhood story retold by the character Baby in Jez Butterworth's Mojo for Deafinitely Theatre's forthcoming HUB showcase in late February, and Andrew has asked him and Donna Mullings - who has selected a monologue from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard - to demonstrate to us writers how they would translate English scripts into BSL.
In both cases, I can see how pace, tone, rhythm, and context can shift in the transition. It's not just that certain words, sometimes entire phrases, have to be abandoned in order to convey the message in BSL more effectively; the actor also has to consider a change of emphasis so to balance out the delivery appropriately and in accordance with the prevailing mood.
It's not a premise I'm completely unfamiliar with, of course, having delivered BSL gallery talks that contained art theories steeped in spoken-language culture. The difference with theatrical monologues, of course, is that they are essentially the character's inner thoughts, and therefore tend to spring from an English-literary mind.
It's something I have given much consideration to since Day 2 of the HUB scriptwriting programme, when we began sharing our first draft monologues with each other. I can't speak for the other three, but I was certainly nervous about showing mine (yes, I know - a first draft). Feedback was thankfully good, with Andrew calling it 'poetic', and a nice discussion around how I could maintain the ambiguity of my drowning theme to the end.
One of the draft monologues - written by fellow HUB writer Sannah Gulamani - was very interesting. At this stage I'm not at liberty to say what it was about, but I know most people who saw it would concur that it was stunningly written and read like a book, rather than a piece of theatre. Its descriptions were certainly evocative but, funnily enough, the pictures they conjured up in my mind were those of an English speaker, not a BSL user.
In fact I got the overwhelming sense that this was the beginning of the play, rather than the middle of it; the setting of the scene, if you like. So a lively brainstorming chat ensued where we all threw in a variety of ideas as to how Sannah could further dramatize her monologue; a Shakespearean singing narrator, getting another family member to deliver the monologue (it was set earlier on in the 20th century), swapping around bits here and there...
This particular workshop actually took place over two days, so that two of us (there are four of us altogether) got to show our monologues on each day. This naturally incurred a substantial amount of thinking that generated its own motivation for the next scriptwriting workshop - our third - which took place a fortnight later.
I'm eight. I'm dreaming. I'm floating - I think I'm on top of the world. I change position, as if there is infinite space and nothingness around me, then I feel my head hitting a partition of some sort. It takes me by surprise, so much so that I stick out an arm to push it out of the way. I want there to still be nothingness.
Before I know it, I'm falling; I'm not dreaming that I am falling. The cool night air whooshing past my face tells me that I've woken up, but it's too dark for me to see anything. I panic because I haven't my hearing aids in and I can't hear anything.
Again before I've composed myself, my nose hits something abrasive, like a Brillo pad, then the rest of my body follows. I taste blood in my mouth. I realise that I've hit the floor of a holiday caravan from the top bunk bed in the dark - but only because my mother switches on the light.
Silence. There are four faces staring at me slack-jawed. I worry that the extract from my childhood I've just described may be the worst thing I've ever written.
'Wow,' Deafinitely Theatre's Andrew Muir finally says, and with that my paranoia subsides. I'm participating in the company's first HUB scriptwriting workshop - part of a three-year initiative to nurture the skills of Deaf actors, writers and directors - and the description of a childhood memory is just one of the exercises we've been participating in. It's going brilliantly, and I'm learning a lot about my fellow participants. We have four writers on board this year, and my understanding is that Deafinitely plans to bring in more for 2014.
For some time now I have been wanting to create a play. I already have an idea for one - but it's probably too grand a vision to achieve on a shoestring at this tentative stage.
But when Andrew talks about writing 'truth' in the workshop, I know exactly what he means. In order to write a play that an audience can relate to, you need life experience. You can't write in a vacuum. There has to be authenticity. Imagination is all very well - and believe you me, I have lots - but if you haven't lived, what wisdom and knowledge can you draw inspiration from?
The key is to be aware of what you are experiencing, and its potential ramifications for not just you, but other people in your life. It could be something quite boring - like waking up to a sloping, plain white ceiling at home, like I did on the morning of the workshop - that you could spin interesting connotations off at a tangent.
Why is my ceiling white? Why does it slope? From this I can tell you that I live on a hill, on the fringe of the local woods overlooking a view of provincial rooftops and that my house has subsistence, but it's never been as bad as my landlord has made out, even though they tried to use it as an excuse to put me off bidding for it (I am a social tenant) but I persevered, and that prior to my moving in 10 months later my landlord offered me a choice of colour scheme and I asked for all the walls to be painted white instead of the obligatory magnolia and that is why the ceiling I'm looking at within seconds of waking up is the colour it is.
There you have it: a background that will help shape your story and its accompanying characters. This is the kind of 'truth' that I think Andrew wants us to write.
But this workshop is just the beginning. Andrew isn't keen for the four of us to create a play - at least, not yet. While there were certainly some brilliant set-pieces over the years, the trouble with Deafinitely's 4Play scheme was how it made out to be about THE PLAY, with directors and actors and sets and props and lighting and costumes and so on when it should have focused instead on nurturing writers' skills and confidence over time.
So, instead of a play, we are to write a character monologue as a work-in-progress. The HUB actors will have a separate workshop programme of their own to commit to (a couple of which I have already participated in by way of introduction to theatrical practice, and my, how enlightening those were too).
In lieu of what the writers are being asked to do, the turnaround will be short: some drafting of our monologues in January, followed by a collaboration with a Deaf actor where necessary, rehearsals, and then a performance in front of an invited audience made up of theatre professionals, family and friends in late February. Then when more writers join the HUB, we work on something bigger; the following year, it gets even bigger, and so forth.
As this is a work-in-progress, collaborations with actors in the development of our character monologues are not strictly necessary. Some of us are going to perform our own pieces as part of our professional development. I certainly am.
As I said earlier, I already have an idea for a drama, but it's just too grand a vision to realise on a shoestring. What I can do - and this is what Andrew himself advises - is pick one of the characters that I want to people my play, and write a monologue for him or her (I haven't decided which). Naturally it would be premature for me to tell you what it's about - even though the theme of drowning will be relevant - but I can say, with my characteristic mix of excitement, confidence and resolution I suppose, that there will be 'truth'.
To be two-faced is human nature. To laugh, to cry; to show a public face, and hide a private side; to have in all our lives aspects of comedy and tragedy to varying degrees.
I suspect that this is the key to Jim Cartwright's formulation of his play, TWO, as a two-hander. There are 14 characters in total - a pub landlord and landlady with a tragic secret, about to close their pub after many years of trade; a young boy looking for his dad; a mistress confronting her married lover; an ageing widower inclined to navel-gazing through the bottom of a glass; an older woman getting the shopping in; and a variety of couples, including one in an abusive relationship and another with a shared childlike enthusiasm for Elvis and B-movie extras - and they are all played by just two actors.
This conveys the message that human emotion is universal, even though the circumstances that give rise to it may not be the kind that you personally identify with. That all the characters meet in a pub over the course of a day is appropriate; it is, after all, the kind of place where you eventually reveal more of yourself to others than you'd like over a pint.
It is for good reason, then, that the number two - and the related terms 'double', 'dual' and 'twice' - weigh heavily in this piece.
Two-hander aside, the drama is in two parts, with a two-hour duration. Sometimes the actors double up, sometimes they don't, and rather disconcertingly, weave in and out of a two-way discourse with us - the audience - and each other, thus giving us the unusual privilege of being both participant and spectator. It's an ingenuous way of getting us all emotionally involved, which is what good theatre should be about.
For their own production of TWO - which ended its run at Southwark Playhouse last November - Deafinitely Theatre's take was to double the number of actors to four: two speaking, two using BSL, and to have both couples almost mirror each other in the shifting role-play.
I said 'almost'. Each of the four actors brought to TWO an individual style and delivery all of their own - which was a blessing, for it enabled them to focus on fleshing out each of the characters assigned to them, thus producing a true feast for the eyes. Ultimately, rather than two sets of stilted performers more concerned with synchronising each other's movements, we got a doubly emotionally-charged performance where in the end, the only timing that mattered was the delivery of their lines.
RADA-trained Sophie Stone gave a classy speaking turn, while her BSL-using counterpart Paula Garfield was grittier, more raw in her portrayal. Meanwhile with his terrier-like verbal and physical energy, Jim Fish was a wonderful foil to Matthew Gurney's looming big-man presence.
That said, the involvement of two languages reinforced the challenge of presenting the play in an accessible way without diluting the emotions being conveyed.
Speaker and signer were built into the production as equals. Nevertheless I sensed a temptation by the BSL users to jump into action once the speakers opened their mouths, which could have affected the calibre of their performances - but crucially, didn't. As a bilingual Deaf CI user with public-speaking experience, I can ascertain that this took enormous skill on the part of the BSL actors, knowing how much easier it is to sign at your own pace when giving a presentation and let the interpreter follow you with his or her voice-over, rather than vice versa.
In one scene, Lesley (played simultaneously by Stone and Garfield) is confronted about her supposed infidelity by Roy (Fish and Gurney). The speakers sat to the left of the stage, the BSL users to the right, the two women sitting back-to-back on a shared stool, faces turned away towards their partners.
You could sense the simmering undercurrent of brutality as Roy manipulated Lesley every time she tried to react to his accusations, ensuring she was never able to get her plea of innocence across. The sight of two men simultaneously, psychologically abusing their female partners on stage certainly had twice the grip-the-edge-of-our-seats factor, and the tears I saw rolling down Garfield's cheeks, while Gurney jabbed a finger within close spitting distance of her, were scarily real.
Many other moments in the play are vividly etched on my brain. The sight of Fish as a frightened eight-year-old boy - cute R2-D2 backpack enticing us to laugh - crying for his dad, while Garfield's landlady struggled to communicate orally with him; Stone's mistress, elegantly dressed in pussycat frills and spike heels, expressing her frustrated jealousy to her invisible paramour; the final, heart-wrenching scene between the pub landlord and landlady that once and for all prised out the tragic secret that blighted their marriage: the unacknowledged early death of a child.
Combine all those moments, throw bilingualism into the mix - and you get a production that positively explodes with duality, reminding you again and again that what you see in public is never the whole story.
Discussing my maternal role on a disability arts blog may seem odd – and possibly tiresome for those who have been following it ever since I began my film-making adventure - but I think it’s relevant given the expectations that might have developed of me as a prospective Deaf film-maker. I had expectations of myself in that capacity too – expectations that I am now uncertain I can fulfil at this present time.
Personally and professionally, the last seven months have been an extraordinary journey. Just when I was about to build on a creative portfolio career incorporating writing, journalism, film-making and the visual arts, I found myself having to weigh that up once again against the harsh reality of parenting a child with CP in light of MRI scan results last April that revealed Isobel’s disabilities to be more encompassing than first thought.
So where many parents give up the arts in favour of a steady income, my case is unusual in that I have to make that sacrifice in order to meet unpaid caring responsibilities. So for that reason – and through no fault of Isobel’s, but rather the expectations of those working with her – it feels somewhat more forced.
Nevertheless, I am proud to have seen CODA through to the very end, and would like to share with you my overall thoughts on the film, its production and post-production, and the reaction it has had since its TV screenings last week. (Those who missed the broadcast can still view it on the BSLBT’s website.)
Like fashion – a world that I was once a part of on the coat-tails of last century – I have found film-making to be fast-paced, capricious and not necessarily over-concerned about having artistic depth or substance, not so long as it can fill cinema seats anyway. Whether on set, in planning or during editing and post-production, I often had to be incredibly on the ball in order to communicate my ideas, such was the speed of verbal exchanges between members of the mainstream production team - even with BSL interpreters present. It wasn’t really the place to be complaining about getting left out. With a tight budget to work with and various deadlines to meet, we had to pack in as much highly skilled manpower as we could, and in as little time as possible, so everyone's skills were at a premium.
But it was also terribly exciting. In contrast to the visual arts group projects that I managed in the past, I was realising a much more singular and personal vision, made all the more thrilling by the fact that it would be represented by moving images. I am grateful to the cast – among them Emily Howlett, Paris Palmer, Sienna Gray, Jenny Sealey (whom I consider to be a real coup given her Graeae commitments), and Sami Thorpe – for turning the subject-matter into something worth talking about through making the roles their own. Intriguingly, many of the viewers who commented via Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere expressed disappointment at how short CODA was. I don’t think we would have incited such a response if we’d stuck with the emotionally-detached David Lynch-seque series of visual tableaux that I’d originally envisaged. I guess subconsciously, I knew that this was a story that demanded a more epic treatment, but that the tableaux idea was a way of skimming over what was clearly a complex issue.
Even so, I am glad I had the opportunity to collaborate with a Director of Photography like Carolina Marsiaj Costa, who after consulting with me, used her sensitivity and attention to detail to help ensure that each scene became, as one viewer observed, “a visually striking and well-composed vignette.”
I never wanted a happy ending for CODA. I wanted it to be as true to life as much as possible, while giving me the opportunity to explore the concept of a CODA growing up with strong Deaf cultural values. (It should be borne in mind, though, that this is not necessarily reflective of the CODA community as a whole; they are just as diverse in the values they uphold as the deaf and HOH population themselves.)
Just as noticeable was how much of the feedback came from Deaf viewers who identified with the on-going frustrations of expressing their Deaf selves to hearing parents who didn’t ‘get it’, when in fact that was just the catalyst for the whole story. Having said that, I did want to address a taboo – the taboo of Deaf-hearing clashes within the family. In the 70s and 80s Deaf people’s education was basically hijacked by oralists who encouraged parents to bring up their children almost like pseudo-hearing people. Unfortunately, this attitude persists in some families today, ensuring that it remains a taboo; while rehearsing for Jenny’s big confrontation prior to the film shoot, people kept wiping the sweat off their palms.
I knew the film was going to be roughly ten minutes long. It was clearly stipulated in the Zoom 2011 application guidelines. So for me to try and dress it with sugar on top would have jarred badly with the tone of realism that I’d set for the rest of the story. I would hope, though, that as the journey unfolds, it transpires by the end credits that the Deaf/BSL Community has become home for both Jenny and – ironically, given her fundamentally hearing status - Annabel. It cannot have escaped others’ notice either that CODA is virtually an all-girls’ film. Of course I drew from real life – I come from a predominantly female family, so it was only natural that I should want to explore the specific dynamic between mother and daughter, then granddaughter. But the idea of focussing on three generations of women also appealed to one of my producers, Jim Tracy, who himself came from an all girls’ family – and the BSLBT, who liked the unusual angle to a challenging subject.
Another aspect that attracted me to film-making was the scope it gave for subliminal messages. Having abandoned the tableaux approach for CODA, I was keen to incorporate some other sort of symbolism to reinforce the sense of history repeating itself. Originally, Jenny was to wear a white Botticelli-style dress representing innocence or naivety when asserting her identity to the family, which would then be adopted by Annabel in the final showdown. Thanks to time and budget constraints, that idea also went out the window. Instead, I worked with costume designer Anita Kwasniewski to inject shots of one colour throughout the film.
Hence, 10-year-old Jenny wears bright scarlet at the beginning, echoed in the leaf print that flecks her maternity dress at age 20. In the nursery scene, the baton gets passed to little Annabel via her red tights, when she conveys her alienation from the other hearing children. Finally, with Annabel’s emergence from the shadows in adulthood wearing all-over scarlet, the relay of Deaf cultural values from mother to daughter is complete. That the nursery entrance and the speech therapy door are also red are happy accidents. I loved making CODA. I am sad that I may not be able to build on its success - and in particular working with Neath Films – at this present time, including applying for Zoom Focus 2012, the next level up for Deaf film-makers who participated in Zoom 2011. That's not to say I don't feel the tug still, but it is just that right now, I am not able to satisfy it. To that end, I would like to thank the BSLBT for persevering with me – I know they were initially concerned that I was tackling such an ambitious subject for a film-making novice – and to Neath Films for believing in me. It has been illuminating working with a great mainstream production team, and I look forward to seeing more of their collaborations with Deaf film-making talent.
To watch _CODA in full, visit http://www.bslbt.co.uk/zoom/films/zoom_2011/coda
For news of film festival screenings, press 'like' to join the Facebook group: _https://www.facebook.com/ChildOfDeafAdults __
For a while I seemed to be wading through a sea of young blondes. But it’s not what you think.
Casting is the biggest challenge I am facing right now, especially now my story has settled into a coherent arc that takes in the emotional and cultural journey of the Deaf mother, Jenny, then her hearing daughter Annabel, as they grow up over a period of 35 years. I need four actresses to play Annabel; three for Jenny; and two each for Jenny’s parents and best friend Moira.
So far I have found three Annabels and two Moiras, but Jenny is the hardest task. I am having to strike a balance between so-so actresses who look a lot like each other and great actresses who do not look like anyone whatsoever. In one sense it’s much harder to cast Deaf actresses than hearing actresses for this sort of thing; there are so few to go round, and if just one can’t do it then I’m f*****. Simultaneously. they are also easier because I am more familiar with their mannerisms and can work out how they could adjust these accordingly.
I’d just found an actress for Jenny who was blonde, so had been preparing to audition 10-year-old blonde girls to play her younger counterpart, but then she couldn’t take time off work. Another wasn’t ready with her signing skills – which was a shame, as she was otherwise a natural. After that, the blonde requirement became less important, as I scouted two more who were a little darker-haired.
It has really made me think, this casting business. Of course, I already knew that signing ability is so much more paramount for a Deaf drama than for a mainstream drama. It’s targeted squarely at Deaf audiences, after all (although admittedly, I tend to cringe when I watch actors make a hash of the BSL they’ve crash-studied just the week before in mainstream TV dramas).
But casting Deaf people who can demonstrate both signing ability and acting talent is harder than you think. It’s so easy to fall back on the same people who’ve appeared in so many other Deaf dramas already. I know it's just as hard for Deaf actors to break into the mainstream, but on the other hand Deaf dramas do need to keep producing new talent. You have to search really hard. Thankfully, I’m close now to finding Jenny, but first I have to make sure her older equivalent is still available for filming.
It feels like an eternity ago since I was wringing my hands out over the focal point of my story. It also feels like an eternity ago since the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust finally signed off the script – thus enabling me to start casting. They were supposed to do that before Christmas, but held off for a while due to concerns that I’d set myself a pretty hard challenge, with a complex script and a complex set-up. As my producer put it, they didn’t want me to fall flat on my face.
Well, I haven’t done that yet, but I do understand now what I’ve let myself in for. This is no Game of Life or Four Deaf Yorkshiremen; no blank or simple backdrops, no total reliance on just four or five characters to carry the whole story.
It’s not a song-and-dance extravaganza either, but given my relative inexperience it might as well be: three locations to represent two houses, a hospital, a nursery and a cafe, plus experimental sound and visual effects – one of which involves a foetus punching out (which I'm already developing with Miles) - a cast of 17 and up to 20 extras, 15 of whom could be children. And all that crammed into 15 minutes.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
Writing a script is SO HARD.
Recently I received a report from an independent script editor contracted by Neath Films. While his feedback was great – he thought my idea had a lot of potential for drama and conflict – he had issues with its formatting and the central character’s conflict.
The arc isn’t clear, he was suggesting. Who are we supposed to side with, the CODA (child of deaf adults) who tries to defend her mother at all costs, or is it the mother herself? Isn’t the CODA the focal point of the story?
Apparently, according to Neath’s Jim Tracy, my film runs like a digital installation in an art gallery. I took it as a compliment. I am, after all, drawing inspiration from David Lynch, master of the weird, and British artist-cum-film-maker Steve McQueen.
Glen certainly understood my intention to make an experimental film but, as Jim pointed out the other week, essentially I’m writing for TV watchers. He’s got a point. Who wants to watch drama like Twin Peaks at 7.30am on a weekday?
I am torn. I understand the need for formatting, but once I start following scriptwriting conventions, don’t I run the risk of losing the fun bit – the going-off-the-wall bit? To be fair both Glen and Jim do encourage the use of mood boards and visual references to convey the symbolic mood.
It’s obvious they can see how formatting i.e. avoiding a script (which strictly details only what will be on screen) reading like a film treatment (a written explanation of the action – what we see and hear and what the characters do – that leaves a lot to the imagination) can affect the experimental feel.
I do not suit convention. Or is it vice versa? My life is anything but. Why should my film be an exception to the rule? Is this what it means to be a tortured artist? PLEASE HELP.
ONE DAY TO DEADLINE.
I'm all ready to go with my pitch pack for Zoom 2011 and the online showreel promised by a friend still hasn't materialised. I decide to put the Vimeo channel link on the application anyway (it does have other examples of work Neath Films can look at) and post it by next day special delivery.
Two weeks later, I'm shortlisted for interview. I shout 'Hooray!' and then groan, as I realise the interview date clashes with the first day of a family holiday in Crete. It can't be changed. Thankfully Neath's James Tracy is flexible and suggests Skype instead.
In the notification email I'm told to be prepared to pitch my idea. Keen to get this one right, I decide to ask last year's 'Zoombies', as James calls them, for advice. Through the various helpful tips they give, I get the impression that there's no real set format; Neath base their questions on what the application says. I decide to just be myself and let the enthusiasm shine through.
Come that day though, the interview doesn't really feel like an interview. It's the end of a long day for Neath, and the challenges of communicating live via Skype - with the short time delays that it entails - mean that sometimes I don't get to finish my answers. I enjoy describing my idea about two generations of women - one Deaf, one CODA in a series of David Lynch-style tableaux - so much anyway that it doesn't matter. There's a relaxed ambience, with Sam Dore leading throughout and an interpreter doing the voice-overs off-screen. I never see James or his work partner, Maverick Litchfield-Kelly, on-screen. When Sam introduces them, one by one, all I get is a hand waving from one side, then the other side of the screen. It's very funny.
You can see this one coming can't you? Well, I wouldn't be writing about it on dao otherwise, would I? Of course I get selected. I'm thrilled. Not only do I get to have my first shot at making a broadcast short, I also get to work with a production company that I really like the sound of.
Induction day is both absorbing and overwhelming. There's just so much to learn: backing up, who has the final day (BSLBT, being the commissioner), the role of the colourist, engaging with your actors.
I'm intrigued to learn that although application intake was up on last year - when Neath ran the scheme for the first time - standards weren't quite as high. Neath had to ask BSLBT if they could select five instead of six film-makers, so to avoid lowering the tone and wasting money. (£2,000 might be small for a TV drama, but it's a lot for BSLBT to give away. And of course, Neath Films also offer £2,500 worth of production support on top, so they won't want to be endorsing film-makers they don't believe in.) Of course, BSLBT are fine with that.
James Tracy says we are lucky to have the induction day. Last year's 'Zoombies' didn't have this opportunity - which, it must be admitted, is saying a lot about how talented and committed they were. Kudos to all of them.
They also didn't have a script development period. We have until Christmas to get our scripts ready and signed-off by BSLBT's Chief Executive. Filming should start in January - with the possibility of the five films getting shown on Film4. I can't wait.
Whatever we think of The Silence (see DAO review), at least it has given me a little more film-maker’s insight into how some hearing people might still perceive deaf people.
Not that I lack first-hand experience, of course. I am, after all, part of the 90% born to hearing families. But the BBC’s attempts to portray Deaf Culture as a silent world has actually got me dancing about the reverse psychology that I want to apply to my story.
If sound is a means of access, then it’s not very effective, is it? We might as well turn synaesthetic and watch shades of grey transmogrifying into each other; yes, nice variations in tone and pitch but otherwise a bit, erm, monotonous. But as a metaphor for deaf access on celluloid, it could be quite exciting.
Say someone is filmed switching on the telly, but there’s no sound. He fetches the remote from his sofa and fixes the subtitles – and once they appear on-screen the sound emerges as if he’s switched on the volume. The triggers for Deaf Culture in my film wouldn’t necessarily always have to be written English; any sign, gesture, facial expression, or body language would literally speak louder than words.
Meanwhile all the noises that irk hearing people – a chair squealing while being dragged across the floor, uninhibited (read strident) belly-laughs, hands banging loudly on tables to get someone’s attention, stomping footsteps – clamour together to form the archetypal deaf aural environment. And for the hearing people who speak in the film? Their voices get cut off, unless their lip movements are clear, in which case the odd consonant slips in.
OK, this is a deaf person’s film that is likely to attract deaf audiences for reasons of empathy and interest in a story that also explores the perspective of children of Deaf adults (CODAs). But I want to pique hearing interest beyond that of the CODAs and BSL interpreters likely to watch my film too. I have nothing against deaf film-makers whose only aim is to make entertainment aimed smack bang at deaf audiences, but I’m itching to stretch creative boundaries to the point of pain.
It’s difficult. Everyone knows that a soaring Hollywood blaze is the lowest common denominator and that experimental film-making doesn’t ensnare you in quite the same way. People just want to flop in front of the screen and stuff themselves with popcorn and mindless thrills – and who’s to begrudge them that?
But there’s a time and a place for being cerebral - and it’s only cerebral if it’s not part of your usual everyday mind-set. Everyone wants an easy life, but the fact is Deafies have grown up being pressured to adopt a hearing mentality when they shouldn’t have to. Is it too much to ask hearing people to watch just one 15-minute film that will prick their intellect?
I cannot help but laugh at the irony of what I am about to write.
Isobel, my muse, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It is a peculiar twist of fate that the main source of inspiration for my project – and the biggest impetus for a DAO blog – should herself be disabled. Suddenly the term ‘deaf and disabled’ takes on a whole new spin.
That is not to say, of course, that the film concept is invalid. (Basically, it’s an experimental drama that contrasts two milestone birthday parties thrown by hearing people, twenty years apart. The first party is viewed from the perspective of a deaf woman; the second, that of her hearing, non-disabled daughter – a CODA – who has grown up in a BSL-using household.)
Rather, Isobel's diagnosis highlights how one person can influence you in quite disparate ways. Already I am conceptualising deaf parenting stories involving first suspicions, diagnosis, coping strategies, signing milestones etc. Nothing too schmaltzy, you understand. Ah, the joys of flexing one’s imagination!
But I digress. For now, I’m sticking with the original story: it’s a good one, and I want to see it made. I’ve emailed my draft script to a few professional film directors, and they all seem to like it. One said that it had legs and that he hoped I would contact him again once I’d worked some more on the dialogue, which was very encouraging.
Another thought I should apply to Zoom 2011, the deaf film-making scheme produced by Neath Films and commissioned by the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSLBT), a not-for-profit body responsible for increasing sign-presented programming on TV. Samuel Dore, a film director and a friend who I admire, is attached to the scheme as creative consultant.
I am sorely tempted. I thought the last batch of Zoom films – the first time Neath Films ran the scheme – was fabulous, especially G.A., which I've mentioned before, and Nick Sturley’s Game of Life, about four deaf men gambling with a supremely evil dealer. Most were films I could feel a strong affinity with. Ooh, I am hungry. I have got to deliver.
My biggest challenge, though, is the story development. I understand perfectly the principle of having a beginning, middle and end, but I'd like to bend convention a little too. Could I achieve this in a debut? Could I be cheeky and rely on artistic instincts? Or go with it and please the crowds?
At least I am not following tradition by creating a Deaf comedy with a cogent storytelling element. Plenty of people do that already (and some do it very well indeed). Deaf drama has its fans too. Of course, like any aspiring film-maker I want to be original - but is that possible on celluloid anymore? Shouldn't that decision lie with the audience?
Last month saw me pitching for the 2010 Ben Steiner Bursary - a sum of £5000 awarded to a Deaf film-maker to make a 15-minute film in time for Deaffest 2011 at Wolverhampton's Lighthouse.
Aside from pitching to a judging panel of four, Dragon's Den-style, in an unusual twist we had to present our pitches as a 5-minute subtitled film instead of doing it live. The reason? A live audience would be watching that and the judges' interviews afterwards. Scary!
Obviously people were worried about intellectual property. We were, after all, presenting ideas that might never make it to film - but I did draw some comfort from the sight of visitors signing confidentiality agreements on the day.
It was a blazing May afternoon. We all felt the white heat coming from the Lighthouse's courtyard glass roof - and I was nervous. I'd never done a pitch before, so risked looking like a fool. Competition was strong. Amongst those competing for the bursary were Charlie Swinbourne and Ted Evans (he of the brilliantly-executed drama G.A.). I once caught a Deaf director jabbing his folded copy of the festival programme at another contestant in what looked like a pep talk.
Five thousand quid: a lot, and yet not a lot. Everyone seemed to be doing the tentative dance of boxers beginning their bout - even though we were wishing each other good luck.
I didn’t know what to expect. When my turn came it felt bizarre; answering questions on the hoof while keeping my body turned towards the audience, as if I was acting. Of course I fluffed – many times. Looking back I can’t believe I told one judge I’d never worked with actors before when I'd actually collaborated with Daniel Craig at the National Youth Theatre!
I wasn’t alone. I felt for one contestant who confidently declared that he wanted to make his film in India, only to dig himself in an ever-deepening hole when asked why he couldn’t emulate Indian Deaf Culture here in the UK. Another refused to outline his story in public (clearly, Deaffest's co-ordinator hadn't managed to alleviate his fears).
In the end, thanks to his irrrepressible enthusiasm and sheer balls, Stephen Collins got the money for suggesting a comedy about a man with five split personalities. Hmm. As for me, well, I've already moved on. There's another Deaf film-making scheme in town. Watch this space...
Isobel has been melting hearts ever since she was born. She has occupied my mind ever since she began occupying my womb.
Isobel is my muse and the inspiration for my new venture. At 37 weeks pregnant I began creating a six-week video strand, The Baby Diaries, for BBC TV’s See Hear, and with it I began to ponder what it would be like for her to grow up in a deaf household if she was hearing (a good possibility, given that my deafness is not hereditary).
My husband was away in London studying full-time for a year, so I spent my entire term alone in rural Bucks, napping, putting my feet up, reading, making video diaries. As my tummy expanded into a beachball I could no longer travel, and being more susceptible to sunburn I either hogged the garden’s shade like a petrified vampire, or shut myself away inside.
Out of that summer hibernation emerged my idea for a film. My brain had become a cinema with its own previews and screenings. Sometimes it hosted a nostalgic evening, full of memories that played a pivotal role in the story’s development; sometimes it was a themed selection of shorts, exploring BSL/Deaf visual metaphors. Whatever the cinema chose to screen, it took its cues not just from the little person nestling lower down in my body, but also other CODAs (children of deaf adults).
Apparently, children who grow up in a BSL community tend to develop Deaf identities, regardless of whether they are deaf or hearing. Some adopt BSL as their first language so fast that their first attendance at a nursery where everyone speaks is often a culture shock. Some even undergo speech therapy to ‘correct’ the Deaf voices they’ve inherited from their parents.
These experiences might sound strange, but they do reinforce the existence of Deaf Culture, and its mutual relationship with Deaf community values and BSL, ensuring that absolutely anyone born into a Deaf environment could adopt it.
It's an unusual feature of Deaf Culture and I'm keen to explore it on film. I'm sorry I can't say what my story is exactly, for copyright reasons, but suffice to say I love what I'm visualising and I can't wait to make it a reality.