Over the last decade, deaf writers and performers have been making their mark on radio, TV, stage and film, delighting audiences and challenging misconceptions, says Sarah Pickthall.
13 March 2012
When deaf actor David Bower, artistic director of Signdance Collective, was cast as Quasimodo in the collaboration between BBC Radio 4 Drama and Graeae Theatre Company in 2008, it raised a few eyebrows.
Why would a deaf actor be working in a medium that he couldn’t hear? The implicit criticism was soon forgotten following critical acclaim for his performance, the universally positive reviews stressing that his deafness was crucial to the success of the part, and indeed, the play.
“When you first hear him, halting, lisping and disturbingly but powerfully slow, pronouncing “sinners” as “thinnerth”, you wonder about his mental state. Quickly, you realise that it is fine, as is Quasimodo’s; that Quasimodo makes up with poetic insight, faith and honour what he lacks in beauty; that the true deformity in the story is moral, not physical.”
Paul Donovan, The Sunday TImes 30 November 2008
It isn’t, though,just his voice that made the work so compelling, but the sensitivity of his portrayal, which immediately rescued the tale of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', from its ‘Disneyfication’ to Victor Hugo’s original imagining as a story about social strife and revolution.
“There is a poetry in the writing which moves with a pace, unique to deaf syntax, which typically places the object of the sentence before the action. David Bower, deaf performer and artistic director of Signdance Collective, plays Quasimodo with an emotional depth and honesty that gives a new insight into this archetypal figure”
Colin Hambrook from a review on DisabilityArtsOnline
This venture set a precedent for a new burst of deaf creativity and performance within radio.
What followed were more plays commissioned by BBC Radio 4 with deaf writers and actors in hearing and deaf storylines, most recent of which is Dragonfly (2011).
Bower and Sign Dance Collective’s involvement have brought about new developments in sign theatre film – a visual portrayal of radio plays that sit alongside script downloads online. This has paved the way for networks to consider how they might visualise radio for a mass audience.