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Afternoon Play: the sign version of 'Shall I Say a Kiss?'

Tuesday 28 June 2011, 14:28

Polly Thomas Polly Thomas

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Couple kissing

I'm in the radio drama studio in Cardiff and there are four people falling about laughing about a joke they've just shared - and I've not got a clue what was so funny. They are signing, and I don't, to my great chagrin.

It's one of the many highlights of Shall I say a Kiss?, a project that started when I met Lennard Davies, an American professor, and he casually mentioned that he had some old love letters between his deaf parents, written in the thirties. Ever the radio drama producer, I asked to read them. I was blown away.

The letters were plain in style and to the point, touching in the openness and the simplicity of the problem - how to make a trans Atlantic relationship work - but heightened by the fact that the two people involved happened to be deaf. I asked leading letters radio dramatist, Vanessa Rosenthal, to write a treatment, Radio 4 gave us the commission and we were off.

Which brings me to the studio. Having spent two days recording the sound, we then filmed a sign version, in collaboration with Sign Dance International. David Bower, one of the lead actors in the radio, Isolte Avila, Jacob Casselden and Laura Goulden are the performers for the sign film version.

We were all very proud of the audio drama and wanted to make it accessible to as many people as possible. It made particular sense to bring this particular story to the attention of Deaf people.

Sign Dance International specialise in using sign in performance. The sign team spent two days in studio, David performing with Isolte supporting communication in studio, whilst Laura and Jacob observed the roles and the style of the performance. It was fascinating to watch hands flying, faces focused and the absolute concentration of communication without sound - a doubly powerful experience in a radio studio.

For the sign film, the four performers shared the roles, sitting in a row, reading the script from a screen, and signing as they went. The audio was playing, while Jacob rested his feet on the speaker, picking up some of the rhythms of the speech, which helped him synch his signing to the audio.

My job was to scroll the script on a laptop, projected onto a large screen, whilst my colleague Eleri McAuliffe used a pointer to mark which speech the audio was at. There were some false starts and mildly hilarious moments, as my scrolling suddenly leapt five pages ahead and Eleri's arm went slightly numb. However, we got there, with a lot of patience from our performers, me rapidly improving my rusty typing skills and Eleri taking a few arm rest breaks.

It was fascinating to watch a radio drama come to life in a different performance style - to get a glimpse of the drama as it would be experienced by deaf audiences. The energy and dynamism of the characters and the scenes all came alive in a new way, opening up the possibilities of the drama.

We emerged from the sound and sign studio exhausted but exhilarated by the experiment. I still haven't found out what the joke was, though...

Polly Thomas is a freelance radio drama producer who made Shall I Say a Kiss? for radio drama at BBC Cymru/Wales

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