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Blind playwright plays with sound and memory on the radio

Damon Rose Damon Rose | 10:49 UK time, Monday, 19 March 2012

Alex Bulmer

Traumatic memory loss is innovatively brought into sharp audio focus on Radio 4's Afternoon Drama this Tuesday.

Noise, by blind writer Alex Bulmer, tells the story of Kit, who is returning home after a long stay in hospital and whose mind is gradually feeding her important clues as to why she lost her memory... and who might be to blame.

Alex co-wrote the 2008 version of Hunchback of Notre Dame for BBC Radio 4 and is part of the Bafta-nominated writing team behind Channel 4's disability drama series Cast Offs. Noise is her first original radio drama for the BBC.

After a recent workshop, she came up with the idea to write a play driven by sound, rather than mainly dialogue. Alex wanted to write about someone decoding and understanding the world through sounds, similar to the way she herself does.

She spent time making recordings with a sound engineer and, Alex says, the story gradually emerged:

"Everyone who has worked on this project has realised how challenging it is to create a character who has no memory, and in audio only. To make her the driving force of the story but also keep her vulnerable was hard. The fact it's radio means you can't rely on visual images to tell the audience she is confused and we were all determined not to use any voiceover from the character."

Kit is in hospital and making good progress after being found unconscious in a local park one freezing February night. A hypothermia-induced memory loss has left her unsure of herself or her surroundings. With the help of hospital therapist, Helena, and her fiancé Dan, Kit returns home, but something isn't quite right....what is that strange piano melody that keeps penetrating her consciousness? And why is Dan so insistent that she stay indoors? What is the wooden object in the living room that Dan doesn't want her to touch? And who is Matt, the man who keeps calling?

The story is woven together using half-remembered noises and repetition of speech. Playwright Alex was drawn to using a character with traumatic memory loss after discovering that, like her, they can be very sensitive to sound.

Now in her mid-40s, Canadian born Alex is blind after experiencing gradual sight loss from the age of 25. But will she be using these newly discovered audio techniques in future drama productions?

"On some level I have been writing like this for the past five years because, in my progression as a blind person, I've become more and more positive and confident with how I receive my world in an original way, and I've become more confident about using that to inform my work. It's about what my blindness gives to me as an original perspective."

Her play My Garden has been selected as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad at South Bank, to be performed by Graeae theatre company, and Alex has other projects in the pipeline.

We often hear that disabled actors find it hard to get work, does she believe that the same goes for disabled writers?

"I think there's still a political tendency in the disability movement to lean towards casting as the big issue. I'd really like to see that same urgency also given to writing; an urgency to get writers in, and directors also, to inform storylines. I think it's equally, if not even more important, that people writing a script have knowledge. That's not to say you have to be disabled to write a disability storyline but you can do it in a particular way.

"Noise is aesthetically informed by my experience of blindness, as well as the subject itself. So I'd really love to see more disabled writers."

Alex Bulmer's Noise can be heard on Radio 4 at 2.15pm on Tuesday 20 March.


  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Alex,

    It sounds like a wonderful story and I very much look forward to hearing it. As an 'undeclared' disabled writer myself (lyrics for contemporary music / opera etc.), I have to date enjoyed the support of the brilliant BBC, without whom I fear the world would be a lesser place. I love the power of radio and will be listening with the many thousands of others for whom radio and the power of words can have no competition.

    Break a leg!

  • Comment number 2.

    What a fantastic story, I know that sound is a fantastic thing and she is able to make a picture up in her mind of the sound. I don't know anyone with this type of disability but a family friend had to go through a traumatic operation to repair his heart. I have found a great resource with lots of additional information.


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