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Melissa Mostyn-Thomas is challenged by the business of casting / 22 February 2011

Experimental shot of a foetus punching out

Experimental shot of a foetus punching out

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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. 

Keywords: coda,deaf culture,film,risk taking,zoom 2011,