Film & Cinema29th January 2015

Two Worlds Video Shows Attitude is Everything

Producing a music video with a signed interpretation provides a powerful link between hearing and deaf people

by Sarah Lawrence

‘Two Worlds’ was created out of the love, care and understanding that a couple have for each other. Their lives and backgrounds were different, but the performance demonstrates how strong mutual feelings can pull people together in a celebration of what they share, whilst still valuing and supporting individual identity. The musical talents of Alex Vann (hearing) and the artistic performance of Gary O’Dowd (Deaf) combine beautifully, sharing their deep feelings with appreciative audiences.

Born at either ends of the country, Gary and Alex were to meet in The Greyhound pub in Wolverhampton in the Summer of 2006. “I had seen Gary signing and wasn’t sure if he was Deaf or an interpreter,” Alex explained. “Gary wrote his phone number on a beer mat and put it in my back pocket when I wasn’t looking! I sent a text the next day.”

Through their initial text contact, Gary told me that Alex thought he was a French man, as his texts followed BSL structure rather than English grammar. Arranging to meet for the first time afterwards, Alex did not know any sign language but explained how they made it work. “I had a piece of paper at home with the sign alphabet from a training course I’d been on 2 years earlier and I learnt that before our first date. We communicated by writing text messages on our phones and taking turns to show the messages. That’s how we got to know about each other. At the end of that first date, I finger-spelled my name and Gary was really shocked and asked why I didn’t do it before. I said I was nervous and didn’t want to get it wrong!”

Signing up to learn BSL at Wolverhampton College afterwards, Alex jokingly commented, “Gary was an expensive date!”

I knew I would have to learn sign language to be able to communicate effectively so I enrolled at Wolverhampton College and studied Level 1 and Level 2. Gary was an expensive date! One of two deaf brothers born into an otherwise hearing family, Two Worlds draws on Gary’s experience and the difficulty of communicating within the family setting. “I started to learn to sign at the age of 9,” Gary said. “I was a late developer - my mother was concerned about me being able to communicate. I met a nun named Sister Angela who worked at the local deaf centre, she suggested to my mum that maybe I should attend a Deaf school so she agreed to visit – it was Northern Counties School for the Deaf in Newcastle.”

“She took me with her to look around but I really panicked – all the children were signing away, but I didn’t understand it, so I clung to my mum! Mum and Sister Angela decided to leave me by myself for a couple of hours, initially I panicked when they left, but the children there were lovely. I had seen some of them before at the Deaf centre, they showed me some basic signs like ‘my name is…’. Later, when I got home - I told my mum I loved the school and I realised that the language the children were using was MY language, so I started at the school and learnt to sign, quickly becoming fluent. My mum learnt to sign too. This made me very happy.”

Moving on to college, Gary was exposed to the ‘hearing world’. Panicking initially, he made new friends and taught sign to some of the students. “I realised," He told me, “that I could live in two worlds, with my Deaf friends who would sign and with my hearing friends who would pick up bits of sign or write notes.”

With Gary passionate about drama and acting, it is no surprise that when he met Alex, who had a passion for art and music, that their combined interests would come together to produce something meaningful. A singer/songwriter Alex was working in a school which took part in Learn to Sign Week. With Gary he made a short video about deaf awareness, which was well received, resulting in both of them writing the song ‘Two Worlds’. “We always knew we wanted to film ourselves performing it, me signing and Alex singing,” Gary told me.

Asking Alex about the initial idea of Two Worlds, he said, “Right from the first time we’d met, Gary talked about the ‘Hearing World’ and the ‘Deaf World’. I told him I didn’t really like that definition because it sounded negative: like a division and that the two worlds couldn’t get on together. I never see people by their ‘labels’ I only see the person so it was difficult for me to grasp the concept of separate worlds.”

“Gary spoke a lot about his upbringing and it sounded quite isolating. I’d read Paddy Ladd’s book ‘Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood’. It was really interesting to see things from the Deaf point of view in a ‘hearing world’ and I’d like to thank Paddy Ladd for giving me this insight and through that, his influence on the song and video Gary and I produced. As I learnt more about Deaf culture I could understand that definition of ‘Two Worlds’ more and I actually began to see it as a positive thing. Yes there are these two worlds - and aren’t they both wonderful in their own ways?”

“It was obvious to me that there was an interesting story here - a very personal one but one I hoped other people will connect with. In fact, it was Gary who said we should write a song about it. It was always imagined as a signed piece because it’s all about sign language. A video was the obvious medium of getting it out in the world because we wanted Deaf and hearing to have equal access.”

Describing his feelings, Gary said, “I feel I am involved in hearing and deaf worlds in my life. Both are important to me and I respect both hearing and deaf cultures. I felt we should write this song to tell the world this. I enjoy performing the song to hearing people and show them that I am just a Deaf person and I am normal, same as hearing. I just can’t hear - that is all. Deaf people can be equally involved in music - through signing.”

The first ‘official’ public performance of Two Worlds was done at the Artsfest in Birmingham in 2010. Performed to a mix of Deaf and hearing people, both Alex and Gary felt it was job done when in unison at the end, the hearing audience clapped and the Deaf people waved their arms in the air, using the signed way to applaud. Fine tuning their performance following feedback from people in the industry, Two Worlds has been well received with people close to the couple removed to tears.

Our first live performance of the song Two Worlds was at ARTSFEST in Birmingham, 2010. There was a mixture of Deaf and hearing people in the audience. Afterwards the hearing people clapped and cheered and the deaf people shook their hands in the air – it was a sense of two communities coming together. We had some really good feedback. Fine-tuning the performance, Gary and Alex have received positive feedback, reducing their close family and friends to tears with the beauty and emotion of the story when they performed it to them..

Summarising their journey with Two Worlds so far, and looking forward to more deaf awareness projects, Alex said, “The point we wanted to make was that it is possible for barriers to come down between 2 totally different cultures – just by taking the time to learn about each other - and specifically learning to communicate meaningfully. We are very proud with the final result, because we are totally independent and self-financed so we did everything on a shoestring budget. We borrowed equipment: cameras; lights; tripod and even made our own scenery. We wanted to show people that with little resource and money you can actually achieve something wonderful and to have the film shown around the world at festivals is proof of that.”

​They are now planning a new signed music video and are inviting people to get involved if they want to appear on the video, with different people signing a section of the song. If people are interested in appearing in this film, all they have to do is contact Alex or Gary through their Facebook page or via their email addresses, Alex: Gary O’Dowd:

The Two Worlds music video is shown above but if you can also access it here:

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Entertainment / Film & Cinema

29th January 2015