From going deaf in her 20s to being activated/switched on as a real-life 'cyborg', Sophie Woolley's brand new play, Augmented, is a personal story of the joy and conflict of becoming 'hearing' again due to a cochlear implant after years of total deafness. All performances are captioned, audio described and relaxed.

We caught up with writer and solo performer Sophie Woolley about Augmented Productions’ first play.

You call yourself a ‘deaf cyborg’. Why is that?

“I grew up hearing and became completely deaf over a number of years. So, I learnt to sign and to lip read, but then I had a cochlear implant in one side and it allows me to follow speech and speak on the phone, as the other person’s voice is bluetoothed directly into my brain. So it seems very futuristic. I started calling myself a deaf cyborg quite early on, so I had the implant in 2013, and when I was ‘switched on’ the way things sounded felt like science fiction at first. I felt like I was living instead a science fiction novel, but it was actually happening to me. As I adapted to my new identity, I wanted to name myself because people were asking if I was ‘big D’or ‘small d’; if I was hearing or if I was D/deaf too - and I felt very strongly that I was a completely new thing called a deaf cyborg.” 

How has the cochlear implant changed your life on a day-to-day basis and in relation to D/deaf and hearing cultures?

“I definitely have an increased sense of agency. It has definitely changed the way I see hearing culture because I definitely had hearing people on a bit of a pedestal before. I’m not saying they’ve fallen off the pedestal, but I think I understand them a little better now. Groups in hearing cultures appear very chaotic and spontaneous to deaf people like myself, while I was always trying to get information in advance and plan ahead. Now I better understand how easy it is for hearing people to be what I would call ‘chaotic’. I definitely have more every day connections with more people too. As I was going more deaf I would have difficulties but just try to get on with life. To do that I needed a water off a duck’s back approach, which definitely had a numbing effect. 

“The world is definitely a warmer place now I have my implant, but I’m hoping to bring my experience of being a deaf person into the hearing world. One thing I like to do is ask a lot of questions because I’ve avoided asking questions in the past because it was so hard to understand people. I’d been deaf for so long but I’m not afraid to ask questions and to answer them too. I think that a lot of hearing people aren’t sure about D/deaf culture and experience and I think if we all asked more questions of each other face-to-face then we’d all understand each other more. I’m also a big fan of speaking plainly!”

Why did you want to write and perform in Augmented, then; what drove you?

“There’s a lot of visceral fear of ‘cyborgs’ and people becoming more merged with computer and technology. It certainly has its own stigma. I’m not a freak. I’m the future of humanity and it’s going to be happening more often the more we advance medically - and that can only be a good thing. With Augmented I really wanted to address the stigma head on by speaking as myself and telling my story, rather than having other people appropriate the cyborg narrative and equating it with everything that’s bad about society. I wanted to show both the joy of being a cyborg and the complexity. It’s not just about posting a video of yourself crying on Youtube or social media after being switched on and hearing again. It was a very sudden transformation that didn’t just affect me. My husband is hearing and learnt to sign. My mother is also deaf, so we had our own D/deaf culture at home. So everyone in my family also had to adapt to a completely transformed person. It was more difficult for them after I got the implant than, for example, if I spoke to a stranger in the shop because that person would never have known. So it’s a show about transformation and how to adapt to that.”

And why take the title Augmented for both your company and its inaugural production?

“I know sometimes that if you have a prosthesis or an implant people think it’s very trans-humanist, almost as if you’ve been upgraded. I definitely don’t feel that way because I don’t feel in any way superior to D/deaf people. Augmented refers to some kind of enhancement and is also a term in music, but it’s mainly about a shift. So things sound as I remember, but when I take my implant off I hear nothing and I’m also very aware that the sounds I’m hearing are augmented. If I go back to the hospital and have a new sound map put on my processor the world sounds completely different again, but is also recognisable at the same time. I see this as a reflection of how there are many parallel realities and they’re different for everyone - and obviously that’s a huge element of storytelling and theatre in itself.”

Do you see the accessibility of theatre - both productions and the venues themselves - improving?

“I’m working with one of the best directors in the country, Rachel Bagshaw, and she has a disability herself, so she understands very deeply my journey. She’s also very keen on productions that are captioned and audio described. When I started making shows with subtitles embedded within the very design it wasn’t very common, but now I definitely see more people doing that. Disabled access in theatre is improving. Companies are becoming more creative about making their shows accessible to all. Also, there’s a lot of interest in identity politics in the world of theatre at the moment and there’s a real hunger for people to tell their stories. There’s a really exciting explosion of new stories, new cultures, new paradigms and new narratives in the theatre that is only going to expand.”

To finish, how do you hope audiences respond to Augmented on the immediate and longer-term levels?

“I thought really hard when I was writing Augmented about how to make sure that the narrative could be understood by both people with no knowledge of disability and D/deafness and those people who are D/deaf or have disabilities, so I’m really proud of that. Augmented is going to surprise people because I think I’m being really bold in what I’m saying. I’m speaking my own truth rather than just following the same line as everyone else. I know that’s going to be a lot of other people’s truths too. I’m putting a lot of difficult to say things into this performance. I’ve had varying responses that are mainly that an audience member has learnt something new, or some people even see it as a disability rights show. It’s also really important to me that it’s a text written by a D/deaf person and a lived experience of being a deaf cyborg. I’m sometimes approached by people who are writing about it and want to do a science fiction show and want my advice, but this is a story I really wanted to exercise some control over.

“On the longer term, I hope that the word is spread about cochlear implants, particularly to people who are going to benefit from them. There’s a lot of older people in the country who are going deaf and don’t realise that a cochlear implant could benefit them. It’s available to people at all ages and it’s life changing technology. I think I also show how deafness can impact families and how they can find strength in their bonds with D/deaf or hard of hearing loved ones.”

Augmented runs at Birmingham REP from Monday 9 – Wednesday 11 March.


Lauren Cole