Sophie Woolley, is performing her work-in-progress show at Ovalhouse about going deaf, and going hearing again, after becoming a cochlear implanted 'cyborg'. What is it like to hear again? What happens to a person when 20 years of progressive deafness is suddenly reversed? The show is at Ovalhouse in London from 12-14 July, 2018, at 7:30pm (£5). Here's an interview we did below.
Growing up, I knew very little about deaf culture and only came to it late. It’s still little known outside the mainstream. What would you say to more typical people about what they should appreciate about deaf culture?
I grew up hearing and went deaf from my teens. Every deaf person is different. It's important to recognise that what works for one deaf person, doesn't work for the next. Hearing people sometimes ask how come I can speak, and then they compliment me. I accept most compliments but not that one, not in the way it is usually angled.
It's a backhanded assertion of hearing supremacy. It's kind of why I'm writing Augmented, my one person show. I'm asserting my deaf cyborg power.
I have hereditary progressive deafness. On my mum's side, we go deaf in our teens onward, on my mum's side. We sign and speak. we use what is called Sign Supported English. We can also use BSL.
If people are interested in learning more about Deaf culture, a good way is to do a BSL level 1 course. My husband learned to sign, and his brother and sister in law did BSL Level one. This gave them a good deaf awareness and empathy. If you can't learn to sign, remember to maintain eye contact when you speak. I write about that etiquette in my play, and what happens when I break the rule with my deaf mother.
In the first few weeks after my successful cochlear implant switch on, I was blown away by how hearing culture is often about speaking to people with backs turned, often from a distance.
In 2013, a week or two after switch on, something happened to make me realise I had recovered what is known as incidental hearing. I was on the bus, south of the river. I asked a mum with kids – do I get off next stop for Lewisham station? She said nothing, and I thought – bit rude. She bundled her kids off the seats and walked toward the doors to get off the bus. And then I realised, she was talking to me as she walked away from me. "Lewisham station is in two stops."
This will sound tiny to some people, but it's a big part of hearing culture. That busy mum made me realise that from now on, I would have more access to information and more power.
The privilege of incidental hearing is an invisible, structural barrier for deaf people. My incidental hearing is not perfect yet. I can't eavesdrop from a distance like some hearing people can. My 'listening bubble' is smaller than my hearing husband's.
You can also check out my Deaf Faker series on youtube, for some laughs about deaf awareness.
Over your life your hearing has profoundly changed. How has that affected your performance and writing practice, if at all?
I became profoundly deaf over 20 years. When I started working in theatre, I made sure my own shows had creative captions. I mainly wrote hearing characters. Later I began to incorporate some sign language (Bee Detective, Deaf Faker).
I wrote BBC Radio 4 plays. My last thing was a Radio 4sitcom called Absolutely Delish: Grazing. It aired in 2013 and I didn't listen to it until six months later, after my surgery enabled me to follow radio.
Deafness affected my practice in that I was spending increasing amounts of time on organising access or worrying about access. It's difficult to quanitfy how it affects your career, until you are suddenly able to hear again, to be able to make that comparison. That is what happened to me.
Did growing up in Glasgow influence you?
I left Glasgow aged 18 months, and never looked back. It made me tough, resilient and fond of sweets. I grew up in Harlesden in NW London. That influenced my early work. I lived in South Africa for a bit recently, and that has changed the way I experience British culture. I'm very influenced by my environment.
What was the first performance to make you want to write plays or to perform?
I was very influenced by comedy TV. I also used to like watching Fame with my little sister. We also taped Top of the Pops and re-watched it. Dallas and Dynasty and all the UK soaps were big in my mum's house. I also felt inspired by people I watched performing at Leeds University. I didn't have the confidence to join them. They are all doing well now and that feels good.
What was your background to becoming a writer and performer?
I fell into it after university. I started performing my short stories and found out I was good onstage. I had done a lot of theatre in primary school but I did not pursue it at secondary school. There were no school plays there.
What do you find hard to write or perform about?
I find it hard to write about my experience of deafness. It's taken me a few years years to find the voice for my new one person show about becoming a deaf cyborg.
What’s brought you most happiness and pleasure to write or perform?
I enjoyed performing When to Run, my first one person show. It was a long process to make but it was worth it in the end. I am now at the beginning of the long process for my second one person show, 10 years later. So far, so enjoyable.
What have been your artistic influences?
I write about what's around me. Music and nightclub culture was an influence when I started out professionally, I satirised and performed in that environment.
Favourite novelists include Tom McCarthy, Kit De waal, Deborah Levy, Irvine welsh. I like TV. I like the TV serial called World on a Wire by Rainer Werner Fassbinder? It's so good. I like Koleka Potema's poetry. I don't know if these artists have influenced me, but they have inspired me.
I have more theatre influences now that I can go and see the cutting edge work of my peers in theatre more easily.
Any hard lessons you’ve learned as a writer and performer? Any advice you’d like to give?
Look after your posture and avoid RSI. Pilates is better than yoga.
If you could change one thing about performing arts, what would it be?
Theatres should caption every performance when they get to full production.
What projects are you working on now?
Augmented, my one person show. The scratch performances are at Ovalhouse on 12-14 July. I also want to raise international backing to develop The Fake Interpreter, with dancer Andile Vellem, see https://fakeinterpreterblog.wordpress.com
Money no object, what project would you most want to do?
I'd like to make some international shows. One is performed in two countries at once.
I would make a romantic movie, set near a nuclear power station.
I'd also like to do some re-enactment of a particular moment on London Underground, that I like to think about - and have written about.
Is there a play or performance that has made you cry?
Not recently. Check out the Eagle Huntress on BBC iPlayer though!
Sophie Woolley, is performing her work-in-progress show at Ovalhouse about going deaf, and going hearing again, after becoming a cochlear implanted 'cyborg'. What is it like to hear again? What happens to a person when 20 years of progressive deafness is suddenly reversed? Here's a podcast with Sophie on her experience and on making the show:
The show is at Ovalhouse in London from 12-14 July at 7:30pm (£5). All performances are captioned with live palantype, and are relaxed performances. Facebook event link.