“My name is Sophie, and I’m a deaf cyborg.”
The rrramble team head to Unlimited Festival @ Southbank Centre, from the comfort of their respective sofas, to join the watch-party and post-show Q&A for Augmented – written and performed by Sophie Woolley, and directed by Rachel Bagshaw.
Unlimited is a festival which celebrates the artistic vision and creativity of disabled artists.
I’m reticent to admit that it’s taken me until lockdown no.3 to watch a ‘zoom’ play, but the weary start to 2021 felt like it was the right time to start engaging with the ‘new normal’ way that we’re all consuming arts and culture. Perhaps I’ve been reluctant to engage with all this virtual culture because a part of me naively believed that surely by 2021, we’d all be living our best lives (but with a bit of social distancing and face-masks thrown into the mix). Alas, how wrong I was. And although nothing will ever compare to the live arts (live is the key word there), the virtual semblance of a live event is actually a great alternative. And luckily, Augmented didn’t disappoint.
In this one-woman show, Sophie Woplley begins by non-chanantly addressing the audience, stating that she’s a ‘deaf cyborg’. It’s not the first line you’d expect from a play, but my slight surprise is perhaps down to a few factors; from not having engaged with many stories which explore d/Deaf and hard of hearing communities, and from my own limited perspective as someone who is hearing, who has never had to really consider what life could be like if it were the alternative.
And that’s really where the power of theatre lies. For a suspended moment in time, Augmented gave me a glimpse into a new perspective of a world that on a daily basis, I evidently take for granted. Through this autobiographical account, she charts her journey from childhood through to adulthood, from her initial denial of going deaf, ultimately leading to her decision to get the cochlear implant from a ‘surgeon who probably has one of those god complexes’ (Woolley’s trademark humour is droll, and it works).
Subverting yet more expectations, it is the sound design that really makes this show immersive, reflecting both the sometimes perplexing nature of the external world and the conflict of Sophie’s inner world. A particularly distressing scene takes place in a nightclub in her teenage years, created by the lone sound of pulsating electronic beats. As she dances the night away – refusing to accept her deafness- the backdrop of a dystopian sounding drone adds to her increasingly confused and distressed state, and the subsequent breakdown of communication she experiences. In contrast, there are euphoric, twinkling synths that are the soundtrack to her first experience of hearing the cacophony of sounds on the London underground after receiving the implant. It’s a beautiful, surreal scene that makes me realise the power of just truly listening and the backdrop of life we regularly don’t tune into. Plus, Woolley has a real knack for whipping out poetic lines like ‘We are all keys of a grand piano and raindrops falling into a London gutter’.
For a lot of her life, Sophie Woolley learnt to communicate by lip-reading and signing; she knew that internet ‘match man’ was the one because he was learning to sign, even if it was ‘scottish sign and she couldn’t understand a thing’. But her story reveals that just getting a hearing implant isn’t necessarily the solution that will solve everything; she asks the audience ‘why would anyone write a play about this?’ But her even having to ask that question is exactly why we need a play, about this.
Sophie knows that not all people with the implant will refer to themselves as a ‘deaf cyborg’, and she knows that everyone’s hearing journey is different. But seeing her empowered to tell her story was a wonderful experience to share with the Southbank Centre community. And in case you’re wondering about zoom play etiquette, I can confirm that people type ‘bravo’ and ‘rapturous applause’ in the chat bar, giving you that warm fuzzy feeling you get after sharing an intimate experience with a group of strangers.
If I’m being honest with myself, I have been in desperate need of a good laugh. With the looming presence of Lockdown #3, I’ve been forced to find a routine which allows me to cling on to my sanity whilst I navigate through the dreary winter days. The cost for following this routine? Not much room for the kind of excitement or playfulness which often comes hand in hand with stifled guffaws or booming belly-laughs. As I returned to my computer screen last night to watch Augmented, after a day of working from home and staring at the same screen, it’s safe to say I was feeling a little jaded. Little did I know that, in the company of Sophie Woolley, there’s no way I’d be down for long…
Sophie Woolley is objectively, thoroughly, and undoubtedly hilarious. Her comedy is unassuming, astute, and Augmented is oozing with the kind of authentic, gritty observational humour that we Brits are so proud of. Woolley’s humour particularly shines when talking about how she met her boyfriend (now husband) ‘Match Man’, and the earlier days of their relationship – particularly how they communicated via Sophie’s minicom to Scouse revoicer to her boyfriend (cue fits of laughter as we hear a gruff Scouseman’s voice reading Sophie’s gushing ‘I love you’s’ to Match Man on the other end of the line). Woolley also shares with us the story of proposing to Match Man at the top of a tower, ranting frustratedly: ‘I have to ask my boyfriend to marry me; he’s never going to ask me because every time we go to a wedding I complain about how much I hate weddings!’. Classic.
Despite the many chuckles Augmented gave me, which I am ever so grateful for, it would be incorrect for me to insinuate that this show only makes you laugh. In fact, it’s much more nuanced. Augmented is a celebration of the wonderful chaos of real lives and real people; with (often dissonant) multilayered identities. Often, it seems it is easy for us to forget that the people around us have full lives of their own, with just as much complexity as ours. In Augmented, Woolley challenges this notion by baring every aspect of her life (no matter how messy the links between her identities are), and so we see Sophie as a writer, a performer, a child, a sister, a wife, a hearing person, a deaf person, and a cyborg – often simultaneously. It’s refreshing, and – although not all audiences can directly empathise with Sophie’s life story – it feels validating to see someone else whose life is not black and white, and is instead a cacophony of clashing and complimentary colours.
Throughout Augmented, Woolley suggests that in the future, we’ll see a world where many hearing people opt for a cochlear implant simply because it’s so cool – ‘I was streaming music direct to my auditory nerve, can anyone else here do that? Woo, cyborgs!’ – and further ahead, a world where everyone is a cyborg in some way (which was emphasised again in a wonderful post-show Q&A with Woolley and Bagshaw). As much as I’m excited for such a wondrous, augmented future; the thought I’m taking away from this show is about what opportunities d/Deaf and disabled people miss out on because their needs are not being met, or because we have a created barriers for them – unintentionally, or otherwise. Woolley, after telling a story about how she was stuck in a room with one of her idols – Jon Ronson – and couldn’t communicate with him because her interpreter was off sick, says: “I can’t be me without an interpreter. I can’t be me.”. It’s not a new take, but it’s one that bears repeating: go away from this review and look at the social model of disability; we absolutely can, and must, do better.
This was my first ever Zoom play experience, and I am not familiar with Sophie Woolley’s work. The fact that it started at 7:30pm, the regular time for evening shows (which I got really used to working at a theatre for three years pre-COVID), made me feel pretty emotional in itself. In the waiting room before the show, I scrolled through all the different faces of people watching; just little photographs representing everyone snug in their own bedrooms. Before the performance, a press release flashed up on the screen broadcasting a peak in Coronavirus cases: I’m not sure if it was intentional or an accident but it added to the apocalyptic-y nature of watching theatre online. Despite this, I was so happy to be able to watch Sophie’s play as it made me feel so much more comfortable living in a now largely technological world, with her describing her own emotional, awkward and funny experiences of living in this kind of a reality.
Sophie came on to our screens to introduce the performance with some gorgeous electric blue neon lights behind her. She introduced the audio describers and the British Sign Language interpreters and laid down the house rules. When the performance started (they recorded the final live showing of Augmented before COVID struck), she invited the audience to come in and out of the space and to move around freely if they needed to, her words popping up on a screen behind her. The inclusivity of the piece added so much more depth to her performance; you could tell that she wanted this to be a story for everyone. My brother has special needs and I have always loved taking him to the theatre; it is amazing that Sophie made the stage into a completely inclusive space, and also utilised this inclusivity to advance the aesthetic of the piece. It made me wonder why something like this could not be a requirement for all shows. The stage and her outfit were the same shade of electric blue, the colours transporting everyone into her technologically advanced existence.
We proceeded to travel with Sophie as she danced through her life, transitioning through the different worlds, identities and art styles of her hearing, d/Deaf and then hearing-again self. In the Q&A afterwards, Sophie said “ironically I’m less talky in my writing when my hearing came back” and that some of her characters, such as DJ Bird, “were a masking of hearing change.” It was really fascinating to see all of these starkly different performative identities.
At the end of the play Sophie says to the audience “I am your future and it is cyborg.” She spoke about how she could see d/Deaf people in the future moving on to something more advanced than cochlear implants, but that cochlear implants would alternatively be used by hearing people. Augmented presented an inversion of deafness as a benefit that I had never thought about before, she spoke about being able to connect her bluetooth speakers to her implant to hear music inside of her head, “tuning out the sound of a baby crying on a plane”, about how “sensitive” hearing people are to unpleasant noises. One of my favorite lines from the play came from Sophie’s mother who says “each generation has found its own way to be in the world.” The tone of the play is ambiguous: despite “deaf cyborg” Sophie’s positive outlook on cochlear implants, the play suggests the sentiment of Sophie’s mother that every person has their own personal strategies, all with equal value.
Getting to watch plays online kind of feels like a social augmentation, it feels like we are all social cyborgs at the minute. Watching Sophie’s performance helped me to find the beauty in this.
Click here to stream Augmented, available through Southbank Centre until the end of day January 15th. The show is BSL interpreted and captioned, audio description is available. For more inclusive, accessible performances from the Unlimited programme (online events, and on demand) click here. Available from 13th-17th January.
To read more about the social model of disability, click here.