Meet Sophie Woolley who talks about her Cochlear Implant experience and her one-person show ‘Augmented’ about becoming a cochlear implanted ‘cyborg.’
"The world also seemed augmented in the first few weeks after my Cochlear Implant was switched on. I loved the world when it still sounded strange."
How would you describe yourself? Who is Sophie Woolley?
I am a Writer and Performer. I write plays for stage and radio. I also write fiction, non-fiction and sometimes journalism. I also make short films. You can check out my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/thismiserycantlast
and in particular 'Deaf Faker' series: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbwKukcTEBp2pKAj-sy6mF_Mek852KnN1
Watch a subtitled clip of my latest work - an early scratch of 'Augmented' here: https://vimeo.com/239118451
I inherited my progressive deafness from my mother. Our family deafness means we lose our hearing progressively from our teenage years. I was profoundly deaf in both ears by my late 30s.
Tell us about your career to date. How did you get to become to be a Actress?
I had an unconventional career path to becoming an Actress. When I left university I read my short stories at a cabaret where my friend played in a band. I liked performing so I started creating performance art character monologues. I performed them in nightclubs and literary events. I got Music Producer friends to make backing tracks. I satirised the dance music scene of the late 1990s. I wrote satire about youth culture for style magazines and zines.
Soho Theatre’s 'Nina Steiger' spotted me, performing monologues. She invited me on a writers attachment for a year. I began writing and performing in my own plays in theatres, as well as BBC Radio 4.
During this time, I was becoming severely to profoundly deaf. I was using Interpreters and Palantypists more and more. All my plays were 'Creatively Captioned' as I didn’t want to perform in shows that I would not be able to see myself. Creative Captioning is a combination of subtitles, text descriptions, and pictograms. Their purpose is to ensure an inclusive theatre experience for the audience. Here are example videos about my own creative captions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOgw6JZ7woc&feature=youtu.be
I’ve performed my plays in London at the Soho Theatre, Hammersmith Lyric and the Southbank Centre. I’ve toured the UK, Europe and Russia. I was cast in Channel 4’s Cast Offs series as Gabby and after that, I got an agent.
Whats a typical day in the life of an Actress?
I have an agent and sometimes go to auditions, but I am busy writing my own parts most days. Recently though, I worked at the Barbican. This was with a wonderful Theatre Company called, 'Told by an Idiot'. We did a lot of comedic improvising.
Since I got my Cochlear Implant, I have been doing more professional training. I missed out on this when I went deaf and got into performing.
Today I was working with a Movement Director and a Choreographer. This meant that I was dancing around the rehearsal room to loud music!
Alongside acting you’re a Writer, tell us about your latest projects.
The title refers to the fact that, that sometimes, I think, that I can hear better than hearing people. and also because I can Bluetooth music direct to my auditory nerve. The world also seemed augmented in the first few weeks after my Cochlear Implant was switched on. I loved the world when it still sounded strange. Now it sounds ordinary again.
I have now completed the Augmented work in progress sharings at Ovalhouse, Kennington Oval, London. I am getting feedback from other deaf and hard of hearing people. I will use that feedback to create the full production which will tour in 2019.
Tell us more about your Cochlear Implant. How has it changed your life?
I have an Advanced Bionics Naida on my right side. I never expected to ‘get my hearing back, but that’s how it feels. I no longer feel isolated but more independent and powerful.
By the time I had my Cochlear Implant, I was almost totally deaf. I could not follow speech without a Sign Language Interpreter or Palantypist. Now, I have just below normal hearing which is tremendous.
The implant has changed my everyday life in the following ways:-
I no longer feel anxiety. A lot of mundane situations used to make me feel anxious.
I can follow most speech without using a Sign Language Interpreter or a Palantypist. This means I can spend more time on doing my job (or having fun!) instead of organising my access, or feeling exhausted from lipreading. I still sign with my family and D/deaf friends. Sign Language and Deaf culture is still part of my life.
I can understand speech without lipreading.
I can follow talk radio, and pick up incidental speech. If a Train Guard says something, for example, as they walk away, I will hear what they say. It’s amazing how much crucial information is exchanged between people as they walk away or as you walk away from them! 'Incidental hearing' has been hugely life-changing for me. I don't miss out.
I no longer avoid social events or family events with dread. I look forward to socialising. I don’t feel exhausted after socialising.
I got to know my husband and can hear his family better.
I enjoy music again. It sounds the same as I remember it.
I can hear well on the phone, the same as I used to. I can even handle call centre calls. I actually enjoy those calls, which some people think is a bit strange!
My speech has changed since my implant. I can also check my speech volume effectively now. Pre-implant I could not speak loud enough in noisy places. My hearing aids made me feel like I was shouting when I was just talking quietly. This meant hearing people could not hear my voice when there was background noise.
I use Advanced Bionics Ultra Zoom in noise, which helps me know how loud to speak. I know when to adjust my voice volume automatically so people can hear me. It also helps me focus on the person speaking in front of me in noise.
I’m able to have long, nuanced conversations with people. I no longer have conversations which entail writing things down in notebooks.
There are times when I am tired and there are certain situations when I don’t hear well. But I am assertive from my years of going deaf, so I don’t like to put up with feeling left out.
What have attitudes towards your hearing loss been like?
When I was younger and hard of hearing, the reaction, amongst people, when I said I could not hear would be that they thought I was making a joke. When I was totally deaf and heard nothing, my deafness was more believable. I was less ‘confusing’ for people when I was totally deaf.
When I was using Interpreters and Palantypists and more ‘out’ about my deafness at work, attitudes were positive. I didn’t have these access provisions in my everyday life though!
Since I had my Cochlear Implant, I realise now that most of the hearing people in my life didn’t understand how deafness affected me. It was only after I got my Cochlear Implant that people saw a change in my personality, as I became less withdrawn. Deafness was invisible. Out of sight out of mind.
Throughout this journey, I was lucky to have deaf family members and Sign Language.
Do you use any technology with the Cochlear Implant processor?
I use a the Phonak ComPilot to stream music direct to my auditory nerve.
How have you found the music experience with the Cochlear Implant?
It’s wonderful! I remember what music sounded like, it was a big part of my life and work. I’ve been working with sound designers and composers recently. It’s great having involvement in that part of the arts again. Electronic music was the easiest to rehabilitate. String instruments took longer.
Classical concerts now sound as I remember. They sounded artificial for a good while. I enjoy music that I didn’t know pre-implant. I do not enjoy stadium concerts yet. I go to the Proms and I go to gigs.
Tell us about life before the Cochlear Implant. How did you manage in your career?
I was 'winging it' for too long. Then I had to get hearing aids and start using Access Workers. I wore two hearing aids from morning till night. I used Sign Language Interpreters and Palantypists for meetings. This applied even to simple one to one meetings. I preferred Sign Language Interpreters when I worked as an actor. I preferred Palantypists when I worked as a writer. I had to become very organised. This makes me a good person to work with!
What’s your favourite line from any movie?
My favourite line is from the movie 'Arsenic and Old Lace... "Where did you get that face? Hollywood?"
What advice would you give people who want to get into your field of work?
Most of my work at the moment is about making the work happen. D/deaf and disabled people are good at making jobs for ourselves. Try and engage with other people’s work, go to see things, and build networks. Things take a long time to make happen. Specific projects take years from start to finish. If you put something in a drawer, it is not over. Keep a spreadsheet of contacts with a note on how you know them, or about your last contact with them. Be on time.
How would you describe your creative style?
Hard hitting comedy drama.
Name one thing that drives you crazy.
I've noticed that many people have low standards and don’t mind if the sound is not perfect. I went to a movie and the sound was out of sync. It drove me up the wall as I’m a strong lipreader and it was distracting. The hearing audience were not bothered. Whilst they were all crying due to the film's sad ending, I was just livid about the sound being out of sync.
What inspires you at the moment?
The radical movements of marginalised groups and the arts.
Any funny stories about Cochlear Implants?
My play about my Cochlear Implant will be funny. I hope! The jokes are all on me.
What skills and techniques have you applied in your career?
I used to be a good mimic before I went deaf and I used different voices. When I went deaf I still used different voices. I’m doing some work when I can now on my voice skills. I’m having some more sessions with an accent coach very soon.
Sophie's Project blog:
Photographer for Augmented Photos:
Headshot photo by Justin Munitz.
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