Local theatre group Sound Theatre Company, known for its emphasis on accessibility, is now presenting a new play by deaf playwright, Aimee Chou. Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead is a bilingual world premiere presented in ASL and English at 12th Avenue Arts, a space that includes both full wheelchair accessibility and COVID-19 health protocols.
In Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead, three deaf roommates must deal with mysterious messages received on a vintage teletypewriter phone (TTY) from Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish-born inventor who patented the first telephone.
“I got the idea for this play in 2019 after reading a Facebook thread with Millennial and Generation-Xer Deaf friends reminiscing about their experiences with TTYs prior to the era of Sidekicks and iPhones,” Chou said.
Growing up, Chou avoided her household’s landline phone, despite the costs of being disconnected from communication. “This play was kind of a way for me to reimagine an experience that most of my peers had,” she said. “I’m as scared of Ouija boards as I am of telephones, so I thought, wouldn’t it be hilarious to compare how similar those are?”
Chou’s play combines both horror and comedy. “Alexander Graham Bell, AGB for short, is often associated with trauma,” she remarked. “That history is a rich source material for horror.”
Meanwhile, humor is one of Chou’s biggest coping tools.
“Hearing or deaf, we’ve all had a beet — I mean, beef — with autocorrect,” she quipped. “So the universal experiences with technology turn an otherwise inside-baseball subject into something more universal, even to audiences who have no idea the man behind the telephone’s invention was an outspoken eugenicist who viewed deaf people as the ‘defective race.’”
Chou worked to balance the humor in her play against important subject matter. “It doesn’t shy away from themes of possession, control, structural inequities, domestic violence, and did I mention linguistic oppression and linguistic exploitation?” she said. “When you have numerous people with intersectional identities in the room, it’s impossible for their lived experiences not to impact storytelling approaches.”
The Sound Theatre production features a majority-deaf and hard of hearing cast and creative team. “Luckily, Pork Filled Productions and Cafe Nordo had a staged reading program in March 2022,” Chou recounted. “That’s how Teresa from Sound Theatre stumbled upon this play.”
Artistic Director Teresa Thuman brought in director Howie Seago to move the play from page to stage. “I was so seduced by the play’s title alone,” Seago recalled. “I knew the playwright’s brilliant mind, humor, perspectives, and creativity would create a totally unique play with fully-dimensional deaf characters who are not depicted as just being ‘lost,’ ‘pitiful,’ ‘dumb,’ or even overly heroic.”
Chou found that developing the play over time with different theatre companies has improved it.
“Thanks to great workshopping feedback, I realized I was subconsciously overcompensating for the reality that deaf-centered stories are rarely produced, thus rarely seen, in the mainstream, and by Jove, I was gonna squish as many of them into the plot as possible,” she admitted. “Telling myself there will be future opportunities to explore this other rabbit hole storyline was part of this process.”
The current version of the play narrows down the characters to a cast of six, including actor Van Lang Pham who plays two roles in the Ensemble: Dr. Bale and a Missionary. “Bale is serious and conflicted, while the Missionary is jovial and excited about his work in spreading the word of God,” Pham said. “Being able to play two very different types of characters in the same play is a fun challenge.”
Pham is the only actor in the cast who is not fluent in ASL, but the team has worked to facilitate communication. “We have interpreters in the rehearsal room, and they’ve been really helpful from bridging that gap, but they won’t be on stage with us when we open, so timing and picking up on cues for entrances and lines has been a really interesting experience for me,” he said.
“The most important thing I’ve learned as a result is a significantly larger understanding of deaf culture, access needs, and experiences my castmates face on a daily basis.”
All this has been to the benefit of Sound Theatre company, according to Senior Marketing Manager Aaron Jin. “Sometimes, the scripted miscommunications happening onstage match the cross-cultural collaboration as we figure out how to work with each other behind the scenes.,” Jin said. “We are centering deaf artists in this show, which takes cultural humility and learning from hearing counterparts. Ultimately, it’s going to make us a stronger company.”
Despite Sound Theatre being the ideal home for Chou’s play, as a playwright she still struggles with mixed feelings.
“There’s the imposter syndrome that comes with being an Asian American, disabled woman who gets produced,” she said. “One in five people in Seattle are Asian, yet there is still a CVS-receipt-length list of brilliant Asian playwrights that have yet to receive a full production in this city.”
That challenge is compounded for deaf artists. “I’m aware of the ‘hearing gaze,’ the default audience member has the perspective of a hearing person,” Chou said. “’Know your audience’ is practically the rule of law for any writer, but to be a deaf writer requires letting go of the rules, sometimes, even when every fiber of your conditioning tells you to play it safe.”
But Chou received further motivation from a white paper on Deaf representation in the media. “A lot of great data points but this one particularly struck me, that fewer than one in six deaf people have ever attended a live stage show featuring deaf characters or deaf performers,” she said.
And Chou says you don’t have to be hard of hearing to appreciate the appeal of reaching out to past generations. “Hearing or deaf,” she said, “we’re all trying to connect with the other side.”
AutoCorrect Thinks I’m Dead runs September 7 to 30 at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 Twelfth Avenue, Seattle.