By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Actress and playwright Aimee Chou was born profoundly deaf.
Even with the help of hearing aids, she needs to read people’s faces, paying close attention to lip movements and breath pauses, to understand others. She learned ASL (American Sign Language), but not until her 20s.
Chou’s first full-length play, “Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead,” plays at Sound Theatre Company, where Chou also works as public relations manager.
She was born and spent her early years in Los Angeles. Asked about the deaf community in LA, she admits, “I had zero exposure to the deaf community in LA, so unfortunately I can’t answer this question!”
She learned to communicate using a set of approaches collectively called “oralism,” which emphasizes lip-reading, and avoids ASL, which comes under the opposite heading, “manualism.” One of the leading proponents of oralism, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, insisted that ASL left the deaf cut off from the hearing—despite Bell having both a deaf mother and a deaf wife.
“There were, and still are, some fiercely held beliefs, often perpetuated by the medical industrial complex and certainly A.G. Bell’s misguided legacy, that oralism is the best (if not only) path forward for all deaf and hard of hearing children,” Chou said. “As a child, I’ve benefited from speech therapy. I’m no absolutist. But I believe oralism-only paths aren’t ideal for every deaf child. Whatever path a hearing adult chooses for a deaf child, they should listen to the perspectives of deaf adults and not just the medical field.”
She moved to Eastern Washington as a teen.
“For reasons I can’t remember, 12th grade me decided that the UW made the most sense out of the other college options I had. Go Huskies!”
After graduation, she worked in nonprofit communications/marketing, editing, journalism internships, and as a writer in various capacities—search engine optimization, freelancing, and as a theater administrator. Being the only deaf person in the office wasn’t easy, but she’s thankful for speech-to-text apps and closed-captioning on teleconference meetings, both of which proliferated during the COVID years. (Of course, the technology isn’t perfected yet. The title of her play refers to a common electronic misinterpretation of “deaf” as “dead.”)
Up to her 20s, Chou had no exposure to theater. On a whim, she tried out for a production of Abused Deaf Women Advocacy Services, and got the lead.
“Oh, I was clueless. I did not know what ‘blocking,’ ‘tech rehearsal,’ or ‘light cues’ meant. But once we closed the play, I got my first (and not last) case of post-theatre depression!”
She took a beginning playwright workshop through Deaf Spotlight, focusing on short plays at first.
“Once you see actors walking around the stage uttering your lines, you get … well, addicted.”
“Autocorrect,” her first full-length play, concerns three deaf roommates, who stumble across a teletypewriter phone or TTY—a now-outmoded device for the deaf to communicate over the telephone. The machine comes to life, dispensing what appears to be spirit messages, from Alexander Graham Bell himself.
“Several years ago, some friends were discussing experiences using a TTY at home,” she said. “I thought, how weird would it be to commune with the spirit of AGB through a phone device that he did not invent? And that premise took on a life (not deaf) of its own from there.
“It’s campy horror, not inspired by specific shows. There’s a lot of random pop culture references and some lowbrow humor sprinkled in, though. An audience member described it as a ‘darker, wittier version of Scooby Doo. I’ll take it!”
The play got workshopped at Sound Theatre as she disciplined herself, developing structure, character arcs, and payoffs.
“I send gratitude and Advil to the “Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead” team for putting up with my many script revisions.”
She also counts herself lucky in securing director Howie Seago.
“Howie and I ping-ponged ideas for this script well before casting, design, and other pre-production was even underway. He is a veteran deaf artist who brings so much passion and ‘What if…?’ ideas into this project. My writing can be dense and cerebral, which Howie helped to simplify and balance out with physical comedy beats.”
She won’t rule out acting again in the future, but seems committed to writing over the long haul.
“As I told a deaf friend recently, I love writing stories that involve actors, especially deaf ones (so probably no novels or short stories for me, but never say never).
“Someday, I’d love to try my hand at writing screenplays for TV/film, and doing devised co-writing projects.”
“Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead,” plays through Sept. 30 at Sound Theatre Company, 1620 12th Avenue in Seattle. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit soundtheatrecompany.org/2023-season/autocorrect-thinks-im-dead.