Seattle playwright Aimee Chou shares Deaf culture through humor

A spooky house, a Ouija board and the suspected ghost of Alexander Graham Bell appear in Chou’s horror-comedy, premiering tonight with Sound Theatre.

A woman wearing a black dress and with long, dark wavy hair smiles at the camera. A pink to purple color gradient is on the photo.

Playwright Aimee Chou’s new show, ‘Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead,’ follows a group of friends who move into an old house and experience strange occurrences. The play is told in American Sign Language and spoken English, with English captions. (Laura Dux)

It’s tempting to trace an artist’s origins back to a significant spark of interest. As a child, they took to fingerpainting, wearing tutus around the house or strumming a parent’s guitar. And voilà, their life as an artist was destined. 

But playwright and actress Aimee Chou never went to the theater growing up. Her parents weren’t interested — and besides, the theater wasn’t accessible for people like her. People who are deaf.

“You might say I’m an ‘accidental theater artist,’” she says in a video for Deaf Spotlight, a local organization focused on Deaf representation in the arts. “I grew up mainstreamed — no exposure to ASL, no exposure to Deaf culture and definitely no exposure to Deaf theater.” 

This interview is part of our Summer Artist Talks. Read more artist Q&As in the series.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Chou didn’t learn ASL as a child, instead relying on what’s known as the “oral method” or “oralism.” Popularized in the mid-19th century, this now-debated educational technique uses speech therapy, elocution and lip reading to teach deaf people to communicate verbally as hearing people do. 

“I remember that I would be sitting in the front of the class, staring at the teacher’s mouth, just trying not to miss anything,” Chou recalled in her interview with Crosscut. 

It wasn’t until after completing her degree at the University of Washington (in 2006) that Chou decided to enroll in a sign language course. She recalls being in an ASL classroom at Seattle Central College in her early 20s, struggling with the grammar, feeling embarrassed by how slow she was at fingerspelling her name and feeling like she didn’t fit in with the Deaf community.

Talking to her now (through an interpreter), it’s hard to believe Chou once struggled with the language — she signs expressively, taking up the entirety of a Google Meets screen with her hand movements.  

By 2011, Chou had become more involved with the Deaf community, and spontaneously auditioned for a play staged by a local nonprofit for deaf domestic violence survivors. She got the lead. It was then that Chou’s Deafhood journey became intimately intertwined with her theater journey. 

Hooked, she continued acting — landing roles that weren’t originally deaf characters but that were rewritten into them when she was cast — and translated scripts into ASL, some of her fondest theater memories. 

Chou now resides in Lynnwood with her partner and two children, one of whom is also deaf. She’s moved from acting onstage to writing original scripts, including two short plays: Humanly Possible, which imagines a robot ASL interpreter (performed at the Deaf Spotlight Short Play Festival in 2019), and Plumb Crazy Pipe Dream, highlighting the water crisis in Flint, Michigan (performed at the Deaf Spotlight Short Play Festival in 2021)

Currently the public relations manager for Sound Theatre Company, Chou will debut her first feature-length play with the company this month. Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead (Sept. 7 - 30), named for an inside joke within the Deaf community, is a horror-comedy that features a majority deaf and hard of hearing cast and crew.

The play follows a trio of friends who move into a spooky house in Salem, Massachusetts. Inside, they find a teletypewriter machine, or TTY — a now-obsolete device invented to help deaf individuals send texts over standard telephone lines. 

After playing with a Ouija board (“You couldn’t pay me a million dollars [to do that],” Chou noted), the trio experiences strange occurrences that lead them to believe the TTY is haunted by the spirit of the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell — who though married to a deaf woman advocated strongly against deaf people marrying each other for fear of creating “a defective race of human beings.”

In this interview with Crosscut, Chou sheds light on what it’s like to be deaf in a hearing world, the importance of Deaf representation on stage and screen, and what she hopes for the future of Deaf theater. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Aimee Chou (left) and Omar Faust (right) work on a production at the Deaf Spotlight Short Play Festival in March 2023. (Jason Tang)

Crosscut: What was your experience with theater growing up?

Chou: Honestly, it’s kind of a painful question for me to answer because when I was growing up, I didn’t really have any exposure to theater. My parents are immigrants — they’re Asian immigrants — and they never went to the theater. 

And I’m Deaf, so that meant accessibility with theater was nonexistent. There was nothing available for me to go to. So my first real entrance into the theatrical world happened after college. 

I did feel that immediate spark when I went into that world. I can be another person for two hours on stage and I loved that aspect of it. I could dive into my creativity and I had a good connection with other people. 

You started as an actor. And now you’re a playwright about to stage your first full-length play. Do you have a preference for acting or writing? 

At this specific time in my life, I prefer the playwriting. I have more control of my schedule, which is very nice. More importantly, I believe that the playwriting can really impact who you're hiring for the project. 

Throughout history, there’s [been] many hearing actors that put on a mask of being a Deaf character. That’s not fair to Deaf community members. But [as the playwright], I can say, “No, you have to have a cast of people that are authentically Deaf for the Deaf characters.” That feels really empowering.

In accordance with your script, the majority of artists working on Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead are deaf or hard of hearing. What was the scouting process like? 

There’s opportunities [for Deaf actors] in New York City and the East Coast, but over here in Seattle, it’s not really comparable. [But] there are many Deaf actors in the Seattle area, so I really wanted to make that opportunity available. We reached out to different Deaf communities. 

[In the play] there are a few characters who are hearing, but they have to be able to sign. So we were really looking out for different [ASL] interpreters for some of the roles — we were really trying to get them to join our cast. 

What inspired you to write a horror-comedy? 

I wasn’t always a big horror fan, until I realized that horror is a great medium for expressing traumas, for just expressing the story in a different way. You don’t have to be politically correct all the time with horror.

As for why I decided to write this script, I was inspired by reading a specific Facebook discussion. There were a few Deaf friends that I had who, growing up, used a TTY machine. When I looked back on those memories of the TTY — it was so slow, it was so loud. Hearing people, I realized, don’t have that experience. Many hearing people have no idea what a TTY even is.

Can you say more about how you learned to communicate?

I definitely want to emphasize that not all Deaf or hard of hearing people have this same upbringing. Some Deaf people have access to sign language from birth, right away, and other Deaf people never have access, or they decide that they don’t want to learn sign language. Neither of those approaches are wrong. 

I was born Deaf. I grew up using the oral method, and that means just focusing on speech therapy. I have a hearing aid on both ears. 

After college, I was struggling to really feel like I fit into the workplace, into a hearing-dominated culture — because everyone was talking around me and I was missing a lot. So I realized at that point that I wanted to learn sign language, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made for myself.

In Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead, Bell is a significant character. Why did you want to include him in the story? 

Alexander Graham Bell decided that sign language was not good, to not use it, and to focus on speaking only. That really started a cycle of oppression that followed for many years. It impacted the medical field, speech therapists, audiologists, doctors, EMTs. 

That’s one reason why I really wanted to include AGB into this storyline. I grew up never having the ability to decide for myself if I wanted to sign or if I wanted to speak or if I wanted to partake in both.

Many Deaf writers have already written about AGB. I wanted to subvert expectations with the phone — because he invented the phone, but Deaf people couldn’t use it. 

And the Ouija board, I wanted to include that in the play as well. It’s similar to a phone because they’re both communication methods … What if we could communicate with AGB now? What would he say if he got to see all of us now, and see that we’re signing, and see that we’re texting, and we’ve married other Deaf people? Like, wow, what a concept. He would be shocked.

Although the play is a comedy, there are plenty of serious moments. One of the characters has been in an abusive relationship. Why did you decide to write that in? 

It wasn’t copying from a specific person in my life, but many people in the Deaf community have experienced some severe domestic violence. They’ve experienced oppression, they’ve experienced an unjust power dynamic. 

We, as Deaf community members, are walking through a hearing world that has been set up to cater to hearing people. Sometimes … the system seems like it’s intentionally set up to provide barriers for us in the Deaf community. I hope that sentiment is clear in the script.

Do you find that you’re writing for a deaf audience or a hearing audience?

I’m very pragmatic. I’m trying to appeal to both audiences. In 50 years, maybe we’ll have hologram interpreters for accessibility — I don’t know. 

For the Sound Theatre Company to commit to the production of a Deaf play — that’s a big deal in itself. Many production companies might read a script and realize that it’s going to cost extra money to hire interpreters for accessibility purposes. They really do have to commit to investing in that accessibility. 

One big change that could impact the future of Deaf theater is if we provided more opportunities for Deaf playwrights, for Deaf directors, and not just actors. Being in the role of an actor is crucial, yes. But we also need more Deaf playwrights. 

I’m very excited that we have actually hired the first and only Deaf professional [set] designer in America — there’s only one [Ethan Sinnott]. And also the only Deaf professional lighting designer in the U.S. [Annie Wiegand]. To have only one in each field — imagine what the barriers must look like to only have one Deaf person in each of those professions. 

What are you hoping audiences will take away from the play? 

With the Deaf audience … I hope they feel personally seen and validated. For the hearing audience, I hope that their takeaway is to be able to have a better understanding of the Deaf experience. I feel like the bar for that is not very high right now. 

Because [I have] many Deaf friends that go to the airport, for example. They write down, “Hey, I'm Deaf,” and the airport will provide them with a wheelchair. Or they’ll give them Braille. And it’s like, why? 

In TV, movies, theater, we don't have enough Deaf representation. So I don’t blame the airports for their lack of understanding in this, but I do feel like media representation is very important. It can really change the world.

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