Monday, July 13, 2009

Interview with Deaf Playwright Willy Conley

Playwright and Gallaudet University Professor Willy Conley feature deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing characters created
from the Deaf perspective in his latest work, "Vignettes of the Deaf Character": And Other Plays by Willy Conley Gallaudet University Press; 1st Edition edition (May 15, 2009). His work has also been recently featured in Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology, John Lee Clark, Editor (March 2009).

Because I often believe I am the luckiest girl in the world, I actually met Willy Conley one morning on the Gallaudet shuttle while heading to work. He recognized me from my blog (giggles... how dorky for THE Willy Conley to recognize ME!). I get overly excited when I receive emails from famous people so you can only imagine my excitement sitting next to him. As I always do, I asked for an interview.
************************ Check out my interview with Willy Conley below************************

SPW: Will you explain when you started writing poetry and plays? I read that you noticed how most of the NTID plays were written by hearing people and that was how you became inspired... I'd love for you to elaborate on that.

WC: I believe I wrote my first poem while in college – a sappy, Hallmark-type of poem that I wrote for my mother (who can hear) to send to her on Mother’s Day. It wasn’t until after I took a course in poetry that I began to learn about reading and writing “real” poetry. Real poetry for me involved poems that stimulated my eyes, imagination, and feelings more than my ears. Sure, if I wrote something that rhymed, followed a traditional poetic formula, and sounded cool to the ears, fine by me. But, if I wrote something that was visually or emotionally stunning or provocative, that was a real poem for me.

My first play was written in parts on a big Greyhound bus after I graduated college and was on tour as an actor for three years with the National Theatre of the Deaf. We performed in plays typically written by famous hearing playwrights who originally thought of hearing characters talking in English. If you think that’s an absurd situation for a group of mostly Deaf actors who communicate in American Sign Language – you are right!

As a Deaf actor, it felt artificial to act in a role originally written for a hearing actor from the hearing point of view, no matter how much adaptation was done to get me to fit the mold. After traveling around the U.S. performing in over 500 shows to mostly hearing audiences, I decided it was time to get formal training in playwriting. I then went to graduate school at Boston University to study playwriting. Lucky for me, my teacher, Derek Walcott, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is a poet and a playwright. I wanted to be able to write plays with deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing characters created from the Deaf perspective. I loved the opportunity to create art with my own characters born out of little sparks of imagination and found pieces of everyday life – this is every playwright’s dream, deaf or hearing. To have that live, moving, three-dimensional art put on stage before an audience would double the thrill. I imagined opportunities for more Deaf theatre companies and university theatres to produce works by Deaf playwrights, which in turn would create more jobs for deaf and hard of hearing people.

SPW: How did you first become published?

WC: In college, I took a course called, Deaf Characters in Literature and Film from the phenomenal, well-known Deaf professor, Dr. Robert F. Panara (you can read about his awesome life and teaching career in:“Teaching from the Heart and Soul”). He taught us how to look for the “Deaf Experience” in the books we read and the films we watched. We would closely examine each to see if a “Deaf Experience” was real or fake to us. Then, he asked us to write an essay about a specific Deaf Experience that we had in our lives. Since I was a Biomedical Photography major at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), I wrote a story about my experience as a medical photography intern called to photograph open-heart surgery, and trying to lipread doctors and nurses who were wearing face masks. Panara gave me an “A” for the paper and encouraged me to submit it to RIT’s literary magazine, Symposium. I followed his advice and notched my very first piece of published writing. It is a very special feeling to see a part of your imagination and/or real-life experience become concrete and real on the pages of a book. It is sort of what the famous diarist once wrote: “We write to taste life twice.”

SPW: I’ve admired Panara’s work for some time now. Tell me what type of research do you do for your plays and your poetry?

WC: Generally, my research involves studying my own feelings about life as well as people from all walks of life -- paying close attention to how they behave, dress, communicate; figuring out what they like or what bothers them. If there is something technical that I need to learn more about -- like the history of bomb shelters -- I go to libraries to read up on them, take notes, and make photocopies, if necessary.

SPW: What do you hope that readers will learn or take away from your work?

WC: That the experience, or imagined experience, that you write about is uniquely yours, whether you’re D/deaf, hard-of-hearing, hearing, male, female, straight, gay, black, white, green or purple – no one can take that away from you.

SPW: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your poems for the first time?

WC: Try to imagine that you are looking at photographs, or watching a movie clip.

********************************************************************************* For more information about Willy Conley or to buy his book, follow this link that describes the book and receive a promotional code to receive 20% off.