When Willy Conley researched the character he plays in Center Stage's production of "As You Like It," he didn't just study the play, the period and the character's background, he also studied deaf history and how signs and gestures were used in Shakespeare's day.
Conley, a Baltimore-born actor, director and playwright, has been profoundly deaf since birth. He plays the rustic character of William - the only deaf cast member in artistic director Irene Lewis' version of the Shakespearean comedy, which begins performances Thursday.
Conley is a former lead actor with the acclaimed National Theatre of the Deaf, and this isn't the first time he has been the sole deaf actor in a Shakespeare play. In 1991, he played Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and, a year later, Caliban in "The Tempest" at Rhode Island's Westerly Shakespeare-in-the-Park.
"I played Puck as a character who had an extra language element," says Conley, who has excellent speaking abilities, but uses an interpreter to translate a reporter's questions. "Caliban was a deaf character who had his own island language and spoken language with Prospero."
Early in rehearsals, he was still investigating his approach to William, who appears only in the last act of "As You Like It," but whose role has been expanded somewhat in this production. "Maybe he's uneducated or maybe he has a speech impediment or maybe he only gestures," suggests Conley.
An associate artist at Center Stage, Conley, 40, is a bearded, balding man with an easygoing manner. He will deliver William's lines in sign language. Because William is a country bumpkin, he expects to bring "a more grass-roots" or "gestural" element to his signing. For example, he may use more exaggerated facial expressions and include slapping sounds.
Robert Dorfman, who plays Touchstone, the court jester, in the Center Stage production, describes the interaction between his character and Conley's as that of two clowns. A former clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Dorfman expresses a professional's appreciation for Conley's sense of humor. "He's an irreverent and very funny man," Dorfman says. "He's for trying anything, which makes me feel good because we'll find the true comedy in the scene."
Director Lewis, who asked Conley to audition, adds, "He is just a vibrant personality on the stage and very smart. This is an unusual individual, ... somebody unafraid."
Acknowledging that Conley's part is small, Lewis says, "We wanted to start with something we could get our hands around to see how complex this is going to be."
But Lewis, who also cast a deaf actor in her New York Shakespeare Festival production of "The Skin of Our Teeth" last summer, has big plans for Conley. Center Stage has applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant aimed at working with Conley on Paul Claudel's 1909 play, "The Hostage." "I put into the grant that I was interested in extending this relationship because Willy himself is interested in not just acting, but in how the hearing and nonhearing can be incorporated into the same piece," she explains.
Conley will probably not use speech in "As You Like It." (In at least one case, his lines will be spoken by the character of Audrey, William's former sweetheart, while he signs.) The actor, however, often combined speech with signing at the National Theatre of the Deaf. And while there has been some controversy in the deaf community about including speech on stage, he says, "I really believe any actor, whether they're deaf or not, should use all of their potential communication faculties."
The son of hearing parents, both retired educators with the Baltimore County schools, Conley attended mainstream public schools all the way through Towson High School, where he graduated in 1976.
He didn't learn sign language until he began college at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. Though he graduated with a degree in biomedical photography, he became interested in theater at Rochester. In 1987, he gave up his successful photographic career to join the National Theatre of the Deaf.
After three years with the Tony Award-winning company, he enrolled in graduate school at Boston University to study playwriting with Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott.
"I could still be traveling with the National Theatre of the Deaf and writing plays in hotel rooms and small-town restaurants, but I'm really glad I got some formal training in theater, in my writing. I've gotten some plays done, and those plays have hired other deaf actors and deaf directors."