Hearing Eyes

– Willy Conley ’98 MFA, celebrates deaf identity and culture both on and off stage 

Willy Conley

Willy Conley is a professor of theatre arts at Galludet University.

Willy Conley grew up hating theater.

That’s a jaw-dropping revelation from an award-winning playwright, actor, director, scholar, teacher, poet and—most recently—novelist.

But for a deaf kid in 1960s Baltimore, plays were just another exercise in exasperation.

“One of my earliest memories is seeing an outdoor production of “The Lost Colony” in North Carolina,” Conley recalls. “My parents and I were so far back in the amphitheater that the actors were practically the size of ants.

“Try lip-reading an ant,” he quips.

Conley is the most widely produced, living deaf playwright, with 13 plays and nearly as many awards and nominations to his credit.

Diagnosed at age 3 as profoundly deaf in both ears, Conley communicated through pantomime, gestures and lip-reading. “The audiologist thought I had enough residual hearing to take advantage of hearing aids, which would enable me to attend public school and learn to speak,” he says. (The Conleys were strongly advised against sending their son to a deaf school.)   

Willy Conley now says of his mainstreamed K-12 years, “I don’t know how I got by. There were so many gaps in my educational and social upbringing.”

Decades later he’d create a performance piece at TU about how he’d once misunderstood the Pledge of Allegiance, an experience professor emerita Juanita Rockwell remembers as “heartbreaking, yet absurdly comical.”


Conley’s aversion to theater persisted until he was in college and saw a play he actually understood: a sign-language production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with an all-deaf cast. “I was able to see the language of theater for the first time, and it moved me,” he explains. The love of deaf theater led to love of deaf culture and the formation of his own deaf identity. 

While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biomedical photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Conley made time for sign-language plays and theater-related literature courses. 

The idea of a career in the fine arts hadn’t yet entered his mind.

Then, toward the end of his senior year in 1981, a casting director came to RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) to audition deaf talent for a national tour of “Children of a Lesser God,” then a wildly successful Broadway play about the love affair between a hearing teacher and a young woman who is deaf.

“I auditioned for a role and got a callback on Broadway,” Conley says. “But then I graduated. When a couple weeks passed without any word from them, I accepted a job offer in Texas.”

Later he heard that the producers had called NTID to offer him a role.

Conley devoted five years to biomedical photography, first at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and later as senior medical photographer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills.

The skills he honed while creating a photographic record of surgical procedures, hospital patients, body parts and autopsies may seem too clinical to apply in the theater, but he’s happy to refute that notion.

Conley, who is signing “write,” has both deaf and hearing audiences in mind for his plays.

Conley, who is signing “write,” has both deaf and hearing audiences in mind for his plays.

“Photography requires thinking in pictures, color, sequences, balance and composition, focus, and mise-en-scène,” he explains. “That visual aesthetic still informs my work.”   

While working in hospitals—and navigating a sometimes-clueless hearing world—Conley wrote, taught and stayed involved with deaf theater. He landed a small role at Galveston’s Strand Street Theatre and took American Sign Language (ASL) scene study courses and deaf acting classes in Los Angeles.

But the theater eventually claimed him.

The emergence of automatic cameras and the digital revolution—along with the realization that he’d hit a glass ceiling—marked a turning point in Conley’s life. “When photography became a lot easier, everyone became a photographer,” he says matter-of-factly.

He resigned his job at Cedars-Sinai, enrolled in the National Theatre of the Deaf’s summer professional school in Connecticut, and was chosen to join the company following a second season in training. He spent three years on the road, then studied creative writing and playwriting at Boston University, earning his M.A. degree in 1991. 

Exploring the visual at TU

By the time Conley applied to Towson’s MFA in Theatre Arts program in 1995, he was a member of Gallaudet’s theatre arts faculty and a renowned playwright. “I was on tenure track and needed a terminal degree,” he says. “I saw that Towson had a brand-new MFA program directed by Juanita Rockwell that focused on intercultural/interdisciplinary theater. They were into nontraditional theater forms, particularly visual and nonverbal types of stuff.”

Conley was the first deaf student to pursue an MFA in theatre at Towson, says Rockwell, now freelancing full-time in retirement. The university provided interpreters, as required by law.

“Willy Conley came into our program an accomplished performer and playwright, with a keen interest in experimental work,” she recalls. “Our program—with its expansive definition of what theater is and can be—was much friendlier for artists of differing abilities, cultures and approaches.”

Rockwell describes Conley as “an extraordinary gift to the MFA in theatre program and those of us who got to work with him.” She cites as an example the conference he co-produced, Visual Playwrights Retreat, which brought together deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing artists to ask themselves how they could create theater that begins with the visual, rather than theater that adds the visual as a translated afterthought.

“It was a revelatory few days,” the former director says.

Conley was impressed with Rockwell’s vision, leadership and teaching. He also was pleased to find that one of his TU professors, Jay Herzog, knew ASL. “With Juanita’s acceptance, plus Jay’s knowledge of ASL and deaf culture, I felt comfortable and inspired during my three years at Towson,” he says.

Both Conley and Rockwell point to producing Conley’s thesis play, “Falling on Hearing Eyes: a Museum of Sign /Anguish for People with Communication Disorders,” as particularly memorable. “I was so lucky to have Juanita direct it,” Conley says, “and to have fellow student Eric Beatty as an artistic collaborator/actor in developing the play with her.”

That year Conley and his collaborators were invited to bring the play to the National and Worldwide Deaf Theatre Conference. Rockwell says of the conference, “Willy and Eric were wonderful performers, and learning about the history of deaf culture was a profound experience for me.”

Since graduating from TU, Conley attained the rank of full professor in Gallaudet’s Theatre Arts Department, where he continues to teach while working on his craft. He is the most widely produced, living deaf playwright, with 13 plays and nearly as many awards and nominations to his credit. 

Conley recently added his first published novel, The Deaf Heart, to an already dazzling resume. (See box above.)     

A uniquely deaf perspective

Still, he remains acutely aware of being an outlier—a deaf man determined to enlighten as well as entertain.   

“As a deaf playwright, I incorporate the authentic viewpoint of a deaf person,” he says. “A deaf playwright introduces nuances, sign play, believable deaf and hard-of-hearing characters, and ASL poetry. And a deaf playwright includes a larger number of deaf characters or characters than can easily be performed by deaf actors.”

Most of Conley’s characters are deaf males, a rarity in plays, film or TV.  “Audiences seem to be more sympathetic/empathetic with deaf females as ingenues, victims or so on,” he adds.

But he’s also quick to point out that his plays are “consciously and painstakingly written with both deaf and hearing audiences in mind.

“I wish hearing playwrights would work as hard to make their plays accessible to deaf audiences.” 

By Jan Lucas, Associate director of publications in University Marketing and Communications. Photos by Kanji Takeno.

DeafHeart-bookThe Deaf Heart, a novel by Willy Conley, chronicles a year in the life of Dempsey “Max” McCall, a deaf biomedical photography resident at a teaching hospital in Galveston, Texas.

“Whether deaf or hearing, I would like readers to absorb ‘the deaf experience’ from Max’s unique worldview,” Conley says. “I also want them to realize the universal human experience of overcoming obstacles and prejudice.”

“Willy Conley’s novel is rich and gripping, handsomely capturing the deaf aspect of human experience.”
—David Hays, founding artistic director of the National Theatre of the Deaf

Conley tells Max’s story through a series of quirky, irreverent short stories and letters home during the early 1980s. Outgoing, confident, and with a sharp wit, Max brings the reader along on his journey through friendship, dating and loss—and sheds light on what it means to be deaf.

“It never ceases to amaze me how little the general public knows about the various types of deaf people in the world and their struggles and joys in everyday life,” Conley adds.

“This book has truly been a labor of love.”

Source: Gallaudet University Press

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