It is no coincidence that READING LIPS opens with the main character asking Am I a gay man who happens to be deaf, or a deaf man who just happens to be gay? Because that is the same question that playwright Michael Conley faced several years ago when he began writing the play.
And like the character in the play, he says, I always remember being deaf.
Conleys hearing loss 30% in one ear, 40% in the other is thought to be the side effect of a drug given when he was suffering from asthma as an infant. Unlike many children, however, the loss was diagnosed at the age of three, early for a time when many such disorders were not discovered until a child started school, or even later. As a result, he grew up with a lot of advantages that many other deaf children did not have: he was seen by ear doctors and started speech therapy lessons at an early age. He received his first hearing aid at the age of six.
The one thing he never had help with (nor needed help with) was how to read lips. When youre a child trying to figure out what people are saying, you have to find ways to make things work, he says. Reading lips was something that worked. It became second nature to me. Even now, I rely on it great deal.
For people with full hearing, a hearing loss is often difficult to understand. Indeed, the term deaf suggests that a person cant hear anything at all. Conley again: Some partially-hearing people prefer to say hearing impaired or hard of hearing to make a distinction. When I began writing this play, I asked people who were profoundly deaf if they minded me using the term. I didnt want to co-opt it if it was politically incorrect. Turns out that most deaf people arent hung up on terms, which is actually kind of a nice group to be part of when you think about it. So, Im deaf.
In the play, Bryan says, Its not that I cant hear anything. I just cant hear as well as everyone else. Conley says that line was written from experience. People are always surprised by what I can hear and cant hear. In fact, I can hear many people on the telephone. But because my particular hearing loss skips ranges, some sounds come across louder for me than for other people. For example, motorcycles are unbearably loud.
But the critical piece of information that doesnt come across is what audiologists refer to as sound discrimination. It is not unusual for a deaf person to be able to hear a voice and possibly even identify the speaker, but not to understand what the speaker is saying. Or not to be able to hear ordinary sounds that other people take for granted.
For example, I cant hear most telephones ring. At home, its hooked up to a flashing light and an answering machine. When I see the light go on or hear the outgoing message begin, I know I have a call. Depending on who is calling, I may have very little problem with the conversation or it may be incomprehensible. On the other hand, I dont get a lot of telemarketers.
That his hearing loss became apparent at an early age is especially noteworthy because he grew up in a small town of about 8,000 people. Junction City, Kansas, was not noted for ear doctors or even hearing aid dealers. In fact, my hearing loss was discovered during a visit to relatives in Chicago and I got my first hearing aid there when I was six. After leaving Kansas at the age of ten and living briefly in Chicago, he finished high school in Wilmington, Delaware, and graduated from the University of Delaware.
School was probably a lot more frustrating for me than it was for most people. And class work was only one hurdle: On a peer level, its hard to be the one who always says what? or pardon me? or excuse me? So I spent a lot of time as a kid reading books.
After graduating from college, Conley moved to New York to study film at Columbia University. I had always been interested in movies and felt fully prepared to take my place as the next David Lean. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars: I took playwriting courses and realized I liked theater a lot more than film.
For one thing, theater is far more stimulating the feedback is immediate and the writer knows right away whether a line or scene works. Playwriting is also where my strengths lie: people say Im good at writing dialogue and thats the part I enjoy the most.
Conley finished his coursework at Columbia and received his Masters degree in screenwriting. His thesis was an original screenplay about a gay man and a straight woman.
The subject of being gay brings him to the other issue that READING LIPS addressses. Im sure I had the same problems that every lesbian and gay person has to confront: family, friends, self-esteem the whole gamut. But for me, it was complicated by my hearing.
One of the reasons I loved living in New York is that its a great place to come out to deal with being gay. During his 12 years there, Conley worked on a broad range of fronts, including counseling newly diagnosed people with AIDS at the Gay Mens Health Crisis, serving on public relations committees for several organizations, and working with Dignity, the national organization of lesbian and gay Catholics. He wrote the first full-page advertisement ever placed by a gay organization in a national publication (Newsweek, in 1987). For five years, he was Assistant Director for Development and Education at Lambda Legal Defense, a public interest law firm that defends the civil rights of gay people and people with AIDS.
But the group that had the greatest impact on his development as a writer was Village Playwrights. I joined the group before it even had a name, he recalls. It was an incredibly creative group of people and a very stimulating time to be writing my first serious work was read there and my first plays were staged by them.
After moving to San Diego, Conley became involved with Scripteasers, a local playwrights development group. Since 1993, five of his plays have been given their first public readings by the group and three (including READING LIPS) have been staged.
When I arrived in San Diego, I was concerned about whether I was limiting my audience if I wrote gay plays. So I made a conscious effort to write about other subjects. For example, RUDOLF BING AT TWILIGHT explores the relationship between the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera and the opera singer, Maria Callas but from a different point of view: Bings. Im not an opera fan by nature so I had to do a lot of research to write BING.
But it was the plays about gay people that audiences gay and straight still continued to respond to most. After writing a series of short plays about gay men, he began to consider that perhaps he wasnt writing gay plays as much as he was writing plays about people who happened to be gay.
It always amazes me that black playwrights who write about the people they know best themselves are asked whether theyre limiting themselves by writing only for black audiences. Thats the same box lesbian and gay playwrights can be forced into. But the truth is that no writer sets out to limit his audience we all want as many people as possible to come and see our work.
Ultimately, it just made more sense for me to write about gay people because they are the people I know best and theirs are the issues I care about most. The fact that those were also the plays that audiences seem to enjoy most was a happy coincidence. That realization turned out to be a major turning point.
I already had several two-character plays that dealt with gay men, which had been grouped under an umbrella title, MEN ABOUT TOWN. I decided to expand these with two or three more pieces.
In fact, READING LIPS began as part of that series. But after working on it for a few weeks, Conley decided to expand it into a one-act play on its own, and after several more weeks, into a full-length, his first.
Ive seen too many plays that worked as short pieces, but which had been expanded to two hours simply so the author could call his work full-length. That kind of expansion usually cant be sustained. I was determined that I wouldnt write a full-length until I had something to say.
I really kept my eye on what I was adding to READING LIPS because I didnt want to end up with an overblown skit. But the more I added, the stronger it became. First I jettisoned the two-character motif and added a third actor to play multiple roles. Then a fourth. At one point, a man was reading the lines of the mother off-staged, but that bordered on camp so I brought in a fifth person, an actress. And thats where it crystallized in its first public reading two years ago.
Meanwhile, hes also been building MEN ABOUT TOWN. Three sections have already been staged in San Diego: FRANK TALK, EPIDEMIC EPISODES and FIVE ENDINGS (which was also staged in New York). Two more are nearly complete: FIRST DATE and POST MORTEM, both of which continue the two-character motif.
In the summer of 1995, Conley read Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, by Ina Russell. Jeb and Dash are pseudonyms for Ms. Russells uncle and his best friend, two gay men who lived in Washington, D.C., during the 1920s and 30s. The book is based on the diaries of her uncle.
For a number of personal reasons, Jeb and Dash stayed with me. Not only is it the story of a writer, but it also reclaims a part of history that of gay people within mainstream society. It was a book I could not get out of my mind. In May, 1999, Conley signed a contract to turn Jeb and Dash into a full-length play.
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