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Background Interview

(This interview was conducted in 2003.)

Question: Thanks for coming in.

Answer: Thank you for having me.

Q: Do you like to be called Mike or Michael?

A: I don’t stand on ceremony. Either is fine.

Q: So, READING LIPS. Tell us: how did the play come to be written?

A: Whew! There’s an open-ended question if I ever heard one! (laughing)

Q: I don’t mean to put you on the spot –

A: No, no, I like it! It’s the kind of question you dream of – I can talk for hours. I’m just afraid your readers won’t be able to put the paper down.

Q: Don’t worry. I get to edit.

A: I knew that. (laughter) “How did the play come to be written?” Well, it’s a bit of a story. Several years after I came out [as a gay person], my father told me that as hard as my being gay had been for him, being deaf had been even harder. I was stunned because I always assumed any problems with my family were caused by my being gay. But here was someone telling me that being deaf actually made him angry. When I couldn’t hear, he thought I wasn’t “paying attention or just didn’t try hard enough.” Talk about turning points in your life. I just sat there, nodding, and all the while thinking to myself: “That was it? That was it?” I just didn’t know what to do with this information.

Q: So you decided to write the play?

A: The play didn’t even occur to me until a few years later. I just filed the whole conversation away and thought about it from time to time. Turned it over in my mind. Picked it apart. And I began to think about what an important part being deaf had played in my life without me ever being aware of it. I was mystified that something so simple and obvious as being deaf would be harder to accept than something far more confusing and secretive – such as being gay.

Meanwhile, I had a close friend in New York with a far more serious hearing loss than mine. He had a Ph.D. from Columbia University, where I was a graduate student. Exceptionally smart guy. But when it came to being deaf, he was back in the 1950’s: he had been brought up to believe that ASL (American Sign Language) was demeaning and demoted him to second-class status. So rather than “stoop” to learning sign, he tried to live in the hearing world. But that was an imperfect solution. Ultimately he became a loner, avoiding groups of people where his hearing loss would be noticeable and finding jobs where he could work by himself. How could someone so intelligent be so narrow-minded?

Then just after my 35th birthday, I had a kind of premature mid-life crisis: I had always thought the defining experience of my life was being gay. But I began to realize that being deaf had had far more impact.

Q: Must have been quite a shift in mind-set.

A: Totally. It made me see myself in a different way. Almost like coming out all over again – only this time, as a deaf person. I’d never thought of myself as “disabled” or “handicapped,” but suddenly there was a part of me that I hadn’t really paid much attention to. It sounds corny, but I actually began to take pride in being deaf because it has played a critical role in forming the person I am. But even after I started grappling with all of this, I still didn’t really feel part of the deaf community because I didn’t sign. And of course I also had problems in the hearing community. So the idea of writing READING LIPS came to me as a way of sorting out these feelings.

Q: Has it helped?

A: See the play. (laughing) No, really, it has helped. But even more importantly, other people find that it reaches a part of them too.

Q: You mentioned feeling a sense of pride in being deaf. Can you talk about that?

A: Yeah, well that was kind of a hidden plus. When you’re gay, you have to find ways to get over all the crap society throws at you. You have to seek out self-esteem because being gay is not exactly the kind of thing parents go out of their way to nuture, you know what I mean? So when you finally do deal with being gay, you feel this sense of satisfaction that people who never have to fight for their identity don’t get to experience. So there I was, 35 years old, thinking “been there, done that” on the pride stuff. And I thought, “Well, gee. Now it’s time to deal with being deaf.” It actually turned out to be an important part of the play.

Q: You mean the ending?

A: Yes. Bryan says, “Being deaf is a part of my culture. Like Stonewall.” And the fact that he signs the words as he speaks them makes the moment all the more dramatic.

Q: I remember at the discussion afterwards that some people didn’t know what Stonewall meant.

A: Yeah, well, live and learn, huh? (laughing) I mean, I respect that. But I just assumed everyone would know what “Stonewall” was because it means something very specific to gay people. So I had to find a way to explain it in the play. Even knowing that Stonewall was a bar where gay people fought back isn’t enough – there’s more that has to be conveyed. So it became a challenge: I had to find a way to work it into the script so people would understand what it meant without being too preachy.

Q: And have you?

A: I think so. The new version brings it out – actually kind of a funny scene.

Q: I have an advantage in that I’ve heard the play in a public reading. You really like to use humor, don’t you? Aren’t you writing about something very serious?

A: It’s a serious topic – no question. But I wouldn’t dream of making people sit through O’Neill or Ibsen to hear it. I want them to have a good time. I want them to recommend the play to their friends. So, yeah, I use a lot of humor. It makes people more willing to listen to the serious stuff.

Q: And there is a lot of serious stuff.

A: Don’t say that! People won’t come. (laughter)

Q: What I mean is –

A: – No, it’s okay –

Q: – People do laugh. But they know there’s something under the surface. And they want to find out what it is.

A: Well, that’s what I want to have happen. I want people to look at the world in a different way. That’s the ultimate test of whether a play is successful.

Q: Do you think this is a play for deaf audiences or for gay audiences?

A: You know, that’s another variation on a question I’ve gotten before: “Do you write comedies or dramas?” I never know how to answer that because I write about serious issues, but there’s always humor. Why should I pigeon-hole myself? Does Terrence McNally write comedies or dramas? I mean, I don’t hold myself up to him. But Love! Valor! Compassion! is hilarious and yet I don’t think anyone who sees it would call it a comedy.

So READING LIPS is not a play for deaf or gay audiences. Or I guess I should say, not just for deaf or gay audiences. After the last staged reading, someone wrote to say that he had seen himself in the play: he’s Asian-American and he has always been torn between identifying with the Asian community and the non-Asian community. And I thought, “Yes, that’s what I want to have happen: that people see something different about themselves.”

Q: That must have been kind of rewarding.

A: Very much so. And encouraging, too. I’ve always believed this play really has cross-over appeal, and this was one of those small things that re-confirmed it. But getting back to the issue of writing for gay audiences or deaf audiences. I’d be very foolish indeed if I wrote only for gay people or only for deaf people. I want to be successful.

Q: You want to make money.

A: Yes, absolutely. (laughter) I mean, what’s wrong with that? I want to reach as big an audience as I can. And I want for the play to be financially successful so I can get more work produced. Even if the lesbian and gay community were 20 percent of society – and that’s probably a little high – and if the deaf audience were, what, another 10 to 15 percent? That’s still 65 people out of 100 that I’d be ignoring. And I’m not willing to do that.

Q: Are you working on something else?

A: Yes.

Q: “Yes”? That’s it? You don’t want to plug your next project?

A: I don’t like to talk about what I’m working on. But I can tell you that it’s based on a wonderful book, Jeb and Dash, by Ina Russell. She took it from the diaries of her uncle, a gay man who lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Q: So this one really is a gay play?

A: Actually, it’s not. It’s really a story of “promise unfulfilled”, about a man who had talent and could have been a writer, but who kept putting it off. He won a writing award when he was about 24 or 25 and then never wrote again, except in these 50 or 60 volumes of diaries. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaker because I’ve seen the original diaries and some of the entries are sheer poetry. He could have done more with his life, but he procrastinated. That has nothing to do with being gay or straight. All of us ultimately have to be satisfied that we did as much as we could with our lives. And that’s what the play of Jeb and Dash is about.

Q: How much of READING LIPS is true?

A: You mean how much of it really happened to me?

Q: Yes.

A: Oh, I don’t know that it’s ever useful to speculate on whether an incident in a play actually took place. Because if I say I didn’t go to a school for the deaf, people might ask, “Well, how does he know about it?” I know because I researched it – I talked to people who have hearing losses greater than mine and who did go to schools for the deaf. I did my homework. The audience is better off asking, “Does this conflict ring true? Do I know these people? What do I see of myself in their situation?” Some of READING LIPS actually did happen. For example, there really was a woman who called me at work and then asked to speak to someone who could hear. And I really did say, “No, you have to talk to me.”

But I think an audience is better served when the playwright takes his own experience and puts it through a sieve to find a truth that other people can identify with. Because, as I said earlier, when the audience sees the world in a different way, then the play has been successful. And that’s the standard I’m willing to be held to.

Q: Truthfulness?

A: Yes. My obligation is to show people the truth. Then they can take from it what they will.

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Copyright © 2005 Michael Conley.  All rights reserved.