Gallaudet University Press

Interview With the Author

Willy Conley
Author, Vignettes of the Deaf Character and Other Plays

GUPress: Were you always interested in theatre?

Willy Conley: No, I hated theatre when I was growing up. One of my earliest memories was seeing an outdoor production of The Lost Colony in North Carolina. I couldn’t hear the dialogue. To make matters worse, my parents and I were seated so many rows back in the amphitheatre that the actors were practically the size of ants on stage. Try lipreading an ant. I vaguely recall a lot of little figures in colorful historical costumes standing around in front of a stockade and some cannons going off. The booming cannons and smoke held my attention. We left in the middle of the show, not because I couldn’t understand a damn thing on stage but because some lady sitting behind us threw up on my mother. But, at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, I finally understood my first play—a sign language production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with all deaf actors. I was struck by the poignancy of life in an insane asylum, with the subtext of how deaf people were once thought of as being dumb or crazy. The passionate expressions of deaf actors using ASL moved me. As I attended more and more sign language plays, my appreciation grew for deaf culture and the theatre. I fell in love with the theatre and have been in love ever since.

GUPress: What are your thoughts on hearing actors playing deaf roles? What about deaf actors playing “hearing” roles?

Willy Conley: It makes the hair on the back of my neck bristle. Obviously, there are far more hearing actors than deaf actors and just as many available roles for hearing actors. So, when the rare opportunity comes up to cast an actor for a deaf role, I say, “hearing people please step aside and let deaf and hard of hearing actors audition for the role.” No one thinks twice about casting a white person in a black role nowadays—it’s passé, and it should be so for hearing actors in deaf roles.

I have no qualms about deaf actors playing hearing roles as long as it is done well and convincingly. In this situation, the playing field is even.

GUPress: Where do you get your ideas?

Willy Conley: From light bulbs! Just kidding . . . from studying people—their problems, movements, and behaviors; my family and friends; whatever environment I am in; and the media. I tend to become a sponge and absorb everything around me. I find that being open to serendipity brings a ton of ideas.

GUPress: Do you think more theaters will become more accessible for deaf people?

Willy Conley: To me, full access in the theater means a deaf audience member can get a total theater experience by receiving language or information directly from the actors on stage. That would mean that the actors would have to be signing on stage or performing in a purely nonverbal and visual way that requires no language. For deaf audiences, I see more and more theaters making an effort to provide partial, although reasonable by legal definition, access in the way of sign-interpreted performances. And some places, like the Kennedy Center, have open captions. As for deaf theatre artists, getting access to gainful employment in professional theatre has been a thick, high wall that has taken decades to break down. It is slowly coming around. For example, Synetic Theater—a hearing visual theatre company—offered to provide a sign interpreter for deaf actors at a recent audition. As it turned out, they ended up casting a deaf actor for an upcoming production at the Kennedy Center. That was a major breakthrough for us.

11:7 Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Where the Edges Meet

A New Study of Sign Language Interpreting Identifies Linguistic Characteristics

In Prosodic Markers and Utterance Boundaries in American Sign Language Interpretation, Brenda Nicodemus shares her groundbreaking research on these linguistic elements in American Sign Language (ASL). In this volume, the fifth in the Studies in Interpretation series, she discusses the prosodic features of both spoken and signed languages that indicate rhythm, stress, and phrase length as conveyors of emotion.

“The focus of this book,” explains Nicodemus, “is ‘where the edges meet’ in language. Specifically, it is an examination of sentence boundaries in ASL interpretation and the signals that cue Deaf people to these boundary points. As Fadiman (1997) suggests, the ‘frictions and incongruities’ at boundaries are interesting for what they reveal about the larger picture. Boundaries are especially crucial in the larger picture of communication because individuals rely on these points to segment a language stream into constituents, such as topics, phrases, and sentences that make discourse more comprehensible.”

Divided into seven chapters, Prosodic Markers and Utterance Boundaries opens with a brief discussion about ASL, the Deaf community, and signed language interpreters, while also providing the background and significance of Nicodemus’ study. Chapter two defines prosody and provides an overview of the research that has been done on the function of boundaries in discourse, with a special emphasis on the role that prosody plays in both spoken and signed languages. In chapter three, the research methodology for this study is described, including details about the stimulus material, the participants, and the system used for coding the responses of the participants. Chapter four addresses questions about the role of chance in the experiment and provides case studies of the coding system used in the study. Chapter five summarizes the research findings on the frequency, duration, and number of prosodic markers used at utterance boundaries. Chapter six reports on the timing and type of markers used. Finally, chapter seven provides a conclusion, suggests implications for the results, and offers future directions for research.

Learn more about this exciting new volume in chapter two, “What Is Prosody?”, and save 20% when you order Prosodic Markers and Utterance Boundaries in American Sign Language Interpretation. For online orders, type “JUL2009” in the box labeled “use promo code” located next to the “checkout” button. You may also order by mail.

A Fair Chance in the Race of Life: The Role of Gallaudet University in Deaf History, edited by Brian H. Greenwald and John Vickrey Van Cleve, “is an anthology of essays by learned authors scrutinizing the 150+ year history of Gallaudet University, a singularly prominent institution of deaf culture and learning,” notes The Midwest Book Review’s library newsletter Wisconsin Bookwatch. “Individual essays include ‘The Women of Kendall Green: Coeducation at Gallaudet 1860-1910’, ‘The Struggle to Educate Black Deaf Schoolchildren in Washington, D.C.’, ‘A Fair Chance in the Race of Life: Thoughts on the 150th Anniversary of the Founding of the Columbia Institution’, and many more. A handful of black-and-white photographs illustrate this amazing look at Gallaudet's contributions to history, as well as the turbulence of cultural and equality issues that affected him as surely as the rest of the nation. Especially recommended reading for anyone intrigued by the history and evolution of deaf culture.” Read chapter eight, “The Struggle to Educate Black Deaf Schoolchildren in Washington, D.C.”, and order your copy today.

Janet Cerney’s book Deaf Education in America: Voices of Children from Inclusion Settings was highlighted in the summer issue of the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education: “Cerney offers a concise summary of the issues that may face children and youth in inclusive settings as well as several thought-provoking suggestions for change. Parents, educators, educational interpreters, and school administrators may benefit from reading the words that expressed the thoughts and feelings of those who are most affected by placement decisions—the children and youth who are deaf.” The full review is available online. Deaf Education in America provides a detailed examination of the complex issues surrounding the integration of deaf students into the general classroom. View the table of contents and read what the students have to say in chapter seven, “Voices of Deaf Children.” Order Deaf Education in America here.

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