Playing the part of “tree” or “bush” is how many actors cut their teeth in their youth, but, for Richard Costes, playing the scenery might prove to be his big break.
At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Costes is performing the role of Snout in the Shakespeare in the Parks production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Snout is one of the actors in “Midsummer’s” “play within the play,” which includes the surprisingly crucial role of “the wall.”
Grinning and hamming it up with the innocent, unabashed pride of a town simpleton, Snout’s comically over-the-top characterization is the result of Costes’ prowess as a gifted performer. Watching him own the stage during a recent rehearsal, one can almost forget that Costes is deaf. To wit, Costes and director Barbara Gaines decided to make Snout deaf, as well.
Part of the Shakespeare in the Parks initiative is to take “free Shakespeare” to parks in the city’s “cultural deserts,” and to make Shakespeare accessible for all in attendance. This production presented Chicago’s deaf community the opportunity to more closely identify with someone on stage. Gaines said this commitment to inclusivity is also what Shakespeare would have wanted.
“We are dealing with the greatest humanist who ever wrote,” she said. “Shakespeare never judged, he just explored the human condition. [Chicago Shakespeare] celebrates differences as Shakespeare celebrates differences.”
This kind of inclusivity and representation of the deaf and those with partial and total hearing loss is something Costes wishes he had as a kid. Growing up, he didn’t he didn’t know any other deaf people and didn’t learn American Sign Language, instead becoming an adept lip reader.
However, Costes said lip reading only allows him to understand about a third of what’s being said. Due to his difficulty following conversation, he admits he was a fairly solitary child, preferring the company of books to friends. That all changed when he got involved with the theater community at age nine after seeing a friend in a show and realizing he, too, craved a crowd’s applause.
“The theater community where I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, was just phenomenal,” he said. “It gave me a place to express myself, and it never felt like I was the outsider, because [with] theater kids, everyone’s an outsider, everyone’s the loner, the weird kid, so I felt like I was at home there.”
Costes said he realized his deafness was going to require him to do “a little extra work” if he wanted to succeed in theater. And by a little extra work, he means memorizing the entire script — sometimes up to 90 pages of text — to be able to react appropriately to a verbal cue from another actor.
While he can’t hear specific words, Costes says he can sense sounds (think the “wah-wahs” made by the adults in “Peanuts” cartoons). By keeping track of the number of independent sounds he hears and translating that to the “closed captioning” of the script “running in his head,” he’s able to determine where other actors are in their lines, allowing him to react appropriately.
Technical hurdles like these have been challenging, but Costes said the hardest part of pursuing a theater career as a deaf actor has been finding the confidence to follow his dreams in spite of people who told him he’d never succeed.
“Whenever I went out to see theater, I never saw anyone who was deaf, so it always felt like there were things I couldn’t do,” he said. “I had a teacher who would actually say, ‘You should get out of theater, because theater isn’t accepting of people with ‘unique characteristics.'”
Costes went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in theater from Kent State University, and is enjoying a burgeoning career: he’s represented by Gray Talent Group, has 10 Chicago theater credits under his belt, has run Chicago (D)ART — the city’s only deaf storefront theater— and is now offering his services as an accessibility consultant to other storefronts.
Costes originally played Snout in CST’s Short Shakespeare production of “Midsummer” this past spring, which was attended by the Illinois School for the Deaf. In a meet-and-greet after the show, Costes recounted a “wall of people from the school” running towards him, bombarding him with all kinds of questions about his career.Carrie Grieme, a high-school literature teacher from the Illinois School for the Deaf, said her students were “beside themselves” when they learned there was a deaf actor in the production.
“It was so empowering for them,” she said. “It was validating they really can do whatever they want to do, and it really hammered home to them that Shakespeare is for everyone.”
While Costes may have pursued a career in theater yearning for applause, his current motives are far more altruistic. He hopes his presence on the stage will inspire the next generation of deaf actors.
“I don’t consider myself special by any means,” he said. “I’m just a guy that happens to be deaf that is living his dream, acting in Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I was so glad I was able to share my experience with [deaf students] so that maybe five, 10 years down the line, they’ll be here, too, and I’ll get to come sit in the audience and watch them perform.”