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Richard Costes Wants a Place for Deaf Actors in Chicago

How the actor, playwright, and accessibility consultant made his name in an often inaccessible theater scene

Photo: Courtesy of Richard Costes

When Richard Costes moved to Chicago in 2007, he hoped to start his own theater company with college friends. But as a deaf actor and playwright, he had a difficult time finding employment. Costes bounced around other cities seeking work, then moved back to Chicago in 2014 after securing a finance job. Now, he performs with companies like Victory Gardens, Chicago Shakespeare, Porchlight Music Theatre, and Red Tape Theatre. He currently stars in Steep Theatre’s production of Mosquitoes, Lucy Kirkwood’s family drama framed by a major quantum-mechanical breakthrough: the 2013 discovery of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle whose existence was hypothesized for decades. (Costes plays the Higgs boson itself, in what he says is “probably the most difficult role” he’s done.) 

In addition to his acting work, Costes is an accessibility consultant and serves on the advisory board of the Deaf Theater of Ohio. He was recently one of 10 individuals awarded a $25,000 grant from 3Arts, a nonprofit supporting artists of color, women, and artists with disabilities. The endowment will partially support Costes’s upcoming one-man show, set to premiere in late 2020, about living in a hearing world as a deaf person.

Here, Costes discusses that project, winning the 3Arts grant, and his experience as a deaf actor in Chicago.

What can you share about your upcoming one-man show?

It’s called Red Peter. It’s based on a famous Kafka short story called “A Report to an Academy,” about a monkey who learns to speak. Throughout the short story, he is struggling with this dual nature of being an ape and also being part of the human world [through his] voice and knowledge; he’s learned Shakespeare and all of this philosophy.

When I was a kid, I refused to be called deaf. [But] growing up and actually getting out in my community — meeting people who were deaf, and theater practitioners who have worked with deaf students — opened my mind and allowed me to embrace a part of my identity I kept buried for so long. That’s one of the really great things about theater: It allows you to explore these facets of yourself. A lot of that is coming through in the script, with this lonely ape who’s not an ape anymore but also isn’t human. He wants the freedom of being an ape; I want the freedom of being deaf, but I’ll never quite be a part of that community.

Even though I speak and have the privilege to access the hearing world, there are still barriers wherever I go. Should someone choose to communicate by phone, that’s not something I can ever do. Another form of communication by phone is through video relay, where they have an interpreter, but I don’t know sign language well enough to access that, either. [I’m at] the center of this isolated island. What does it feel to be that kind of person? That’s what Red Peter is.

What are some institutional challenges deaf actors face when seeking work?

The biggest struggle with deaf actors is there’s so few roles, and they don’t necessarily get the chance to be onstage or get a chance to show their talents. If a theater wants to have a show with a deaf actor, it requires a lot of pre-planning, and often grants and sponsors. Part of that is the communication barrier we have, and for a lot of theater companies that can be expensive. Sign language interpreting is out of reach for storefront theaters already operating on a shoestring budget.

The other half is the financial burden on the actors themselves. Unemployment or job insecurity means that our schedules can’t necessarily accommodate taking time off to audition. For a lot of people, that means coming in from the suburbs, paying for gas and parking, and being able to take time to study the script, which is another huge obstacle. Sign language has a completely different grammatical structure and way of communicating than English. It’s a misconception that a lot of theater people have — these actors are not only asked to act but translate, because for many, English is their second language. They grew up learning sign language first, so [they have to] translate all that without losing the meaning of the authors and the metaphors.

What has your experience been on the audition circuit in Chicago?

Being deaf but also a person of color — and for a lot of actors of color — the question is, Did I get this role because I was the right person for it, or did I get this role to check off a box or fill a quota? That’s always a worry I have. The Chicago community has been incredible so far, but it’s still this emotional hurdle. The other struggle is of duality. I’m half white, half Indian; half hearing, half deaf. I’m always in the center — I don’t quite fit into the deaf world or the hearing world, and I want to be a part of both.

For every single theater company that I’ve worked with in Chicago, I think I’ve been the first deaf actor to work with them. So I want to make sure that I open these doors, but I’m going to keep those doors open, because there are going to be other people that are way more talented behind me.

Costes as the Higgs boson in Mosquitoes Photo: Gregg Gilman

What diversity and inclusion work have you brought into the theater scene?

I do a lot of accessibility consulting with theaters, like how to do captions. I’m in a unique position because I don’t primarily use sign language, so it’s very easy for the majority of theaters to communicate with me. I do realize I’m responsible for showing them how to overcome that barrier — how to work with deaf actors, how to bring them onstage.

One of the things I’m hoping to spend some of the grant on is a national deaf theater database for actors and techies. One of the most frustrating things that we’re seeing is actors being cast in deaf character roles and deaf actors not being given those opportunities. Whenever we ask why, theaters say they didn’t know who to reach out to. We want to take that away and encourage diversity in the kind of deaf actors who are seen onstage. Like in any other acting industry, it’s still fairly very white, so I’m trying to take into account deaf people of color, deaf blind people, deaf disabled people — all segments of this rich community — and bring them all together into this national database.

What was it like learning you’d won the 3Arts grant, and how will it support your future work?

Someone nominated me, and I’m dying to know who because I feel like I owe them a dinner. When I got the announcement, I had to read the e-mail a couple of times. I was looking around to see if I was punked!

This is an amount of money I’ve never had before; I’ll be able to pay off a lot of debt, which is a vastly underrated thing, and be able to create the stuff I want to create without having to scrounge for every last penny. I’m going to use some of it to fund the one-man show, and some might go to some friends’ artwork.

It’s a huge weight off my shoulders, but also another weight, because I want to live up to what the award means. It’s an incredible feeling. It’s a humbling feeling. It’s a whole mess of feelings. It’s probably not going to go away anytime soon.

Mosquitoes runs through November 16 at Steep Theatre. steeptheatre.com

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