PLEASANT VIEW — Weber High School’s current play, “Wiley and the Hairy Man,” features a four-person swamp monster who signs in American Sign Language and speaks simultaneously.
This unique character was developed because of Travis Chowns, a senior at Weber High, and the only actor of the four whose face is showing in costume.
Chowns, who is deaf, signs his lines in American Sign Language while using his face and body to express the emotions of the monster, called the Hairy Man.
His three counterparts, who are covered in moss-like hair — one on his knees in front of Chowns, and the others on either side of him — take turns as his voice, sometimes speaking in unison for emphasis.
“The three of them really helped me move as one,” Chowns said, through one of his interpreters, Bethany Hammon. “And they become my voice.”
Adapted from an African-American folktale, “Wiley and the Hairy Man” tells the story of a young boy named Wiley who faces his greatest fear, the Hairy Man, a swamp monster who killed his father.
The Weber production is designed for young audiences, and hundreds of elementary students attended a show during school on Friday.
This is the first time that Chowns has had the lead role in a full-length production. He started acting when a teacher at the Jean Massieu School of the Deaf in Salt Lake City invited him to join a Shakespeare play in middle school. While still at Jean Massieu, Chowns also played the lead role in “Peter Pan.”
The theater teacher at Weber High, Mark Daniels, first saw Chowns act in a play at North Ogden Junior High, where he played the rule of Mushu in “Mulan.” Daniels noticed Chowns’s talent and was excited to find a way to incorporate his expressive acting into the program at Weber High.
“It takes me forever to teach students about facial expressions, and body language and gesture,” Daniels said. “That comes naturally to an ASL student ... he knows that ... if he wants to express his emotion, that comes through facial expressions and body language ... almost even more than vocal speech.”
Since coming to Weber, Chowns has played the ghost of Caesar in “Julius Caesar” and a doctor in the play “The Yellow Boat,” which won first in state at the Utah state theater competition.
The ghost of Julius Caesar is not a character in the original play, but Daniels worked with Chowns to develop the character.
“It’s a wonderful experience for all of us to have that different level of acting,” Daniels said. “We’ve been able to create characters that we would never have created without him.
“We would have never had the ghost of Julius Caesar, we’d have just had Julius Caesar and a dead body ... (Working with Travis) has caused us to be a little more creative and think outside the box, which is such a wonderful challenge when it comes to the arts.”
Chowns’s next project is a monologue he is preparing for competition called “The Falling Man,” about a man trapped in the Twin Towers. Daniels said he thought this was “a monologue that could really, really be signed well.” Chowns will sign his monologue while his interpreter speaks it to the judges.
Travis said “The Yellow Boat” was his favorite production so far, because it connected to some of the experiences he had as a child.
The play is based on a true story about a young boy with hemophilia who became infected with HIV from a blood transfusion in the 1980s. Despite this harrowing diagnosis, the boy continues to develop his artistic talents.
“When the parents (in the play) were worried ... figuring what to do in regards to the son’s future, it was kind of like my parents,” Chowns said. “I could tell that my parents were worried because I was deaf ...
“I related because I showed my parents that I could do anything — it doesn’t matter if I’m deaf or can’t hear, I could do anything, the same as was happening in the play.”
Chowns plans to continue acting after he graduates from high school. He wants to attend Southern Utah University, which is well known for its theater program.
“He has a definite ability,” Daniel said. “I would love to see him go on to college theater ... there are deaf theaters around the country, and I would love to see him be involved in that somewhere.”
While he is looking forward to continuing to act, Chowns anticipates some challenges along the way.
“People that can hear are sometimes awkward when it comes to deaf people,” Chowns said. “Or (they) panic, ‘How would I work with this person? How am I going to talk to them?’
“Really what I want to say is just try ... we can write back and forth, we can text back and forth, deaf people use a video phone where ... there’s an interpreter ... and we would have almost like a three-way phone conversation.”
But working with people is also what Chowns most loves about theater.
“Working with people and making new friends, I would say that would be my favorite part of being involved in plays — just really the social aspect of it.”
Chowns also has a message for parents of children born deaf or with hearing loss.
“I really want to emphasize, don’t freak out,” he said. “Don’t listen to the audiologist say ‘here’s a cochlear implant, a quick fix.’
“I’m not against children who learn through speech therapy, but really I want to encourage (parents) to teach them ASL as well as the parents to learn ... I feel that helps deaf children ... to not focus on this constant hearing and speech.”