Stage & Dance

Dmetrius Conley relishes his career as a Shakespearean actor

When he's not traveling to be onstage, Lexington native Dmetrius Conley works at Courtyard Deli. This week, the play comes to him: He has the title role in Richard III at SummerFest at The Arboretum.
When he's not traveling to be onstage, Lexington native Dmetrius Conley works at Courtyard Deli. This week, the play comes to him: He has the title role in Richard III at SummerFest at The Arboretum. Lexington Herald-Leader

Dmetrius Conley's theatrical path was set when he was a student at the Youth Performing Arts School in Louisville, and he got to do a scene from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

"I loved the scene, and I remember telling another actress, I said, 'I'd like to be a Shakespearean actor,'" Conley says. "And she said, 'What are you going to do, play Othello all your life?'"

Conley, a Lexington native, has yet to play the brooding Moor, which is a signature role for black actors with Shakespearean chops. But he has hardly been limited in pursing his Shakespearean ambition. Performing in New York, Boston and Moscow, Conley has played Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.

This week, he gets to take on one of Shakespeare's most complex characters: the title role of SummerFest's production of Richard III, which plays Wednesday through next Sunday at The Arboretum.

It is a somewhat rare hometown showcase for the actor, who has done the bulk of his recent work outside Lexington.

"When you are an actor, you cannot just live anywhere," Conley says. "You have to live where the work is, if you want to make it a profession."

That is what Conley has been trying to do ever since his speech team's coach at Bryan Station High School put the idea in his head after he won the state speech competition in poetry.

"She said, 'Maybe you ought to look at this acting thing a little more closely,'" Conley says of Lois Kaiser, who now works in Fayette County Public Schools' central office. "She said, 'Maybe you should check out Lexington Children's Theatre.' I hadn't heard of them, but I called them up, and they were having auditions for a teen acting company that met twice a week."

It gave Conley a chance to do shows and be involved with some of Lexington's leading theater talents, including Children's Theatre directors Larry and Vivian Snipes, and actor Joe Gatton.

A black man playing the lead in one of Shakespeare's history and/or tragedy plays is non-traditional casting from director Sidney Shaw, who himself has been at the center of a couple of non- traditional casts. Shaw, who also is black, played the title roles in the Lexington Shakespeare Festival's 1998 production of Julius Caesar and the 2003 production of King Lear. The Shakespeare Festival was the predecessor of SummerFest.

Shaw says he came to Richard III thinking, "How can I make the diversity work?" drawing some inspiration from University of Kentucky Theatre's 2009 production of Carlyle Brown's The African Company Presents Richard III, which Shaw directed.

Shaw didn't want to throw black actors into a situation where no black people would have been. He found his answer while watching Jeopardy!

The Final Jeopardy clue that night was, "After the royal family fled to this country in 1807, it became the only one in South America from which a European country was ruled."

The answer: What is Brazil?

The traditionally diverse culture of Brazil gave Shaw an ideal setting for his production, and a chance to give a starring role to an actor with whom he has a long history.

"I've seen Richard played as a villain, but that's not completely what he's doing," says Shaw, who also directed Conley in the Lexington Shakespeare Festival's 1993 production of A Soldier's Play and Actors Guild of Lexington's 2007 production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Conley brought "an energy, physicality and sensuality to the role."

That, Shaw says, helps explain how Richard exerts the influence he does despite a physical deformity and his treachery. Conley says Richard is "a scary part, because I don't think anyone knows what they are getting into until they start doing the play."

Richard III depicts the bloody rise to power of the king who ruled England from 1483 to 1485. The play was programmed as part of the "Monsters" trio of SummerFest plays this year, which are rounded out by Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Show. But Shaw and Conley are not interested in turning Richard into a monster.

"It's a little too easy just to make him a monster," Conley says, noting that Richard is scarred by his relationship with his mother and other women. "In this play, you need to see the hurt as well, so he isn't just a monster. And those parts are ones I am trying to explore and Sidney is letting me explore. That makes the play really come alive, as opposed to this mean guy that's doing these really horrible things."

Conley comes to the task with some extensive experience.

He left Bryan Station High to spend his senior year at the Louisville performing-arts school, at the suggestion of fellow students in the Governor's School for the Arts. He then hopscotched through theater programs at the New World School for the Arts in Miami and the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York before he found his niche in the conservatory of the Classical Stage Company in New York. There, he could perform works by writers including Shakespeare, Johan August Strindberg and Harold Pinter.

"I'm sort of a big actor, over-the-top actor, so Shakespeare is good for me," Conley says. "It's more my nature."

From there, he went to a stage career — even briefly launching a Lexington company in the mid-1990s, the John Doe Rep — before enrolling in graduate school at Harvard University. That took him to Russia, where he got his master's degree in fine arts from Moscow Art Theatre, which had merged with Harvard's program.

"When you get in that weird place where you don't know what to do, you say, 'Well, I'll go back to school,'" Conley says.

After Harvard and Moscow, Conley worked in the Northeast and on national tours, primarily with the prestigious American Repertory Theatre, where he worked with fellow Lexingtonian Leslie Beatty.

In recent years, he has settled back into Lexington, holding down a day job as a delivery man for Courtyard Deli, to help attend to an illness in his family.

Most of Conley's work is still out of town, but he says he enjoys the opportunity to perform a milestone role in his hometown. It does make him nervous.

"It's one of those things where people have a lot of expectations, and if you don't meet them, your head is going to be on the chopping block," Conley says. "That's a scary feeling. But then there's the personal feeling that I am doing a show I can learn a lot from. How do I pull off my own interpretation and live up to expectations?"

Many would say Conley already has.

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