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Industrial grad's deafness, talent leads to starring role on stage (w/video)

By JR Ortega
Feb. 7, 2014 at 5:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 7, 2014 at 8:08 p.m.

Tad Cooley plays Billy in a Philadelphia play, "Tribes," about a deaf man living in a hearing world. In this scene, Billy feels a little confused and alone after his family has a heated argument he couldn't follow.

Tad Cooley has found a place where he can be heard: the stage.

Becoming progressively deaf at 20 years old is frightening for the Industrial High School graduate, but that has not stopped him from following his passion to Philadelphia, where he has the lead role in "Tribes," a play about Billy, a deaf man living in the world of the hearing.

"It felt natural for me," said Cooley in a phone interview about the role. "It's this wonderful story with a family connection and communication. I just had to be in it."

Since birth, Cooley has been deaf in his right ear, and every year since then, the deafness has become greater in his left ear. He uses two hearing aids while his enunciation and voice remain clear.

Cooley is still undergoing tests to learn why he's gradually going deaf, but in the meantime, he wants to make any time worthwhile.

"I'm hearing impaired, but I'm also a hearing person," he said.

Cooley started his acting career while attending Industrial and eventually made his way to the stage of the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts stage in "High School Musical."

Then, in 2012, Cooley decided to make acting his life by attending school at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

Last year, he decided to take a break from his studies and focus again on being on stage.

Starring in the play "Act Normal," which is about a mentally unstable man going deaf, opened the door for his "Tribes" audition, he said.

He was back in Vanderbilt recuperating from a case of mono and strep throat when he received the call to be in "Tribes."

"I thought they had dropped me completely," he said, laughing. "I didn't even think I was being considered."

Scott Mohon, Theatre Victoria executive director, went to see Cooley perform in "Tribes" in January and said his performance was "amazing."

Mohon worked with Cooley during "High School Musical" and helped oversee Cooley when he did some summer volunteer work with Theatre Victoria's education program.

"I did not see Tad Cooley when I was there," Mohon said. "I saw Billy."

Mohon said Cooley's raw and trained talent has grown significantly, and he sees him making the most of his ability.

"I think Tad is a unique individual," he said. "He's making himself known."

As much as Cooley enjoys the experience of performing in two plays about deafness, he would love to be known for more than just a hearing-impaired actor, though he is losing about 5 percent hearing in his left ear every year.

"I definitely do not want to be narrowed down to one specific character," he said.

But for now, his life is consumed by the play, which started in mid-January and runs through Feb. 23. The play then moves to Pittsburgh, but after it is over, who knows where his acting will take him?

"I just want to find my place in this world," he said. "I know that's pretty general, but it's true. I want to be able to be someone's role model."



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