To meet Bill Conte, a theater instructor at Casper College, is to meet a ‘Theatre Man’; a larger-than-life, boisterous, animated soul with a head full of material just itching to be taught. Every conversation unwittingly becomes an opportunity for him to impart knowledge which his conversations partners, if they recognize a bit of free education, will stop, listen and take advantage of their stroke of luck.
This tendency to teach comes naturally as Conte, in addition to his ‘Theatre Man’ persona, also created an identity for himself as an educator. He spent many years as a self-proclaimed Renaissance man, teaching a little bit of everything to pay his bills, he said.
“I made my living as a professional adjunct lecturer [traveling lecturer],” said Conte. “I was teaching at seven colleges at one point. I drove 500 miles per week and I taught everything from History, to theater, to writing, to remedial writing. I taught philosophy. I had a reputation as a kind of a go-to guy.”
“My joke was I made my living by knowing at least this much about everything,” he said indicating ‘a little’ with his fingers while laughing heartily.
Conte would learn though, that knowing a little about everything wasn’t enough. He would want to learn a lot, and something that would serve as the key to opening up worlds of knowledge in his professional field was about to drop right in his lap.
The whole story?
Bill Conte is currently translating a centuries-old, Latin text that has never been translated, right here in Casper.
This particular part of Conte’s story begins back in New York where he had a friend named Douglas Schwartz; an environmental sculptor who worked for the Staten Island Zoo.
“One of the interns at the zoo was going to Switzerland and he [Schwartz] said, Hey! bring me back something. This is what came back,” Conte said indicating a leather bound volume that looks like something from a Dan Brown movie.
The book is Gabriel Francisco Le Jay’s Treatise on Dance originally published in the late 1600s. Conte’s copy is a second edition dated 1748. The cover is bound with colorful leather, stamped and aged, but in good condition. Inside the pages are pristine with no damage. The type is crisp and there are beautiful watermarks on intermittent pages throughout the work.
“I think the individual found it in a bookstore in Zurich, Switzerland, said Conte.
According to Conte the intern brought the book back to Schwartz who looked at it and said: “Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with this.”
“So he handed it to me and I thought: ‘Yep! I know what I’ve got to do with this!’” he said. Right away Conte understood the academic importance of Le Jay’s work in his field.
Only one piece of Le Jay’s volume posed any issue for Conte. It was clear to him that really learning Latin was imperative.
“In 2002, en route to my doctorate, I had to show reading proficiency in two languages,” said Conte. “Italian was one and I knew that I needed to learn latin in order to do the scholarship that I wanted to do.” He had been teaching at the City University of New York (CUNY) for 25 years, he said, which afforded him the ability to pursue his doctorate for free.
“The graduate center offered a 13 week course, which I took,” said Conte. “I went once a week for two hours at night and then had to spend the rest of the week cramming. So I learned it and I learned enough Latin to be dangerous. Meaning that, I could work my way through simple stuff, but I didn’t have enough skill or training to really, really get into the complicated stuff.”
That didn’t stop him from moving forward, however. He translated a few passages of his Le Jay volume for the Latin half of the language proficiency requirement for his doctorate.
“And I did it poorly I might add,” he chuckled.
His efforts produced a translation that was passable, but Conte recognized that he could do better; that he needed to do it better. So last year he picked up a copy of Wheelock’s Latin.
“And I went through all 40 chapters and the exercises very systematically, as if I were just teaching myself a course. I reinforced what I already knew, and as a result of working through it systematically, and very carefully, taking my time, practicing with increasingly difficult passages I got myself to the point where I was ready to do this.”
But before he could understand the book, he first needed to understand the author.
“Gabriel Fransisco Le Jay was a Paris based Jesuit,” Conte began, as he switched to professor voice. “He was evidently a theater scholar and historian. What would have been known then as a Philologist. Theater itself then was not a specialized topic. It’s a broad field that includes literature, philosophy, poetry, history and they were experts in all of it.”
Conte went on to explain that Jesuits were an order of Roman Catholic Priests and scholars formed in the early 1500s who went through a long process of training. They traveled the world in order to learn the intricacies of whatever field each individual priest chose to study, while at the same time doing missionary work for the Catholic church.
It was thought, said Conte that dance was something akin to the devil’s work and the purpose for Le Jay’s Treatise was very likely to justify and convince the Catholic Church was not an unholy thing and they weren’t worshiping the devil by dancing.
“What he’s trying to do is articulate the case for a whole new art form emerging in the period: ballet,” Conte said.
“It’s really serendipitous, just sheer dumb luck, because it falls into the hands of a person that is qualified to do this work,” he said. “It requires a really particular kind of skill set. You need to know Latin, number one. You need to know theater history, number two. You need to know deep theater history, as in ancient Greeks and Rome and all the way up through the Renaissance, number three. And you need to be able to apply all of that in order to know what he is trying to say here.”