What's the deal with the onstage sign language interpreters at music festivals?

What's the deal with the onstage sign language interpreters at music festivals?

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. While this has most noticeably made for a lot more ramps and handicapped bathrooms at restaurants and public facilities, it’s also made for a fantastically more accessible concert-going experience for all those who want to rock out.

Barbie Parker and her company, LotuSign, help make festivals like Austin City Limits, SXSW, and Lollapalooza more accessible to those with hearing impairments. With the help of a number of other interpreters and volunteers, Parker helps deaf people navigate festivals, communicate with emergency services, and—most visibly—“hear” the music the festival’s acts are playing with the help of sign language. Parker and her crew have entertained both hearing and non—with their animated interpretations of Nine Inch Nails and Lady Gaga, and most recently, LotuSign’s Amber Galloway Gallego delighted ACL attendees and bloggers by signing Kendrick Lamar’s line “pussy and Patrón make it feel alright.” The A.V. Club talked to Parker about that now famous interpretation, as well as how her company helps make concerts a more universally friendly environment.

The A.V. Club: When did concerts start having interpreters? And how did you get involved? 

Barbie Parker: Well, a law was passed about 20 years ago—the Americans With Disabilities Act—that provided access to all kinds of public venues. I started getting requests from deaf people who went to events that were more mainstream, with less music, but with music included in other things. And when music became visual in the way that it hit mainstream television, MTV and other things, then it became more accessible for the deaf community and they started requesting interpreters for other events. Our work became specialized because deaf people liked the way that we did it, so they would request us for certain things. 

AVC: So you started getting called in for big festivals? 

BP: Yeah, deaf people actually requested me and suggested my name for certain things. But the festivals themselves didn’t have a program for how to put that together and they didn’t understand what access meant. They knew festivals needed to be accessible, but they didn’t understand that to simply provide a sign-language interpreter that wasn’t specialized or that couldn’t make the dynamic equivalent to the entertainment and the quality of music and the energy that went with it, isn’t really accessible. It’s like handing out a pamphlet about a program rather than having full access to the program. So while the language itself was accessible, the overall experience was not. 

The festivals that I work with have really adopted the idea that they want every fan to have the same experience. As a result they hired us and we provide a full program. That’s everything from on-site emergency interpreters, so they have immediate access to security and medical and everything that is on-site for every fan, all the way up to the very top shows being as dynamic as the entertainers themselves—as much as it can be, at least. 

AVC: Do you have a sense of how widely attended festivals like Lollapalooza are by deaf people?

BP: One of the problems with larger festivals is that they sell out so quickly. And previous ticket holders are always the first to get the new tickets. So even with new access, people who love music have always gone to these shows. 

Also, when the interpretation is something that is uncomfortable or not done well, it’s not something that’s been readily attended by deaf participants unless they just really want to see the act in spite of the interpreters. When we first started providing this service—it had to be provided, because there were one or two people requesting it—the same level of service was being provided as far as accessibility goes, but the quality was not the same. So, when the quality increased, the attendance did too. Now, for events that are sold out, we usually have between 40 and 100 participants or ticket buyers in our section. 

AVC: So what’s the process like? 

BP: We have a core group of interpreters, but depending on what regions we’re in, we use additional interpreters in that area. We also have a volunteer program and we have deaf and hard of hearing volunteers. We also have an access booth where we provide information to the deaf community. We have a section in the front, and we provide volunteers that work that section. We have interpreters on the ground, and we have a production crew that works with the production team to make sure we have a set list and works with the entertainers to make sure that we’re doing the best, equivalent job. 

At any time, we have probably 10 performance interpreters, then we have interpreters on the ground all the way up to our volunteer groups. So, it can round out at about 100 to about 120 people per festival. 

AVC: How do you decide what performers you interpret for, and how do you learn the songs? 

BP: It’s way more complicated than that. That would be really simple. 

What happens is, we work in the deaf community. We are members of the deaf community. We know our audiences. We know what is making a buzz in our community. Often, we recommend the shows that are interpreted. We also solicit information from our deaf community and the members who are coming. Ticket holders make requests for shows, so that shows that they want to see are covered. And then we provide a schedule and we coordinate the interpreters accordingly. 

AVC: If you get a request for an artist, do you learn the songs in advance? 

BP: Oh, absolutely. We do nothing on the fly, unless we just cannot predict it. This is what we do for a living, and this is what we know better than anybody else on the planet. Often, we’ll ask a band’s tour manager for a set list, but, sometimes, our predicted set list is more accurate than the tour manager’s set list. We know what to expect. 

We also use a certain amount of production material. We come in with our own in-ear monitors just like the musicians, and we have audio set aside. We need to be placed on the stage so that the deaf audience has the same experience that everyone else has, that visceral feeling of being right in front of the speakers and being able to feel everything going on. But, ironically, we have them placed in an area where we, the interpreters, can’t hear very well. So we have the ear monitors and we have wireless beltpacks that we wear to make sure that we can hear what people further out in the audience hear. Because we’re packed, any deviation from what we anticipate in the song, any change, any lyric change, any comment anything like that, we hear clearly. We make sure that we’re hearing exactly what everyone else is hearing so we can interpret effectively. 

But we’re prepped. We know the lyrics, we know what it should look like. We work with ASL coaches and native users—deaf people—who talk to us about what it looks like, so we don’t just go on the fly. We do a lot of research and we work very hard to make sure it is the equivalent. “Pussy And Patrón” should look like “Pussy And Patrón.” 

AVC: Do you get embarrassed signing stuff like “Pussy And Patrón”? 

BP: You have to understand, we do this in the doctor’s office, right? It looks like what it is, and it’s not subtle. It is outright. But there’s nothing embarrassing about showing something that someone else is talking about. It’s not our words. 

For example, “Pussy And Patrón” is a little easier to deal with than, say, Snoop Dogg’s lyrics. He actually talks about what you’re doing with those particular body parts. Using them as topics is a little different than using them with a noun and a verb. So when you talk about what you’re doing, it’s a little more visual. But sometimes it’s the emotions that are behind the signs that are a little more uncomfortable. The emotions are the place where you’re most vulnerable, not the signs itself. The emotion is when you have to be most out there. 

AVC: Can you think of an example? 

BP: Let’s talk about Nine Inch Nails, for example, and the emotion behind “Closer.” “I want to fuck you like an animal,” right? That’s not just words. There’s a whole concept behind that set of words. 

It’s not just the things that might look dirty, like pussy and Patrón. It’s those kinds of ideas. You can’t sign that without the intent and the meaning and emotion behind it because that’s how this song is portrayed. So those are more difficult, because you have to actually put a lot of emotion into it to make it equivalent. 

AVC: Do you get nervous knowing so many people are watching you? 

BP: Well, you know, it would be really easy to forget why we’re there. If we got up there and forgot why we were there, it would be really easy to be nervous. But none of this is about us. It’s about making it accessible. That’s why we don’t get embarrassed. At no moment are we up there speaking for ourselves, or are we up there being ourselves. We are up there portraying someone else’s thoughts and ideas. And we are in jobs all day long where we get looked at. We get looked at for a living. So, no, we don’t get nervous. 

We all know that we make mistakes and we’re inaccurate at times and even in our knowledge we make mistakes in the production of what we’re doing or there are technical difficulties that come up. You have to give yourself a certain amount of allowance for that. The difference for us is that we’re in the entertainment business, but we’re not the entertainer. So that’s an additional pressure. It’s not about whether we’re good, or whether we’re visible, or whether we’re cute. It’s about the purpose of the artist that’s up there and whether we’re portraying that enables the deaf and hard of hearing audience to have the same exact reaction as everyone else. It’s an additional pressure. 

For example, I was looking at some of the previous Expert Witness features on The A.V. Club. For one of them, you talked about what happens behind the scenes on the Conan show and who picks out those skits. There’s a pressure and there’s a result and a consequence of whether that person picked the right skit or used the right character for that night, but for us, it’s not really our choice. It’s not our choice whether it’s an up show or it’s a down show or whether it’s exciting and soulful or if it’s a kind of a riot when they’re up there. None of these are our choices. It’s just about taking whatever’s happening on the stage and making sure that that message gets conveyed to the fan base that’s out there that we’re working for. We have very little control over anything but our production. 

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AVC: Can you make predictions about emotions when you’re preparing for a show?

BP: Oh, sure. It is a little bit of fun to personify someone else. We get to pop around. We get to be Kendrick Lamar one day and Lionel Richie the next. Two completely different acts, right? We do get to have a little fun. We get to try on other people. 

But in the same way it’s kind of fun, that the attention’s not ours. We don’t get to own it, it’s not for us. And the times that we know we’re doing the absolute best job is when we’re totally invisible. When our deaf and hard of hearing clients are actually just forgetting we’re there and when the artist forgets we’re there and when everyone in the audience is moving in the same way as our deaf audience, that’s when we’re doing our best work. When we’re on YouTube a couple of weeks later, that’s not the point. The point is really to be invisible. 

AVC: But artists have noticed you. 

BP: Yeah, that’s one of the ways we ended up having some of the contracts that we do because some of the artists have come to us and said, “That was the first time I felt my work was portrayed in that way.” A lot of interpreters think about the deaf audience, but they don’t think about how hard the artist works to make a statement or to convey a message or how many hours they put into that song to make it what it is. So it’s not just about the audience, it’s equally about the artists’ work. And at the same time it’s also about the hiring body. How does the festival feel we’re portraying them? They work really hard on their image and what they want customers to think about them, so how does our work affect them? 

In our particular case, we get 360 approval. That is really important to me as a business owner, to have both the artist whose work we’re portraying and the fan who’s watching feel like it was good. If the hearing fans out there like it and think it’s funny when we’re signing things like “Pussy And Patrón,” then that’s just a bonus. 

AVC: Do you know the Aziz Ansari bit about the sign language interpreter at his show, and how they had to do the sign for “jizz everywhere”? Comedians must be harder to prepare for than bands. Bands have set songs, but comedians can go off their set material.

BP: We just did the inauguration and in retrospect we kind of looked back at it and we giggled a little bit in house. People were like, “[Gasps.] The inauguration! What a big job,” and we’re like, “What a piece of cake!” We’re scheduling the biggest and most complex events on the planet all the time where you have no idea what’s coming and you’re mixing in music and dancing. Then, compare that with the inauguration. You have presidential speechwriters, and you know the topics that are going to come up. You have the best speakers in the world on a platform, ringing out with the clearest voices ever. And we get to dress nicely and we don’t have to dance. I mean, how hard is that, right?

Now, if you want to talk about humor and comedy, of course we prepare for those things ahead of time. But I’ve always said the best entertainers bring us into the show. It brings everyone’s attention to the interpreter that they’re already looking at anyway. And then it rightly puts everyone’s attention back on the comedian and that’s exactly how it should happen. It’s exactly what should happen. Really good entertainers know how to control that. Basically, they’re being heckled in some way by our presence and it’s unintentional and we wish there were some way that we wouldn’t take the attention away, but it’s part of what that equal access requires. Really good entertainers will roll a few punches at you and then bring it back to them. They get everybody back on track because they’re managing their audience and they’re really good at that. 

Comedy is a whole different language. It requires you to move in a different way so that the punchline hits in the same way. It needs to be placed for the deaf and hard-of-hearing audience to have access to it in the same way. We can do those things ahead of time when we know the material. The impromptu material means there’s just a slight delay. 

When we’re brought into the act, we have a protocol for that. We always work in teams. So if we turn as an interpreter to speak to the entertainer who is our biggest client in the moment he’s speaking to us, now we’ve lost our deaf client, the whole reason we’re there. So, we have a protocol that means the other interpreter takes the floor, starts to interpret and then now we are part of the act. So, the active interpreter becomes part of the act until that interaction stops, and then we go back into our role. So when the other interpreter actually takes over the access, we can really interact in a way that makes their point, which brings their stuff home without the deaf audience losing anything in that moment. And often the deaf audience likes it. It brings attention to them being there and they get a little extra love from the comedian or whatever. And at the same time, they get to make fun of us, too. Which is great, right? So it’s fabulous. Everybody gets a joke on you and then everybody gets back to business. And if everyone has a good time, then our job is well done. 

At the same time, if you have a lousy performer or a lousy comedian, we don’t get to be good. We have to be lousy too. If someone is playing and their guitar is off or their drumming is off, we have to do that as well. Sometimes we have to be lame and sometimes we have to be loud and sometimes we have to be shitty. That’s just part of it. We can’t take it up a notch if they’re not taking it up a notch. Sometimes that’s the dilemma for us. 

I do want to talk about someone, but I won’t. There was a band I grew up with that I was really excited about interpreting for. And their music still sounds the same on the radio and it still sounded the same in the concert, but their concert itself was just lame. And you know you really want to get into it, right? This is great music, but the band is so not into it. They just called this in from somewhere in another state. We just have to stand up there and be lame. The deaf people are like, “They’re lame, and you’re lame,” and you have to be like, “Yeah, that’s kind of just how it is right now.” And in the back of your mind, you’re really thinking you wish there was more, but there just isn’t. By the same token, if someone is coming unhinged on the stage and we’re standing there looking like we’re in the routine business of a city council meeting, you have just done a severe injustice to the deaf and hard of hearing audience. 

AVC: When you’re working on a song, and something like “pussy” or “Patrón” comes up, do you have to look up the sign for that?

BP: No, we don’t look anything up. We have our deaf community. We have our deaf mentors and we have our deaf language models. Sometimes we hire them in, and sometimes they’re friends of ours. It depends on what we’re working on specifically. 

I had a difficult time with a Lady Gaga song a couple of years ago where I just couldn’t make the Lamborghini part work out right. I just couldn’t do it. My language model was like, “Just remember what the car looks like,” but I was like, “Yeah, I know what the car looks like, but I don’t know how to put all these pieces together.” That’s where having a native user really comes in handy. But we’re doing this everyday. We all have about 15 to 20 years experience interpreting every single day. That’s very rare. 

Now sometimes, I don’t know what something that’s so specific to a particular culture is. I may not understand the reference and I may have to look that up. 

AVC: But that’s good. You get to learn new words. 

BP: Sometimes when I’m sitting around eating my tofu and pita pocket and cutting fresh okra out of the garden, I find myself saying something like, “Bitch don’t kill my vibe, bitch don’t kill my vibe.” It’s like, “Really? Is that what I’m singing in my kitchen?” Well, yeah, apparently it is. 

AVC: So you’re getting exposed to all sorts of new music, too.

BP: It’s what we do. We prep it, we feel it, we bring it in, and it becomes part of us. And if that’s where we’re at, we don’t have any trouble in that moment of transition. 

But we do look it up. Urbandictionary.com has become my best friend. 

At the same time, the bands that you think, “It’s just some heavy metal band,” you start looking at the lyrics and you think, “Shit, I don’t even know what this word means.” And you look up more about the song or more about the hidden parts of the lyrics, and you find that they’re terribly complex and beautiful and everyone else just sings along and has no idea, because they’ve never really done the research. 

AVC: The crowd might not know about those references to Norse mythology. 

BP: Exactly. For example, The Shins. I know every single word and I can sing along with every single word, and what I find is the Shins’ audience only knows the “woo woo woo” part. I’m like, “What? You’ve listened to how many of their songs? And you don’t know the words?” 

That happens a lot. If you haven’t even looked close enough, then you’re missing a big part of the music. Only the hardcore fans tend to do that—the general audience, not so much. But they love the music and the experience isn’t any different for them. 

AVC: Do you guys get tired? You work in teams, but that sun on the stage has to be rather oppressive. 

BP: We just came off of ACL and it was kind of cooler for most of it, but I thrive in the hot sun. If I’m breaking a sweat, I’m doing good work. We wish we looked prettier, though. We’re doing five shows a day sometimes and artists are doing one and then going back to their luxury trailer. So, they can come out and look great and then go on about their day, but we’ve got four more shows to go. So sometimes, it’s hard to look as cute as anyone else, because you’re dealing with the weather and a whole program. 

We’re going to put it all on the stage, all on the field, and then walk off thinking, “I cannot possibly do another show ever. Ever!” You don’t even think you’re done for that hour, but rather you think you’re done forever when you come off, if you’ve put everything you had out there. If the band put everything out, and you put everything out, then you think you’re done. And the minute the next show starts, it just comes right back. Because it’s not our energy we’re feeding off of. It’s a combination of the audience’s energy and the artists’ energy and that just brings you right back up. 

So, yeah, we do get tired. And the heat is a factor, but we are so seasoned that it doesn’t even affect us in the same way at all anymore. That is actually one of the difficulties we have keeping people in this profession. We have to really test them with just standing around the first time they do it. We can’t get them up onstage, because most people can’t deal with the kind of climates that we deal with. Most of us are native to Texas if not to the south, so we can pretty much deal with this heat without any consequence. But we did struggle a little with the inauguration. It was cold. And because we weren’t dancing, it required a different kind of ability to withstand the cold because we weren’t moving as much. So that was a little more difficult. But we take care of ourselves. Most of us work out in a way that goes past what we would do during a festival, so that we can be in our peak the whole time we’re working. That’s what the fan deserves, and that’s what the artist deserves. Both of them have a special relationship that they can’t necessarily continue in a live performance without us being there. They can have that experience between the fan and the artist without us any other time, but during that live event we have to be there to bring that all together. In that case we want to be operating at peak performance so that everyone gets their money’s worth.