Rock 'n' Roll Signer: What It's Like to Be a Performing Arts Interpreter

rock and roll By Tim Estoliz

Most audiences at music concerts never have to worry about hearing the lyrics of their favorite artists. After all, the sound systems are loud and the singers belt out their songs pitch perfect for everyone in the vast crowd to hear and enjoy.

However, there's a segment of the audience that's often enjoying the concert in a totally different and uniquely nuanced way. The deaf or hard-of-hearing get to enjoy the concerts of artists such as Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen and Justin Beiber thanks in large part to a talented group of professionals known as performing arts interpreters.

That's where groups like First Chair Interpreted Productions come in. Founded in late 2009 by partners and sign language interpreters Kevin Dyels, Liz Leitch (pictured above) and Traci Randolph, this unique agency focuses its talents on interpreting music concerts and other performing arts events for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the Washington, D.C. area.

"Let's say ... Taylor Swift tickets go on sale for a show that's three months from now," says Dyels. "Deaf and hard-of-hearing people will call a special number and request seats in an interpretive section.

"By law, the venue and the artist have to provide some kind of accommodation.... and, basically the venue will call us to provide interpreters when they get a request," Dyels says. "After that, we send a message to all of our interpreters asking who may know Taylor Swift's songs well, who loves her music... and we bring together a whole group of skills sets so we have the best team for this particular concert."

Dyels' team of interpreters are skilled not only at presenting the songs by a particular music artist in sign language but in conveying the mood, the emotion and the excitement of the moment.

"Not every person who can sign, can be an interpreter ... and not every interpreter can be a performing arts interpreter," said Dyels. "You need to have some stage presence, you need to have some performing arts skills, and you need to be able to work fast on your feet."

The Challenges

Being a performing arts interpreter is job that most say is fun, rewarding and often formidable.

"It's sometimes quite challenging to interpret the mood that the artist is trying to convey, to understand the word choices that they may use, and we as interpreters want to honor that," says Liz Leitch. "It's not always a one-to-one meaning, so we have to be fluent in both languages, verbal and sign language, to be able to do that."

Indeed, the preparation for an artist who may perform a two-hour concert filled with songs spanning years of their career requires an interpreter with a special connection, affection and definite familiarity with the artist's music.

"An artist like Taylor Swift has maybe three or four CDs," says Dyels, "... as opposed to a Madonna or Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel -- each of whom have 20-plus CDs ... so we have to find people who are familiar with all their songs and be able to rehearse in sometimes a pretty short span of time."

Dyels adds, "At concert time, we want interpreters that are so familiar with the lyrics and their own translation of it that they're able to be a little theatrical and they can move to the beat a little bit. They can talk about the story and they can bring on the character of the story in their interpretation, hopefully without having to refer to lyrics. But, that said, we always have a music stand available with the lyrics, just in case."

"Out of the 50 songs I may rehearse for Bruce Springsteen, he'll probably do 15 from my set list... and there will be two or three that we didn't expect or rehearse for. They might be brand new songs that no one has ever heard. In those cases, we just try to wing it by listening as we try to interpret."

Dyels, Leitch and Randolph spend their regular working hours as standard deaf interpreters for meetings, seminars, and similarly themed needs to facilitate communication between and deaf and those around them. However, their job as performing arts interpreters is something they appreciate on an entirely different level and degree of satisfaction, both for themselves and their clients.

"As an interpreter, I find it so satisfying when I can effectively facilitate the communication between the two parties", said Randolph, "... and in a concert experience, I'm hopefully and effectively communicating what the artist wants the audience to hear. When I see that the audience is having a good time, then I know I've done a good job and it makes me feel good."

"We don't do concerts alone," added Randloph. "There are always at least two interpreters present. When I'm not the one standing up interpreting, I will be supporting my team and making sure they have what they might need. But sometimes, we do get a chance to enjoy at least half the show. It's always a toss-up when you're doing a concert with a performer that you like who is singing your favorite song.... It's always a struggle to decide if I want to interpret that song or do I want to watch the song."

"By and large, our clientele tend to be people who currently have some degree of hearing or used to have some hearing," said Dyels. "They get to hear some of the music or through their memory, remember some of that music. On top of that, they get to see the artist, which is part of the excitement for everyone... and on top of that, they get a story, which changes with every song, which is one that our interpreters formulate after putting in 10-15 hours of preparation and translation for each concert."

Of course, preparing for a concert requires a fair amount of homework and also a keen ability to interpret the often subtle nuances in the lyrics of an artist that may not translate quite so literally into sign language.

"We spend so much time analyzing all these lyrics to try and figure out what the artist is trying to convey," said Randolph. "Sometimes it's clear and sometimes it's not very clear at all. It's opposed to when we are interpreting a musical. Generally speaking, in a musical, you know what the songs are about because it's contextual. You had what was going on right before the song and whatever is happening right after the song. The song in a musical is probably about one of those two things and it gives you some context to try and figure out what they're singing and talking about when they're using various phrases. When we are interpreting a concert, we've got 22 different songs, 22 different stories going on and most of them aren't related to each other whatsoever. So we look at each individual song and analyze it and try to figure out what it means, so we can appropriately convey that feeling, that mood or meaning."

Connecting to the Music

As performing arts interpreters, it's easy for the team to form a certain connection to the music they hear. Randolph says it's best when the interpreters love the performers' music themselves and often it's difficult to forget the songs once the concert is over.

"I was recently at a piano bar where they were doing all kinds of audience requests," said Randolph. "I was with a group of several concert interpreters and we knew all the words to all of these songs. People around us were asking us how we knew all the words to these songs ... and it's because we did the concerts for them and had memorized all the words, and sometimes I just can't get them out of my head."

Dyels says that he's excited to see more and more venues providing this service across the country.

"It's only been in the last 15 to 20 years, were these concerts even available to deaf and hard-of hearing people," said Dyels. "And the bulk of the American population, while they may be aware that accommodations are available to people with disabilities, may probably not even be aware music concerts are available to deaf and hard of hearing people.... And many concert venues may not even be aware that they're supposed to be available because they've never gotten the request.

"So, in turn, many deaf people often may not know that they can go to a rock or music concert ... or even want to go as a result. But, for those that do go, it's an exciting time.

"It's particularly exciting for us that we get to bring a contingency of the American population to an exciting event like this by doing something that we love. We feel it's the best job ever."

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