The lights come up. The first beats of the drum and the vibration of the bass reverberate through Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where great sandstone slabs jut into the sky, surrounding the audience, and the energy is electric. As the lead singer steps up to the microphone, at the corner of the stage an interpreter translates the lyrics into American Sign Language and uses her whole body to communicate the emotion and feel of the song.
“There are a lot of hearing people who seem to think that deaf and hard of hearing people can’t enjoy music,” said Rachel Berman, a concertgoer who is deaf. She has residual hearing and uses a hearing aid that allows her to hear some lower tones, but she said she struggles with the high notes and cannot make out words. She pointed out that other concert goers may not hear a single note, but they can still feel the pounding rhythms.
“So to go to a concert with an interpreter provided, they give me the words, the accessibility,” said Berman. “That means that deaf and hard of hearing people can enjoy the music. It’s very visual. We can see it. Plus we’re provided the words through the interpreter. So overall, it’s just a different way of viewing and experiencing the music. But we still can enjoy it.”
Her favorite concert? Metallica, which came with a hair-raising performance, bright lights and intense drums.
Natalie Austin interpreted that show as she has many others, at Red Rocks and venues around the state. Two years ago, she co-founded FLOW, a sign language interpreting agency that specializes exclusively in performing arts.
“It’s a personal passion project is for me because I know how important the music and the arts is in my life that I want to do everything in my power to make it accessible to people who are deaf and hard of hearing,” said Austin.
Hearing loss is something Austin has grappled with herself. She was born with a condition that causes progressive hearing loss. When she was 13 years old, doctors recommended she learn ASL because she could lose the rest of her hearing rapidly. She studied Deaf Education, and spent years working in schools. That experience and her passion for the arts grew into FLOW, which interprets art events from jam bands to musical theater.
Performance ASL interpreting requires requires a high level of preparation and creativity.
Ahead of a concert, Austin will research an artist’s top songs, and set lists from previous performances. She looks up the lyrics, and translates them into ASL. That’s a challenge because ASL is a distinct language with its own idioms, and its word order is different than English.
“Rap definitely is one of the most difficult genres, I would say, to interpret,” said Austin. “Because a lot of times, when they do improvise, it’s nonsensical improvisation. And so they’re just doing it because the words maybe rhyme with each other. Which in sign language, doesn’t always translate to something that makes sense to a deaf audience member.”
At the concert, interpreters are performing more than the lyrics. They’re communicating the musicality of the song with their bodies. Austin said that FLOW is often hired to interpret jam bands.
“So you can imagine, a lot of that is showing the guitar and showing the drums… hearing audience members can sit back to the jam and feel the different levels — if it’s just a soft jam, when it gets more intensified. So we have to show that through our bodies, through replicating the instruments with our hands. Also our facial expressions are a big part of it.”
Widespread Panic is a highly-improvisational rock band that frequently performs with an ASL interpreter. Lead singer John Bell said that the first time he saw his music performed in ASL was like the first time he heard his music on the radio.
“It totally messed me up… I’ll sing, and then I’m curious, what does that look like in sign language? So I’d look over at Edie,” said Bell, referring to Edie Jackson, who has been interpreting for the band for 12 years. “And next thing I know, I’m not singing anymore. It’s beautifully distracting. It’s very artistic, the way she is expressing the music too. It’s visually very engaging, so I really have to disconnect and get back to work.”
Concert venues and production companies must provide interpreters upon request, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990.
An update to the law in 2010 streamlined the purchase of ADA tickets to events and confirmed that venues cannot charge higher prices for accessible seats, but Berman said that it can still require extra legwork.
“There are some places who have very odd policies and rules and regulations, such as, if you buy a ticket, you’re not guaranteed to be right in the front with a good view or you’re not guaranteed a certain seat,” she explained. “Typically we need to be in the first or second row… It’s more responsibility on my behalf to have to call and explain, ‘Where’s the seat? What does it look like? Where are the interpreters going to be situated?’”
That’s something Austin is also thinking about as she gets ready for a show.
“Part of what we do is we work directly with the venues to educate them on seat placement, on lighting, on the best vantage point for deaf consumers to sit. There’s been quite a learning curve because if you’ve never experienced it before and you don’t kind of understand all the facets that go into a deaf person attending a concert, there’s lots of things to think about,” said Austin.
From translating lyrics to ensuring line of sight and using facial expressions to communicate intensity, it’s all a part of making music in American Sign Language.
“It’s amazing,” said Berman. “I’m able to be a part of the experience, right along with the other hearing people. I can hear the songs, the lyrics. I’m right there.”