Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Being part of the arena-rock scene is always a thrill for Dudley Cutshaw. Like most Americans his age, Cutshaw grew up loving rock ’n’ roll. Half his life ago, at 16, he saw AC/DC live. It was Cutshaw’s first concert; since then, the Justice Department staffer has attended more than 50 others, from Aerosmith to ZZ Top. Tonight, he’s seeing AC/DC again. But what sets Cutshaw apart from all but one of his fellow concertgoers is that he’s been mostly deaf since a bout of pneumonia and a high fever at age 5.
Cutshaw still has 60 percent of his hearing in his right ear (though none in his left), so he can hear well enough to pick out artists and songs he likes from the radio. And he can understand the lyrics if he studies them in CD booklets or watches them scroll by on close-captioned videos. But until recently, the concert experience for Cutshaw was decidedly inferior to that afforded hearing patrons.
A 1992 Bruce Springsteen show was Cutshaw’s first interpreted concert. Even four years ago, though, bands and venues weren’t experts in staging interpreted rock shows. Sometimes the lighting wasn’t bright enough to see the interpreter. Other times, interpreters were shown on a screen rather than being stationed near hearing-impaired patrons, where they can chat with their audience. Once, at a Metallica show, Cutshaw recalls, the rowdy crowd threw things at the interpreters—then the band began cursing them.
“Things are much better now,” says Robert Gleicher, a hearing-impaired friend of Cutshaw’s who is accompanying him to the AC/DC show. Much of the improvement has come on the heels of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law made performers, promoters, and venues increasingly responsive to the needs of their hearing-impaired ticket-holders—and as a result, there’s a small but growing number of deaf concert patrons who rely on trained interpreters to make live music an “equivalent” experience for them.
Many of the new-generation deaf concertgoers, like Cutshaw, either possess some residual hearing or lost their hearing after adolescence. But they may also share with deaf-from-birth concertgoers an appreciation for the kinds of things hearing customers take for granted—the scene, the visual effects, the vibrations, the opportunity to go out with friends to a show. Regardless of how much or how little hearing one has, all hearing-impaired concertgoers share a reliance on people like Liz Leitch and Traci Randolph to make the event worthwhile.
Leitch and Randolph were assigned to work the AC/DC concert by Sign Language Associates (SLA), a Silver Spring–based interpreting business founded 11 years ago by Janet L. Bailey. Under the ADA, venues are responsible for making sure that any deaf concertgoers buying advance tickets are provided with an interpreter—and as the largest local interpreting agency, SLA provides most of them.
In many ways, tonight’s concert is a typical rock assignment. The interpreters have had to learn the words thoroughly ahead of time—something that in this case took about three weeks, Leitch and Randolph say. They have had to figure out how to express hard-to-translate lyrics (including AC/DC’s infamous vulgarities), and prepare to communicate them clearly and efficiently to the deaf audience, while also conveying a sense of tempo and inflection.
The interpreters are dressed in black to heighten contrast in the low lighting. Depending on the number, Leitch or Randolph perches behind a lectern that holds the lyric sheets; they trade off signing duties every couple of songs to keep fresh.
Bailey insists that her interpreters be unobtrusive to the vast hearing majority, lest the audience find itself distracted from the main event. “There are people who try to turn this into dance,” Bailey says, but while such interpreters often catch the eye—and the fancy—of hearing patrons, they too often do an inadequate job of signing. “We’re there to make the event accessible,” Bailey says. “We’re not there for the glorification of ourselves.”
Bailey was present virtually at the creation of concert interpreting. She signed her first shows in the late ’70s. Often these were televised award shows or concerts at political rallies. Among traveling acts, the early adapters tended to be folk acts with a strong progressive bent, such as Pete Seeger and Sweet Honey in the Rock. (“Back then,” Bailey notes, “no one talked about pay.” Now, fees of $200 to $500 a show are typical.)
Mainstream acceptance at first proved difficult. When Frank Sinatra sang at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball, interpreters were barred. Some performers resented that the interpreters seemed to upstage them. Interpreters have since learned to stand in the sight line between deaf patrons and the stage, but in a low-key location. Sometimes they stand far away from the stage, if that’s where deaf patrons are placed.
“Times have changed, attitudes have changed,” Bailey says. Sinatra’s people, among others, have relented, and he has cooperated with interpreters on numerous occasions since the initial snub. During Barbra Streisand’s appearances a few years back, some of her staffers were initially concerned about the interpreters’ impact on the intricate lighting setup. But once the concerns were aired, Bailey says, they were smoothed out. “People eventually realized we were not a distraction. So by the time the ADA came, we had 10 years of experience.”
The major consequence of the ADA was to send a wake-up call to concert venues, which had never been forced to do much for their deaf patrons. Indeed, there weren’t many deaf concertgoers in those days—though the ADA has definitely changed that. Many hearing-impaired people who had never considered seeing a live concert because of the hassles involved were suddenly able to call ahead for a ticket and be guaranteed, at no charge to them, simultaneous translation by a trained professional. (A similar deaf attendance boom has occurred with stage dramas and musicals, which account for an even larger portion of SLA’s business.)
Not everybody is entirely happy with the trend. For one thing, there have been ideological chasms. The deaf community has periodically undergone nasty infighting between those who believe that the disabled should operate within their own culture and those who believe that some accommodation to and participation in mainstream culture is acceptable and necessary.
While interpreters say it is difficult to generalize, deaf concertgoers generally fall into the latter camp—and this active interest in such a quintessentially “hearing” activity has periodically angered hard-line advocates of a separate deaf culture. A few years ago, militant deaf activists sporadically protested their deaf brethren who attended concerts, but more recently the hubbub has died down.
“There are some in the deaf community that would speak for the deaf community and are very militant,” says Bill Pugin, a one-time Washington-based partner of Bailey’s who is now president of L.A.’s Sign Language Co. “They feel music is a hearing thing, and that concerts don’t belong to deaf people. You always have that controversy. But now it’s not such a big deal. There’s a feeling that if you want to go, go, and if you don’t want to go, don’t go.”
The other source of griping is smaller-club owners. When AC/DC fills the USAir Arena, a couple hundred bucks for a team of interpreters is not going to narrow anybody’s profit margin. That’s not the case for concerts at smaller venues, where the extra expense can take a big bite out of one night’s revenues and quite possibly spell the difference between a profit and a loss.
A couple of times a year, the 9:30 Club hosts deaf patrons, usually from Gallaudet University, for concerts. But part-owner Seth Hurwitz isn’t very happy about what he has to provide when they come knocking. “If they say they’re enjoying the show, I believe them, but it does sort of boggle the mind,” he says. Being deaf and wanting to go to a concert “sounds crazy to me. But we’re supposed to do it, and I don’t want to be the one to challenge it. If one person wants to go, and it costs me $600, is it fair? I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem fair to me.”
Bailey and other interpreters take pride in turning their work into something more than just a simple translation; they seek to make it a creative endeavor in itself. “For me, it’s an equivalent experience—artistic, pretty, true to the material,” Bailey says. “It is a show, of sorts. We want to make sure it’s interesting.”
For instance, Bailey says she once experienced an emotional epiphany midsong; it came during a Reba McEntire ballad about AIDS. “Rehearsing it, the meaning didn’t hit me,” she says. “When I was there performing it, live on stage, the meaning became so clear that I changed my interpretation of it on the spot. It’s a special feeling.”
“It reinforces how much this is an art form,” adds Vino Dyels, a full-time interpreter who came to SLA after working in theater. “I did a Mary Chapin Carpenter show. She’s a very strong lyricist, with strong emotions. As she explained the songs, it helped. As an interpreter, you have to bring that out. It’s important to Mary Chapin Carpenter, and also to the people that chose to see the concert, to understand what the songs are about.”
For other bands, Bailey & Co. stick to a far more narrow agenda. Their degree of preparation is usually proportional to the amount of lead time the patron and the venue have afforded them. Dyels says that if he has a month to prepare, he’ll spend five to six times the length of the show practicing.
“I take the music and listen to it a lot,” Bailey explains. “I put it on in the car, in my house. I try to do it without thinking about it—how my gut would do it. I analyze it, come up with a translation. Then I practice it, and practice it, and practice it—until I make a mistake. Then I go back to the beginning and start over. Then I bring in people to watch me, and we go through it together.”
Practice is definitely required to iron out preventable rough spots. An interpreter will have to decide how to sign nonstandard English (“I don’t get no satisfaction” might not have the same punch if its grammar were tidied up), how to handle proper names (which must be spelled letter by letter unless an alternate code is devised), how to keep pace with rapid-fire lyrics, how to handle multiple speakers in the same song, and how to communicate concepts that are either nonsensical or have no sign-language equivalents.
“It’s like a poem that’s being translated into a foreign language by three different people,” Bailey says. “You’re not summarizing. You’re trying to make it a whole experience as well. You have artistic license.”
Pugin considers Joan Baez–style folk the easiest genre to interpret, followed by rhythmic, rhyming rap (though he’s never tried it himself) and industrial music or heavy metal, where the lyrics are less central to the performance. Much harder are old standards, Cole Porter songs for example, whose witty words are laced with double entendres.
Still, not even the most thorough preparation beforehand will guarantee a smooth ride. Between-song patter is generally not rehearsed. And since it’s impossible to know a singer’s entire oeuvre, interpreters occasionally need to translate on the fly.
The customers, Bailey says, “know when you’re winging it.” One time, Bailey was handling a George Strait concert when Strait decided to sing a bizarre song that had something to do with blue cows. “I had no clue what he was talking about,” Bailey says. “About half the hearing people didn’t understand it either. We got to be hysterical.”
At the AC/DC concert, though, things go smoothly, and Cutshaw and Gleicher appear to bond with Leitch and Randolph. As the interpreters sign the 50th iteration of the phrase “hell’s bells” or the 79th “boogie man,” they roll their eyes in mock exasperation, and their two-man audience smiles and nods sympathetically. For all the talk about making concerts an “equivalent” experience for deaf patrons, the evening proves that a such shows can turn into something more. After the climactic round of cannonfire that closes the show, Cutshaw and Gleicher are able to return home knowing that they are probably the only two people in the arena who understood each line that the band belted out tonight. CP