Your eyes – and ears – at Lollapalooza ’09

Sign, sign everywhere a sign - Barbie Parker, one of a handful of performance interpreters at Lollapalooza over the weekend, works the Kaiser Chiefs show.

Sign, sign everywhere a sign - Barbie Parker, one of a handful of performance interpreters at Lollapalooza over the weekend, works the Kaiser Chiefs show.


If you got close enough to some of the main stages at Lollapalooza last weekend, you may have noticed solitary figures standing just off to the side of the bands, grooving and swaying away to the beat. They looked like they had the best spot in the house. But, like the bands, they were actually working.

These people are “performance interpreters,” experts in American Sign Language who translate song lyrics for the deaf in real-time. There were about four of these interpreters working 25 or so Lolla shows over the weekend, and CKOW caught up with some of them to learn more about what looks like a really cool job.

Barbie Parker (pictured in action above) said she’s been signing live shows for about 10 years. She’s president of Alive Performance Interpreting (based in Austin, Tex., as is C3 Presents, Lollapalooza’s promoter), which had her and a few others shuttling back and forth on golf carts between Grant Park stages over the weekend.

Doing her homework - Parker totes around a thick ring-binder notebook full of song lyrics.

Doing her homework - Parker totes around a thick ring-binder notebook full of song lyrics, to make sure she knows what she's signing.

Parker, 41, said signing for concerts is a step beyond simply interpreting spoken words. A live music performance has “a certain rhythm, a certain tone,” Parker said after signing for the Kaiser Chiefs show Sunday. “You need to sign so it follows the flow” of the music.

From watching Parker and her cohorts, that’s definitely evident, and they look good at what they do. Not only are they signing sometimes profane or indecipherable lyrics that often come at a rapid-fire clip, they also bob and shift with the music, often mimicking a guitar strum or drum beat when no words are being sung.

Doing the job takes a lot of preparation, Parker said. The interpreters must know all the song lyrics ahead of time, of course, requiring some Internet research, lots of iPod time and getting their hands on a band’s set list before the show. But there are perks, she said, including hanging out with the bands after their shows. Among many highlights, Parker cited hanging with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam after the band’s Lollapalooza appearance in 2007.

Different kinds of music present different challenges, Parker said. With heavy metal, for example, you sign “harder… the beat is faster. For classical or folk, you’d be soft and slow.” Punk and rap, she said, “are hard for me to sign. It’s hard to hear the lyrics sometimes.”

Parker and fellow Alive Performance interpreter Lucy Brotherton, backstage before the Vampire Weekend show Sunday.

Parker and fellow Alive Performance interpreter Lucy Brotherton, backstage before the Vampire Weekend show Sunday.

CKOW is on the hunt for recession-resistant jobs these days, and Parker says hers falls into that category. Interpreters, particularly those who can do live shows, are “highly in demand,” she said. So how’s the pay? You can make “a hell of a lot of money,” she said, declining to offer specifics (according to SimplyHired.com, the average sign language interpreter salary in Austin is $51,000 a year).

To hear Parker tell it, it’s not about the money. The best thing about the job? “The music and the language,” she said. “I have a love affair with the language.”

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2 responses to “Your eyes – and ears – at Lollapalooza ’09

  1. Totally agree – sometimes it’s more fun watching these guys than the actual band. Particularly when it’s Amy Winehouse from two years back.

  2. Pingback: LOVE THIS: The 9 Best Sign Language Performances From Music Festivals | RSS Lens

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