Performance interpreters… 

I recall seeing a photo online a while back of Anthony, lead singer in Red Hot Chili Peppers, perform next to an American SignLanguage  interpreter. Social media went crazy with people desperate to know who the interpreter was – who actually now receives a fan following in her own right. Sassy, expressive and fully owning the song, she wasn’t just an interpreter, she was a performer

And then here in Blighty  last summer, I noticed the buzzing of excitement amongst my deaf festival goer friends as they discovered their favourite artists would be performing with a – gasp! – sign language interpreter beside them. 

We’ve had interpreters at musicals and theatre productions for a while now but at gigs… And rock concerts…? What’s going on? 

Well, may I introduce Performance Interpreting who work across the UK delivering high quality, artistic sign language interpreters at various events… Specialising –  obviously – in performing arts 😉

Headed by full time interpreter, Marie Pascall, the company was  initially set up after seeing her friend refused Sign language access to a festival she wanted to attend. Recognising there was a huge gap in the music industry, Marie set to work encouraging venues and promoters to make their events accessible to the deaf community.

The aim of Perofrmance Interpreting is to open as many doors as possible to provide quality access and social inclusion.  They also work with Deaf BSL Interpreters and Performers too. 

And to ensure the company is led by its clients – so to speak – Performance Interpreting has recently set up a BSL steering group in conjunction with Attitude is Everything to ensure the deaf community are truly represented and have a real impact in accessible services going forward.

And it seems all of her hard work is beginning to pay off. I was delighted to discover that the company, which was only formed a mere 18 months ago has landed some very exciting agreements. 

And I’m thrilled to tell you guys about one of them. 

If you ever want to attend a show at Nottingham’s Motorpoint arena, you can request an interpreter on your preferred attending date and they will provide one, courtesy of Performance Interpreting. 

They also have BSL interpretations as part of their core programme too! See their access page here: 

https://www.motorpointarenanottingham.com/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=accessibility&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id=&menu_id=EB781A11-F20A-4C58-BE1D-685D821B2A85

This is a world away from my concert going days when interpreters were usually just your best hearing friend that you had dragged along to tell you what the band were talking about in between the songs… This is kind of news is nothing short of groundbreaking. 

And I must stress that the calibre of interpreters used by Performance Interprters  is outstanding.

Performance Interpreters actually invited two of Limping Chicken’s biggest rock music fans to attend a signed interpreted Limp Bizkit & Korn concert. And to say that they were impressed by the service is an understatement.

(See lovely William and Sammi below) 


These guys, both deaf sign language users, are big on their music but had never attended a sign interpreted show before. I was curious… Would they enjoy it? Here’s what they had to say..

“The interpreter was fantastic, she really learnt all the words and interpret them excellent. She was clear, and did really well with some really fast songs which I don’t think I could do!”

Judging by the amount of preparation the interpreter, Susan Merrick, had to undertake before the show, I’m impressed and relieved that it all worked out. Because contrary to assumptions, concert interpreters don’t get given a band set list. At least not until 15 minutes before showtime – at the best of times! 

For a band that performs 15-20 songs this means 20+ hours of study time for the interpreter – researching, learning, revising and translating lyrics. And knowing that theres no guarantee which song will be performed and possibly new ones premiered on the night, these are interpreters of a whole different league. 

William and Sammi also mentioned that the interpreter did more than just sign the words…

“She matched with the music, and swearing too. She even added the instruments sounds and pitch, which is really useful.”

I saw a clip of Susan performing a song by Korn and I was mesmerised by how she depicted the sounds of the instruments. The staccato. The fluidity. The overlapping tones. They were all visible. And that was when I realised that Performance Intepreters really are opening doors – not just by providing access at concerts – but by delivering artistic translations of a high standard that actually do the songs justice. 

I was fortunate enough to see a few other of their interpreters in action too and I can equally vouch for their are artistic excellence. After seeing them I felt like saying “Yes, finally! Someone gets it!” Because they fuse the BSL content with the lyrical meaning and their body becomes a rhythmical tool. 

They have the ability  to introduce music to those who perhaps would usually turn away from it. And that’s powerful stuff. 

That said. It is still early days and there are still improvements and adjustments to be made. The positioning of the interpreter at the concert isn’t ideal, and sadly nowhere near the stage… 

“I would have liked to be in the crowd in standing area, and the interpreter possibly to stand by the stage as I like to see how they play their instruments. 

Plus where we were in seating, we were at the back of the arena, just behind the standing, we had bit of trouble of seeing the band as there were some tall people which sort of blocking the view of stage. “

I noticed that the placement of interpreters seems to differ; on some occasions they’re on stage but more than often they’re not. Personally speaking I would like the interpreter as close to the performer as possible. Which is why we – the deaf concert goers – need to speak up and work with the venues. 

One person in particular who has worked with and for the deaf community remarkably well is Stephen Chaston – the Access Manager for Motorpoint Arena. 

Stephen helped Motorpoint Arena to win an Outstanding Attitude’s Award and the arena has now been awarded a gold standard by Attitude is Everything who monitor accessiblity. They were recognised for their commitment to and excellent delivery of accessibly services. 

Stephen’s aim is for as many Deaf British Sign Language Users to enjoy as many events as possible. So I am optimistic that the placement of interpreters could be easily resolved if discussions begin and more feedback is received. 

The arena does have an access page on their website and details on their award from Attitude is Everything can be found here: 

http://www.attitudeiseverything.org.uk/resources/outstanding-attitude-awards-2016/motorpoint-arena-nottingham/

 Performance Interpreters can be followed on social media and on their site to keep updated on the latest accessible shows. You can also find out about other accessible arenas near you too. 

https://www.facebook.com/pg/performanceinterpreting/events/?ref=page_internal

http://performanceinterpreting.co.uk

But please remember that any requests for interpreters must be sent to the arena 28 days before the date of the show and if you can – please always give feedback. 

And if you want to attend an event but it isn’t sign language interpreted, why not drop Performance Interpreting an email and they will see if they can help. 

Isn’t it wonderful to see so many new doors opening? Musicals, festivals, concerts, comedy, cabaret, dance…. what’s next? 

And as somebody who loves to see fab-u-lous artistic deliveries of sign language, I know what I’ll be getting up to in 2017.

Strictly come dancing, sign language interpreted?! Hmm I don’t mind if I do 😉 

The role of a sign singer

Signsong tends to spark a love it/hate it response from the Deaf community. However as a performer and tutor of signsong I can see for myself how interest in the art form is surely growing.

But when I tell people what it is I do, I still get the occasional screwed up face and an exclamation of:

“But you’re deaf! Music isn’t for deaf people!”

Cue exasperated sigh. Because here is where they have the most common misconception.

Its. Not. About. The. Music.

If sign song was all about our ability to hear then yes, I would put my hands up and get myself another job. But it’s not. Baffled? Let me explain.

I’ve always believed that signsingers are in effect very skilled story tellers. When you look at a song you are basically looking at a story. The lyrics, of course, are the words to this tale.

The melody of the lyrics portray the unique style in which the tale is being expressed. This can involve emphasising certain words or phrases, and even the clever use of pauses for dramatic effect.

The musical setting – the tone, pace, composition of notes – all works to set and support the mood of the story. Drum breaks and crescendos can amplify powerful feelings whereas softer instrumentals depict a sorrowful sentiment.

You may wonder how this is possible if you can’t actually hear the music and therefore can’t pick up the style, the mood or the tale of a story. And this is where those signsinging sceptics are partly right. Because I would never choose to perform a song that I could not follow.

A lot of the songs I use have strong bass lines, powerful beats and easily identifiable rhythms. Without giving my performance secrets away too much, it’s mostly memory and guess work that keeps me in time with the music. That and my trusty communicator, Lady Liz, who dutifully acts as my visual metronome throughout the song and cues my song starts.

There have been times where my hearing aid has cut off mid performance and I’ve had to rely on the visual beat I could see in the form of Liz’s hand tapping and my own memory of the song’s rhythm to keep me in time. Maybe it’s my years as a dancer that has given me the ability to remember rhythms physically, but I do think it’s a skill that can be developed.

Funnily enough, I’ve met plenty of hearing people who are tone deaf and as musical as a plank of wood… And yet there are Deaf people who naturally have rhythm in their soul. They may be aware of this gift from a young age, depending on their exposure to music and its accessibility. Other times it takes a while before they discover this form of expression.

Countless times in my sign song workshops I’ve met children and adults who have, in their words, called themselves ‘Proper Deaf.’ These are strong BSL users who most definitely do not want to associate themselves with music.

But throughout the course of the workshop they find they’ve learnt a brand new way of expressing themselves. A way that takes their native language and paints a visual picture, supported by a rhythmical frame of beats and pauses.

Some participants have even been moved to tears, overjoyed that they are now able to access the lyrics of the great songwriters and fully share their meaning. There are phrases in songs that can depict a powerful sentiment in a simple sentence and made even more beautiful by using sign language.

I believe the role of a signsinger is to tell the story as visually and honestly as possible. We are not merely ‘interpreting the music’ or ‘translating the words.’ Instead we embody the song and become living personifications for the story that is being told. We become the tale.

By breaking down the rhythmical components of the song and ultimately communicating the ‘story,’ sign singing is most definitely an art form that all children and adults can participate in – regardless of their ability to physically hear.

We all have a story to tell. And sign singing is just one way of expressing it.

Exclusive interview with Jules Dameron, director of ASL version of Let it Go

There is no denying that the Disney film Frozen has taken the world by storm. And its iconic song, Let it Go, has enjoyed tremendous success.

With over 265 million views on You Tube and an academy award for best original song, it has been translated into 42 languages.

And now, thanks to the Deaf Professional Arts Network, the National Technical Institute for the deaf and Film Director, Jules Dameron, we can enjoy a stunning performance of the song in American Sign Language.

Shot in coastal central California amidst mountains and beaches, the video employs the talents of deaf artists Amber Zion and Jason Listman to capture the true essence of the song and they do so – beautifully.

Working together with an all-deaf crew, it’s no exaggeration when I say these guys have produced something truly spectacular. I’m gushing, I know.

But as someone who has worked in signed song for 10 years now, I can honestly say this production surpasses anything I have ever seen.

Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t feel like a ‘typical’ signed song video. Its outdoors, for one thing which already makes it different.

It’s grand and expansive, unlike the studio shoots we’re so used to seeing. But even more significant for me is the way that it feels and looks like part of a dramatic production.

The artists aren’t just signers, translating the lyrics. They are the song itself. By becoming its characters and embodying the music, they convey the story with each movement they make.

Every last detail from the hair and make up to the structure of the signs has been carefully considered to match the vision of the song.

And it is this commitment to acting out the song’s meaning as opposed to merely interpreting the lyrics that demonstrates to me the recipe for signed song success.

It isn’t any wonder that the video gained over 70,000 views in less than a week.

So of course, wanting to know more about the brains behind the project, I got in touch with Jules Dameron. It didn’t take me long to discover that Let it Go wasn’t her first venture from narrative fiction into music videos.

On the music scene she has worked with internationally renowned deaf rapper Sean Forbes, Hollywood actress Marlee Matlin, Sean Berdy of Switched at Birth and my personal favourite, professional deaf actress Amber Zion.

Chatting to Jules herself has been truly insightful. I was reassured to find a working professional who also believes that signed song can be both visually stunning and entirely accessible.

Providing captions and signed translations does not mean we have to scrimp on style. And it is this sense of artistic freedom and creativity that I feel will encourage not only other film makers but future generations of sign singers too.

For way too long in England we have questioned the value of signed song and its place in our deaf community. We have assumed it belongs mostly to hearing people learning to sign or to those who ‘aren’t really Deaf.’

And by doing so we have settled for accepting less than average versions of signed songs as the ‘norm’ without pushing the boundaries of our artistic talents and seeing what actually can be created.

Jules’ version of Let it Go has proved once and for all that signed song can be an art form for deaf people to be proud of – and – most importantly, part of.

Using deaf artists of the highest standard and a crew of very talented deaf professionals, she has invited us all to experience and enjoy a song that the rest of the world has already fallen in love with. And if that isn’t beautiful accessibility, I don’t know what is.

Read on for an exclusive interview with Jules herself as well as behind the scenes images of the Let it Go shoot.

REBECCA: Firstly, how did the transition from directing regular dramatic shoots to musical ones come about? Were there any unexpected challenges? And if you had to choose – which would you prefer to direct, drama or music? 

JULES: Truth be told, I started doing music videos because they were easier and quicker to be released. No need for a complicated process with sound in post-production, and I could just focus on the visuals more.

While I work on narrative fiction stories, I like to fill my down time with music videos. They’re just a joy and fun to work with.

The first unexpected challenge when I first started doing music videos was the fact that I basically had to come up with a visual concept from scratch, rather than just filming a performance of a song.

In the beginning, I was overwhelmed with that, but then after I got the hang of it, I was able to apply what I learned in directing narrative fictions to this process.

I enjoy all kinds of directing— as long as I get to work directly with a performer and seeing them bring their best performance, I’m as happy as a clam. I do enjoy working with narrative fictions mainly, but music videos are definitely loads of fun!

REBECCA: Before your very first music video shoot, what was your exposure to signed songs? Had you seen lots of performances or videos? Who or what inspired you?

JULES: I had seen some of Rosa Lee Timm’s stuff, and I adored her. She had that quality where I could actually sign along with her, particularly “She Drives Me Crazy” and “It Feels So Good.”

I think, honestly, I didn’t think about music videos all that much. I just treated them like fiction narratives (as you can tell, I’m sure!) But I think it was really after I started making more sign language music videos that I started to fall in love with watching them online.

At that time, we didn’t have that many to begin with. We still don’t have enough, but we’ve got many more now than ever.

REBECCA: On a personal note, what’s your relationship with music? Are there any artists or bands you would LOVE to direct for?

JULES: I have always loved music ever since I was little. My entire family, they’re all musicians, basically. I’m the only filmmaker in my family.

I think I ended up directing films because it was a medium that I could work with and we all could share that creative performance spirit.

I’ve always been obsessed with Billy Joel’s work, and so many songs from movie musicals. Like “Moulin Rouge” or “Les Miserables.” I’ve always been in love with musicals. I would love to work with Bruno Mars, actually. I just love his performance spirit.

REBECCA: Putting your directors cap on… In your eyes, what is it that makes a good sign song performer? What do you look for when casting / focus on when rehearsing? 

JULES: Good question. I am absolutely adamant that the performer her/himself has an incredible work ethic and is highly collaborative.

Those are the top qualities I look for whenever I look for a performer or work with one. Those qualities define the project, ultimately. I look for someone who has the guts to commit to showing emotion in a performance and is willing to learn and keep practicing in rehearsal for a great amount of time.

Basically a great performance is 95% homework/rehearsal and 5% making sure your energy is spot-on while being filmed or being on stage. I don’t think many people realize that when they get into it for the first time.

Having the ability to show emotion is a very tough ability to develop for anyone, but once it’s there, then the entire performance pays off and is highly rewarding.

REBECCA: Most people want to know how the artists keep in time with the music – what methods do you use to support them with this? And when editing how do you ensure the sound is matched perfectly in sync with the performance (especially with a 100% deaf crew and cast!) 

JULES: This is a very interesting area that people don’t realize.

Basically, since I’m the director of this project, I felt the need to memorize the song as much as I could, timing-wise, and make sure that my performers are on time.

So when I watch them sign a lyric, I make sure the timing of the lyric itself matches with the time I memorized, musically.

A lot of music performing for deaf people involves time memorization. No easy feat, to be sure. I edited this, and I can only hear if I use heavy-duty amplified headphones, so I used those to help me match the timing of the edit.

The sing-a-long karaoke version of “Let it Go” online was a big help to help us figure out exactly where the words were said, so we worked on that.

I know how important it is to be on time with the lyrics, because otherwise, we’d just be a novelty act, just signing words, without the marriage to the song.

REBECCA: Your ASL version of Let it Go has gone viral! How did the idea for this come about? What thoughts were behind selecting your performers/location and aspects of pre production? 

JULES: Nick Zerlentes, a good friend of mine, and I just became obsessed together with the song, we actually started translating it into ASL on our own, and we thought it’d be great to make it into a project.

At around the same time, Amber Zion fell in love with it too, and told me that she wanted to do it. Jason Listman was a new friend of mine and Nick’s, and we thought it’d be a great idea to have everyone work together on it.

I wanted to incorporate both genders in this project because I thought it’d welcome young boys to feel included in this song, as well.

At that time, I decided that we needed to contribute to the deaf community by making sure we have a 100% deaf cast and crew in the making of this project. What other better song to do it than this?

REBECCA: In your own view, how is signed song received in the US? Are people generally supportive / enthusiastic about it? What sort of feedback have you received? 

JULES: One thing’s for sure, ASL is highly widespread in the US now. It’s become an extremely popular trend and we hope that it continues to stay in the mainstream.

People are very supportive of sign language in general. When it comes to deaf people, it’s a different situation.

We are now focusing on letting the deaf people make their own communication choices, at the same time, we are accepting each other’s differences.

Each deaf person has an entirely different way of communicating due to the fact that each parent raises them differently.

We know that sign language is highly accessible, since it’s a visual form of communication, and we hope that this awareness continues to stay strong and allow deaf people everywhere to have access to language.

REBECCA: As you may or may not know, one area of criticism for signed song artists over here is whether they are using British Sign Language appropriately. Is this the same for ASL? Is there anything the artists are particularly sensitive about when translating the lyrics? 

JULES: Yes, it’s all the same issues, both ways. In my professional opinion, if the performer loves the song, and does it well, with emotion and thought behind it, that’s all that truly matters.

There is something to be said about doing a proper grammar and structure to ASL, which I have a huge respect for, but then there’s the creative process as well, which allows you to break rules all the time.

REBECCA: And finally… do you have any plans for forthcoming music videos and are you coming to England any time soon ? 

JULES: Nothing planned yet! And I’d LOVE to come to England. Anyone over there want to make a music video? I’m down!

Form an orderly queue, folks!

The novelty of sign language…

As someone who works in signed song – that is, performing songs in sign language – my first priority is always the comprehension of the signs. I take the responsibility of making lyrics accessible verrrrry seriously. 

That doesn’t mean they have to look uninteresting, however. Oh no. One of the most beautiful aspects of working with sign language is how creative you can be with it, producing visual pictures and emotive shapes that convey what written lyrics express. 

To be understood and to also inspire is what I aspire to do with every signed song performance. 

So imagine my disappointment when a well known mainstream band decided to employ sign singers (or deaf actors as they call them) for a live performance… I eagerly got in touch and received an email indicating that for the audition video we should not “mouth the words at all…” 

They requested an an ’emotive signed performance’ without any lip pattern, something I find highly unnatural as a sign language user. Who signs with their mouth completely shut?! Several words share the same sign too so by eliminating the lip pattern we can’t clarify which word we mean… How on earth is that accessible signing? 

They sent me a link to a video they’d already produced with a signer performing with absolutely no lip pattern at all. There are also no captions. So the actual content of the song is lost. It’s just a pretty straight faced lady signing randomly. 

This isn’t the first time this has happened and I can empathise with the deaf artist who may have felt she had no choice but to follow the direction. I’ve also worked on videos where the director has asked for things from the sign language “make this one bigger” or “do this one slowly”  and despite my attempts to explain why the original sign should be kept simple I’ve been reminded that I’m only the signer after all; the director has full artistic control. 

The saddest thing about working in this way is that not only are deaf artists giving up their language, they are handing it over to people who don’t know much about it at all; effectively turning the sign singer into nothing but a puppet. 

“Sign this way” “don’t use your mouth” “exaggerate the signs” – all of this direction to make a piece of ‘art’ is taking away what sign language really is. A language. 

By breaking it up and playing around with its delivery, we are taking away its power to communicate clearly and comprehensively. Sign language IS beautiful already. Let’s not allow it to be turned into a novelty by those who don’t understand its content. 

We need more videos made by either deaf directors or directors with an understanding and knowledge of sign. We need to take back the reins when it comes to signed song performances and remember who we are signing for; the sign language users. If they can’t understand us, what truly is the point? 

So it goes without saying that I shan’t be signing up to do this particular job. Sign language is not a novelty or something to be in awe of. I refuse to take it apart all for the sake of having a visual impact. And ultimately, I am most definitely, definitely not a puppet.