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This sign language interpreter makes Coachella accessible (and awesome) for deaf concertgoers

Interpreter manager Sara Groves and a team spend weeks preparing, analyzing, and memorizing song lyrics and their corresponding signs.

This sign language interpreter makes Coachella accessible (and awesome) for deaf concertgoers
SarahGroves, Position: Interpreter manager, Rise Interpreting. Appearances: Nipsey Hussle, Garth Brooks, the Bangles. Memorable show: When Garth Brooks leaped onto her signing stage and sang alongside her. [Photo: Brian Guido]

As an interpreter manager at Rise Interpreting, Sara Groves makes sure people who are deaf or hard of hearing can still rock out at music festivals like Stagecoach and Coachella. She and a team of more than a dozen nationally certified American Sign Language interpreters spend months preparing for concert season, studying performers’ mannerisms, predicting set lists, and memorizing lyrics while figuring out how to translate them into ASL. Groves estimates that Rise interpreters work 25 music events per year, and she has personally signed for Garth Brooks, the Bangles, and the late Nipsey Hussle (though she still gets nervous in front of crowds). “Most of the time it’s about making sure that I remember all the lyrics and I get the meaning across, and that [audiences] feel that connection with the performers,” she says. Here’s how she elevates her craft into its own performance art.

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FIND THE REAL MEANING

Groves doesn’t have difficulty hearing—she had a deaf classmate in elementary school and “just fell in love with the language.” Today, she manages a fleet of 175 interpreters who translate classroom lessons and speaking events, along with about 15 who specialize in music. “In a classroom, you’re giving information that’s pretty standardized,” Groves says. “Cell reproduction hasn’t changed much over the years.” Concerts are more complicated: Even though her team researches set lists beforehand, musicians sometimes add deep cuts or wordplay to live performances. A few weeks before any show, Groves reviews lyric-analysis site Genius and searches out fans to ensure she gains a groupie-level understanding of songs. She’ll consult with fellow interpreters and, if necessary, a Facebook group of other sign-language performers. “We go through all of the lyrics [and ask], What do they mean here? And how do we interpret it?” By the time interpreters arrive at a show, they’ve spent hours studying “gloss” sheets that map out the exact signs they’ll use.

SET THE STAGE FOR SUCCESS

Rise’s interpreters are performers in their own right. At Coachella this year, they sent a team of seven who worked with roughly a dozen acts, including headliners Childish Gambino and Ariana Grande. Rise staffs two people per performance: a stage interpreter and a support interpreter, who feeds the lead team member lyrics and assists from backstage. (At Stagecoach a few years ago, this job included dumping water over Groves’s head between songs as temperatures reached 115 degrees.) Interpreters use audio packs similar to the bands’, and often stand on a separate platform with a dedicated spotlight. “Because deaf people use their eyes as communication, we don’t like to use the house lights, which go out,” Groves says.

CAPTURE THE MOOD

Concerts sometimes have elements with no ASL equivalent. “When it comes to sound, I’ve done air guitar onstage for five minutes,” Groves says. When Paul McCartney played Dodger Stadium, a Rise interpreter telegraphed the upbeat chorus of “Hey Jude” with a bright expression and by bobbing in time to the “na-na-na, nas.” For double-entendre lyrics like Kelis’s “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,” Groves says her team might use the literal sign for a milkshake followed by one for “booty, kind of joking.” Cardi B’s references to “bloody shoes” during the Rolling Loud festival in Los Angeles required similar creative interpretation. Groves sometimes also conveys meaning through her posture and mannerisms. While signing for country star Jason Aldean at Stagecoach this year, she made her movements more rigid and terse while he sang about farming and hard labor. “There’s not a lot of emotion in his songs when it comes to that,” she says.


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GIVE ATTENDEES OPTIONS

People have different degrees of hearing loss, so Groves tries to talk to the deaf attendees who have requested her services before each show, to figure out their needs. There are also cultural disconnects: Before a Nipsey Hussle show, she asked her clients how they wanted her to sign his slang use of the N-word. “They looked at me and said, ‘You’re gonna sign homies,’  ” she says. Groves still struggles with some venues placing interpreters in areas that don’t have a direct eyeline to the stage, but she believes that music is becoming more accessible overall. This year, Coachella added custom floors that reverberate along with the music so the audience can “feel” sound, and offered SubPacs (see sidebar) at select stages. Coachella and Stagecoach both provided designated areas with dual-screen closed-captioning systems, which show the performer with closed-captioning on one side and an ASL interpreter on the other.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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