MANCHESTER, Tennessee — As soon as we hit SZA's set at Bonnaroo, we couldn't help but notice two women on a platform in front of the stage who took turns interpreting the songs for deaf attendees. Between their familiarity with SZA's material, their speed, and energy, it was hard to keep our eyes exclusively on the stage, even SZA totally killing it. Watching them at work was fascinating because there isn't much representation of the live concert experience for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
After the show, we spoke with Jenn Abbott, one of the interpreters attending Bonnaroo through Everyone's Invited, an organization that helps make festivals accessible for attendees with disabilities. Jenn told us about all the important work Everyone's Invited does at festivals, how interpreters prepare for shows, and so much more.
MTV: You have such a cool job! Are you guys hired through Bonnaroo?
Jenn Abbott: We work for a company called Everyone’s Invited, which is headed up by Laura Grunfeld and she is amazing. At the festival she provides access for really everyone—the name is not just a play on words, she actually makes sure everyone’s invited. She has a charging strip for people’s powered wheelchairs at night—anything you can imagine to make this more accessible. She makes sure all the ramps, all the bathrooms, everything is set so everyone has equal access to the festival.
She kinda builds a team, they have deaf raters—raters, we call them—who review the videos for the interpreters to make sure our team is as top-notch as possible. There’s a bunch of deaf people that come and a lot of times too they don’t know there’s an interpreter here at Bonnaroo and they’ll just happen notice us and stop by the Access Center and be like, ‘This is awesome, I wanna see these shows.’ It’s always great with all these people here, more and more people see that we’re providing access because we are so visible.
MTV: Yeah, so what you do is so much bigger than interpreting shows—
Abbott: Yeah, it’s so much bigger. Interpreting is a small portion of Everyone’s Invited and we love it, it’s great for us. For most of our team, we all go to shows, we all go to concerts, so being able to bring that feeling of being in a crowd to the deaf patrons is so amazing for us.
MTV: Do you get the set list before the performance?
Abbott: No, we do not, we get it before the show most of the time, not always. The interpreters for this team do a lot of research before we get here, usually about at least a month—at least—before we come, of prep work. Requests are sent in by the deaf people beforehand and we try to build the schedule off of that. Obviously, they have the same access as the hearing people, so they request last-minute shows, and maybe once they’re here they decide they’re not feeling one they've already requested, so we try to cover that the best we can.
MTV: How do you research—watching videos?
Abbott: Yeah, we do a lot of research on each individual performer. We’ll look up previous set lists online, we’ll print out lyrics, try to analyze a little bit, we’ll watch a lot of live videos, because a lot of recorded tracks are a little bit different when they’re live, so you want to get that feel of how they move across the stage, and how they present each song, because when you’re reading the lyrics it might be a completely different look on stage, so we try to match the two and make this happy marriage of the lyrics and what we see on stage.
We also listen to a lot of YouTube videos that we see of them, we listen to a lot—a lot—of interviews and recordings to find out where they’re from, that kind of stuff, to put all the pieces into one happy little puzzle for us.
MTV: Yeah, so, if SZA does a new song, like she did today, you sign as you hear it?
Abbott: So, interpreting at its core is taking in one language and putting out the other, so basically that’s how we have to roll. If we haven’t heard it before, it’s new for them, it’s new for the hearing people, it’s new for the deaf people, it’s new for us, so it’s just new for everyone.
MTV: I know a big part of sign language is trying to emote on your face—
Abbott: Oh, absolutely. We try to match what the performers are doing on stage. So, what you saw from myself and LaToya for SZA will not look the same for Billy Joel or Childish Gambino or Gary Clark Jr. They all look very different. I mean, yesterday I went from Against Me! to this and Against Me! and SZA could not be any more different. So you try and make sure—that’s what part of the research is—is to make sure that we’re matching what’s happening.
MTV: How many interpreters are on your team?
Abbott: There are 11 people on our team. There’s usually two per show—at this festival, and we’ll work together beforehand to figure out a set list and how we want to attack the show and we’ll go from there.
MTV: On average how many of these do you do a day? How many shows does each person do?
Abbott: It really varies. It varies depending on the schedule, depending on the requests—everything is request-based, so we make sure that if somebody says, 'Hey I really want to go to this show,’ we say, ‘Sure,’ and provide it. There are also request forms, so if somebody shows up last minute and goes to Access and fills out a form, it gets fit into our schedule somehow. So, tonight, somebody’s covering D’Angelo at like 2 a.m., which no one was expecting, but we had a request for it so we fill it right in and try to make sure that—you know, as hearing patrons you can go to any show that you want, so we want to try to make sure that our deaf patrons have the same access to go wherever they want. So we may not have done the research for D’Angelo, we weren’t prepared for it, but we do that last minute interpreting and make it happen.
MTV: Is there any element of choice when you guys are fulfilling your requests? Like, 'Oh, I really wanted to see SZA also?'
Abbott: Our lead interpreter, Dave, we’ve all worked together a long time—and even the new people—he takes into account what our genre of choice is. We enjoy what we do, but if I get to see the show and interpret it, either one, I’m there so it’s cool, but he’ll take into account a lot of different factors to match the interpreter with their best performance.
MTV: What’s it like interpreting for a rap performance?
Abbott: It’s interesting. It requires a lot more research, but, you know, you keep up. You try to keep up. If it’s a new song, it’s the same thing as if it was SZA’s new song, you just do your best and try to keep up. We do a lotta, lotta research.
MTV: How did you get into interpreting for performances, specifically?
Abbott: I started in 2010, but a bunch of the people on this team have been interpreting festivals and stuff longer than I have and I just became friends with them and they pulled me onto this kind of work and now we do a bunch of festivals all over.
MTV: Were you already a big music fan?
Abbott: Huge. I mean, I grew up in New York, so Billy Joel, every kid on Long Island knows. It’s weird being on Long Island because you have the punk scene, but then you had like Jay Z and Busta Rhymes and all those kids in Bed-Stuy and so you really got a clash of music. For me, my taste is all over the place, so the festival is the perfect match for me because I can hit, again, Against Me! and SZA, all those different genres and the experience is awesome.
MTV: Who’s your favorite person you’ve ever interpreted for?
Abbott: Ooh, that’s a tough one. My favorite ever may have been Jake Owen, it was a really fun show, followed up by Eminem. I know that’s a weird pair, but those two shows and Hall & Oates are my top three. They were all so much fun. When your performer is feeling the crowd, and we’re trying to match the performer, it’s very easy for us to enjoy our jobs. It’s never like we’re up there being miserable at work, that’s not something that happens for us. We love our work. So, when the performer loves what they’re doing, it’s easy for us to love what we’re doing.