A former co-worker asked me to translate songs for the Deaf into American Sign Language, my native language, for the Gay & Lesbian Pride Rally on Father’s Day, June 21st. I said, “Sure, give me a call.”
When the call actually came, I had no idea I’d have the grandest opportunity to “sing” with Cyndi Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and True Colors Lauper! While I’m neither Gay nor Lesbian nor Transgender, I still felt I could play a support role in contributing to the event by providing a Deaf interpretation of Cyndi’s songs for the Deaf.
The coordinator for the sign language interpreters assigned all three of Cyndi’s songs to me! I was thrilled. I am Deaf and I depend upon vibrations and some hearing in order to perform these artistic interpretations so I really had to practice and I only had one week! I was given an audio cassette of Cyndi’s songs along with a lyric sheet for each song. Using both the tape and the words, I was able to de-construct the song down to its ASL core.
(NOTE: I also interpreted a song from the hit Broadway musical, Rent, but this article will deal only with Cyndi.)
The Interpreting Trick
When people see other people use sign language, it is generally assumed by those not in the know that they are really watching ASL (American Sign Language) when they are actually seeing PSE (Pidgin Signed English). At the rally ASL was used. ASL is a language that has its roots in French with its own unique syntax and rules that are not English.
ASL is a visual language where facial expression and body movements are as important as nouns and verbs in identifying people, place and time. If you happen to see someone signing without very obvious facial expressions, you are not seeing ASL. You are seeing PSE and that isn’t the same as pure ASL.
Cyndi Lauper’s three songs were: The Ballad of Cleo and Joe, I’m Gonna Be Strong and Disco Inferno. I’m Gonna Be Strong had a lyric of “I can see you’re slipping away from me.” I decided to translate that phrase into ASL by not using the sign for “see” since that is a very English sort of phrase. I decided instead to sign “notice” since that fits the translation of the sentence into ASL better. The idea being conveyed is not “seeing” someone on the street but more like “you’re keeping your distance from me” which brings out the dramatic idea of a separate thought of heart and place. ASL uses concepts instead of words: “Notice” has a sense of discovery while “see” is bland, plain, and very “English.”
So, after a week of hard practice, I was ready to perform. My husband and I called a car and we headed off for Bryant Park at 42nd Street and 6th Avenue to join the Rally. When we arrived, we met the other Hearing and Deaf interpreters and we all got neat, blue, “Interpreter” tee shirts to wear so folks would know our role.
A few minutes later on the stage, I felt music and some singing even though it wasn’t showtime! Could it be? I approached the stage and there was Cindy Lauper doing a Sound Check in a black tee shirt and black sweatpants with white stripes on the side! She looked so normal! I was expecting a tutu, pink tank top and colored hair. But Cyndi instead looked like a Soccer Mom with her hair pulled back into a bun and her face flushed red from the heat!
There were a lot of people there in the audience on the lawn already, and they got a real treat as they watched Cyndi warm up and forget all her lyrics! She was hilarious, warm and silly! She invited me up on stage to practice signing with her since I was already practicing on the lawn, but I turned her down because I was too shy. I realize now she wanted me up there for HER benefit so she’d know how to work me into her act! Silly me. Showbusiness is hard!
Practice Presents Poise
After Cyndi finished her Sound Check, I went backstage to practice with my “Feeder” so I could get help if I got lost during the song. I know from past shadow interpreting jobs I did in Omaha that practice presents poise during performance. I’ve never worked with a Feeder before and it was quite an experience. A Feeder is a Hearing person who stands facing you in the audience signing PSE or ASL what they hear being spoken or sung — and I then “repeat” that feed in ASL for the Deaf watching me from the audience. My Feeder asked if I wanted to be fed in PSE or ASL and I chose PSE since I originally memorized and learned the songs in their native English structure. You may wonder why the Feeder isn’t on stage to save a step in the interpreting process and the reason is probably related to some strain of Political Correctness.
The Rally Begins
I was nervous as I sat in the front row of the audience waiting to take my place on stage! I went to the bathroom at least three times in three hours: A new world record for me! It was really hot and the Rally staff were wonderful because they constantly brought us bottles of water and I drank and drank and drank it tasted so good in the hot sun. The trouble came when I had to get the key in order to unlock the private staff bathroom. You have to hunt down the person backstage holding the key and provide this secret pass phrase: “I need the key to the bathroom.” I found the person, gave the secret phrase and I was lucky the key holder knew the sign for “bathroom!”
The rally was hosted by a cute Drag Queen who looked like Ann-Margret… or Endora from the TV show Bewitched… take your pick. The hostess was very funny and he did a great job moving the show along with good information and memorable introductions.
Waiting for Cyndi
Cyndi was supposed to perform her three songs in the middle of the Rally. When her time came to perform, she didn’t show! We all wondered if she decided not to do it because she burned herself out during Sound Check or if she was stuck in a traffic jam or something.
The Drag Queen hostess vamped and some people from the audience came up and performed as the Rally leaders scrambled behind the scene to try and fill Cyndi’s time with other acts. Later I learned Cyndi wanted to close the show and her “lateness” was nothing but a power play to take the last spot on the playbill from the African Gay Gospel Group. Showbusiness is hard! Since Cyndi was, by far, the biggest star on the bill, and it certainly makes sense in hindsight that she should rightly close the show!
With a great flourish at the end of the show, Cyndi Lauper was introduced to screams from the audience and she took the stage with three Drag Queens!
All of the backstage Rally event staff ran out front to watch her and to stand guard in front of the stage as the audience stood as one to dance. Many in the audience pressed the stage to get closer to Cyndi!
I stood Stage Right (right by the giant loud speaker — wow! — what vibrations!!!) and… I sang with Cyndi Lauper!
It was a real thrill. Cyndi was dressed in a big hat with a long, black, coat and floor-length black dress. She wasn’t wild. She wasn’t wacky. In fact, she presented herself as matronly in a very sensual and sophisticated way. It was a new look and I loved it!
But I couldn’t stare from the corner of my eye at Cyndi forever. The song was starting and I had a job to do. I had a super time interpreting for Cyndi as the Drag Queens danced behind us.
Arms Among Us
It was a great honor to appear on stage with Cyndi Lauper and it was a memory I will not forget.
She’s a big talent and during Disco Inferno she scared me (I was concentrating on my Feeder) when she came up and put her arm around me!
Her touch was so soft and so gentle.
I could feel she didn’t want to interfere with my arms since I was signing, but she wanted to make contact and let me know she was there and that we were there, together, in front of the world. That was a nice and classy touch… in more ways than one!
Cyndi finished her set to wild applause! As she left the stage, she collapsed into the arms of her followers because of the heat and the exhausting performance she had left behind: Her heart stood throbbing on the stage. We all knew it. We all loved her for it. We all appreciated her sacrifice very much.
When the Rally was over, six hours had passed since we arrived and a few people stopped and told me what a great job I did. I thanked them and knew that I’d had the experience of a lifetime. As my husband and I walked home down Fifth Avenue in the setting afternoon sun, I knew it was moments like these that make the frustrating days in New York City worthwhile.