Wednesday, March 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Keeping deaf fans rockin'

Seattle Times staff reporter

The flashing lights, the crowd's giddy energy. The 44-year-old man-boy himself, Jon Bon Jovi. Would Shannon Kennedy miss this, even if she could barely hear a thing? No way.

As Bon Jovi's band launched into a tirade of drum and guitar, Kennedy, deaf since age 2, nodded her coolly disheveled head to the beat, digital camera in hand. Garth Brooks, Shania Twain were more her style, but she couldn't wait to sing along with Bon Jovi's "Livin' On A Prayer" and "Wanted Dead or Alive."

Tonight, she would, with the help of JoAnna Ball, who stood, red ponytail silhouetted in darkness, on an 18-inch-high platform near Kennedy and son Elijah, 9.

Ball and others like Pam Parham, who also worked the show, are professional interpreters who help deaf fans experience the power of live concerts, positioned between those fans and the stage.

The craft is harder than it sounds: At its best, it's being prepared and knowledgeable enough to communicate the essence of an artist's lyrics over the actual words. By law, venues must provide interpreters upon request. And while local ticket sellers report just a handful of requests a year — typically for big-name events — it's been particularly busy for KeyArena, which has trotted out U2, McCartney and the Stones.

At Monday's show, Bon Jovi himself had yet to take the stage. The crowd rippled with anticipation. You could see it play out in Ball's face and hands, which bent and contorted as her body swayed to the music. With such help, "you feel like you're part of it," Kennedy says. "It's like when you go to the movies — if the movie is captioned, you can enjoy it with everyone else."

Finally, Bon Jovi slithered onstage through the crowd, whose excitement registered in Ball's face: She's the kind of interpreter Kennedy and others like — expressive, part of the action.

"I love to see the interpreter put some passion into the song, not just stare at me and interpret word for word," says Seattle biotech worker Ian Aranha, totally deaf since age 9.

For Aranha, the allure of live concerts is the amped-up bass, which is why he likes venues that put deaf patrons close to the speakers. "The vibrations we can pick up are great," he writes. "We can actually feel the music better than hearing people."

Ball, the interpreter, is a rapid-fire marionette, with a face meant for the stage — sharp chin, prominent cheekbones, operatic eyebrows. Her mouth simulated applause; her hands pulsed through the air to grace her forehead or touch against her cheek in can't-believe-it surprise.

Then: pointed finger to chest. "Shot through the heart," is what the crowd heard, and what Kennedy saw, as "You Give Love A Bad Name" began. Before long, Kennedy was singing along, fist joyously pounding the air.

American Sign Language (ASL) is all about expression; it's visual, so even mellow music can produce facial fireworks. No formal training program exists for live-music interpretation, so practitioners learn by watching others and working with ASL coaches.

Ball, who has done shows by U2, Nelly and Gwen Stefani, began concert work as a grad student in Washington, D.C., where she got a job with an agency fielding numerous concert requests. One day the call came for someone to interpret for alt-electronic band Garbage, and she was the only one to respond.

"Ecstatically," she says. "No one else knew who they were."

Requests are usually made when tickets are purchased. Vendors forward those requests to venues, who in turn contact freelance or agency interpreters, ideally with enough advance notice to allow for often lengthy preparation. Professional interpreters' fees, which range between $300 and $400 in Seattle, are billed to the tour.

"Everything's metaphor and poetry," says Parham, whose 12-year résumé includes Sting, Annie Lennox, even the Wiggles. "You can't just go in there and expect to do that."

The biggest challenge, Ball says, is getting inside the artist's head. Some U2 lyrics, for instance, could be taken to involve religion, sex or drugs, all in the same song.

"When I interpret," she says, "it's my interpretation. In ASL, you really need a story line. I can make it look pretty, but like when people hear music, it really has a deeper meaning for them."

In other words, a straight-ahead, blue-collar rocker like Bon Jovi is way easier to interpret than Beck, who tosses his cryptic poetry in a sandbox of sounds. "There's no such thing as rhyming in ASL," Ball says.

Interpreters spend up to 30 hours on these shows, first familiarizing themselves with an artist's music. They buy CDs, find lyrics and study fan sites, blogs and other sources to see what they can discern about songs' meanings. Some hire ASL coaches who help them dissect lines — an expense that very few venues will fund separately.

Ball says dance-oriented shows like Madonna's, which she has done twice, are easy to prep for because sets, available on the Web after the first show, won't alter much. Other times you'll rehearse songs that never show up on set lists. "You just do the best you can," Ball says.

Audiences love spontaneity. Interpreters, not so much. Ball recalls her worst experience, a 1999 Dave Matthews show, when it started raining and the band decided to play every song it knew about rain.

"I'll never interpret for them again," she vows. "They had a lot of famous, radio-played songs and never played them."

Other times interpreters find the zone. Ball once did a show for the alt-rock band Offspring, and even though she got no set list beforehand, "people said I was having an out-of-body experience. I was ready. I knew every song they played. It's basically just luck."

When people ask her why she likes music, ASL coach AJ Granda, who is deaf, still doesn't have a clear answer. The vibrations, maybe. Live shows take it to another level — it's about energy, commotion, even smells.

"Everyone is excited, waiting for the performer to come onstage," she says. "You can feel that energy in the air. ... You don't have to be hearing to enjoy that experience."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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