Sign of history
Barbie Parker and her staff have been part of performances by worldwide stars like Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam, Kanye West and Stevie Wonder.
But on Monday, Parker and the other performance interpreters of Austin’s LotuSign will have their biggest stage yet in Washington D.C. when they perform sign language interpreting duties for the swearing in of President Barack Obama at the 57th inaugural ceremony.
“To hear someone taking an oath of office is the most sacred thing and we can communicate the grandeur of that moment to people.”
- Barbie Parker
Tens of thousands of Austin music fans have seen Parker, executive director of LotuSign, on platforms in front of stages at Austin City Limits Festival, where she and other interpreters sign and visually communicate performers’ music to hearing-impaired audience members.
Those jobs require Parker and her colleagues to be animated, energetic and improvisational in communicating nonverbal sound and art. Monday, obviously, will be a whole different ballgame.
“The impact and importance of what we’re doing is clear, and so it will be big, dramatic and solemn,” said Parker, who has worked as an interpreter for 20 years. “To hear someone taking an oath of office is the most sacred thing and we can communicate the grandeur of that moment to people.”
The opportunity to travel to the nation’s capital for the high-profile ceremony came about because Austin’s C3 Presents — the promoter of ACL Fest and Chicago’s Lollapalooza, which LotuSign also handles — is the production company for the event that’s expected to draw close to one million attendees. C3 also handled production duties for Obama's campaign victory parties in 2008 and last year.
Parker’s relationship with the company made the big job a possibility that only became apparent about three weeks ago. Government officials began calling her to work out logistics for her and the five other Texas-based interpreters who are joining about a dozen D.C.-based interpreters.
When Parker spoke with CultureMap last week, the exact itinerary of events she and others would be covering was still in flux, with the parade and assorted balls and gala events as possibilities.
“It goes through so many people, and the magnitude of an event like this is overwhelming,” she said. “Because of all the things we’ve done over the years we can handle what we need to from the production side, and knew we could handle the volume of work they need us to do.”
Aside from highly public concerts and political events LotuSign does interpreting at private gatherings in greater Austin, with Parker and her colleagues balancing the need to be engaging with needing to blend in and not draw excess attention to themselves. That was a pitfall for interpreter Lydia Callis, whose overly animated job signing during a press conference by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg after Hurricane Sandy made her Internet famous for 15 minutes in early November.
Parker said such things can happen when a language is “90 percent expression” and that she had plans to watch several previous inauguration ceremonies to study the rhythm of the event and plan out how to do the best job possible.
One factor in her favor: In May 2011 she served as the interpreter at an Obama fundraiser that featured a visit from the president.
She gushes when talking about that event and getting to meet Obama, but is full of reverence and professionalism when looking ahead to Monday.
“Every time I step on stage to interpret is important but as far as scope, occasionally it’s sunken in how big this is,” she said. “I know I’m grateful I can be a part of the group of people doing big and important things like that.”