We Are (Not) Rockstars: Honouring the Performance Without Overpowering It

08 Sep 2015, by Danny McDougall in Articles

I admit it: I make assumptions. We all do, right? In fact, part of our strategy for getting by in life involves anticipating what others want, what they’re going to say, and what’s going to happen next. Whether it be anticipation, prediction, or guessing, some sort of an attempt at peering into the thoughts and hearts of others is a part of the interpreting process. I think most interpreters working in theatre and entertainment assume that the Deaf people in the audience want to be entertained. If that’s the case, do theatre interpreters need to be entertaining?


During the recent WASLI conference in Turkey, I lived vicariously through colleagues who could attend. Scrolling through Facebook I came across a photo from a presentation, which included a slide with the moniker “LAMs” for a particular type of interpreter – “Look At Me’s”.  LAMs enjoy the attention they receive as interpreters. They aren’t unique to theatre interpreting – LAMs (and student LAMs) are ubiquitous. Search for ASL videos on YouTube, and you’re likely to encounter more second language learners of sign language showing off their most recent interpreted song than you are to find a native signer showing off their sign language poetry skills.


The LAM phenomenon is a special challenge for theatre interpreting, where the interpreters are an obvious part of the event (usually) – and where entertainment is presumed to be an objective. While the interpreters aren’t the purpose of an interpreted performance, they are often central to everyone’s experience of an interpreted show. Many Deaf friends tell me that their decision to see an interpreted performance is swayed by who will be interpreting. Some interpreters have “it”, and so they draw a following. These interpreters often develop unique relationships with theatres, musicians, and bands, which result in exclusive working arrangements. In order to fully promote their work, theatre and performance interpreters often become savvy purveyors of social media, and develop a following of their own. But, in promoting their work, and being an active part of the entertainment process, how do theatre interpreters avoid becoming LAMs?


People choose their work for a variety of reasons. Some physicians choose their profession to help people, some choose it for financial security, and perhaps most choose it for a blend of each. Interpreters are no different, and we each derive our own enjoyment out of our chosen work. Like actors and other on stage, theatre interpreters work to bring to life a story that is not their own. Whatever benefits we derive from our work, the entire effort is devoted to a “stewardship of meaning” the extends far beyond our own needs.


Stewardship of meaning is the act of carrying forth the content and intention of a piece of theatre text and its related performance, and representing the various iterations and varnishes laid throughout the legacy of the performance being interpreted. This legacy starts with playwright, and is shaped by subsequent players in the production: director, creative designers, actors, and others. Finally, when the original text has been embellished through the creative sieves of others, the interpreter’s work is to translate this legacy – literally, through the manner in which she translates the language of the production; and, figuratively, through the manner in which she embodies the language physically.


Simply put, Stewardship of Meaning calls for theatre interpreters to represent the intention of the playwright, the director, the actors, and all others involved in shaping what the audience sees on stage.


It is the physical embodiment of the translation that makes theatre sign language interpreters different than people who translate theatre scripts from one written language to another. The performance aspect of sign language – and sign language interpreting – makes the effort of the performance inseparable from the experience. We don’t have the same reaction to the script presented in other ways – for example, when it is provided as captions, instead of through interpretation. When a theatre interpreter has “it”, her skills may be obvious – the trick is for them to not be the center of attention. Like every other element on stage – theatre interpreters are there to do the bidding of the story, and to honor the legacy of decisions made by creative members of the production team before them.


Out of all the people involved in the stewardship of meaning, interpreters are meant to have the least amount of impact on the intent of the production. Instead of extending the performance – like each previous link in the creative chain – we are meant to represent the performance. It is this focus, on the stewardship of meaning, where theatre interpreters really shine. At a time when Deaf people are starring on Broadway (in Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening), we interpreters have the chance to reflect on our place in the continuum of sign language on stage. For everyone on stage, the real rock stars are the stories. When we honor stories, and the others who bring them to life, we find honor in our translations and they way we perform them.


Danny McDougall, MA, CSC was introduced to sign language through theatre. He went on to earn a BA degree in Sign Language Studies and became a certified interpreter in the U.S in 1986. In the same year, he interpreted his first professional theatre production. He later co- founded TerpTheatre, a sign language interpreting and consulting firm in Michigan. Danny teaches in the Sign Language Studies program at Madonna University, and also chairs the department. He holds a Master of Arts in linguistics. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Professorship in the Humanities award from Madonna University, and is completing his PhD studies at Gallaudet University.

(Visited 702 times, 1 visits today)
  • Julie Judd Reply

    I wholeheartedly agree with your perspective Dan. We are there to represent not extend the performance. Hard to do sometimes when the language is so visual and “in the face” of the audience.
    I particularly like your comment “When we honor stories, and the others who bring them to life, we find honor in our translations and they way we perform them.”

    I wonder what the particular behaviours of interpreters are that lead to them being labelled a LAM……

  • Amanda Galea Reply

    Hmm… I’m a bit torn. Whilst we all know one, (or think we know one), labelling each other with tags such as “LAM” just seems divisive to me. It’s almost a misnomer, in that, everyone likes positive attention/accolades (to greater or lesser degrees), and in particular positive attention for our work. We also have a pretty cool job – who WOULDN’T want to see themselves tagged if you’d just interpreted on stage with Madonna?! Most of us are proud of our work and the fact that we get to do cool stuff sometimes. Viewed in that prism, the vast majority of us could be called “Look At Me!”s. Looking At Me is a critical component of our job – if people don’t look at us, they don’t get access. Our job demands attention and being looked at is how we achieve successful communication. How can the outsider judge which demands for attention are appropriate, and which are not?

    What’s probably MORE important to distinguish, and in my opinion, what separates the professional interpreter from the unprofessional, is their behaviour and conduct. An interpreter who would cancel the humble Dr’s appointment for a more high profile or higher paying job. The interpreter who turns up to a concert or show and proceeds to ignore the Deaf person’s requests. The interpreter who takes on a high profile court case knowing full well it exceeds their experience or linguistic capabilities. The interpreter who takes on a televised rally without any prep or consultation with the organisers. These things are far more of an issue, and deserve more attention I believe, than any of us sitting from afar watching an interpreter on stage and wondering if her backstage selfie with the actor was reflective of her true motivations. This kind of thinking divides us, rather than unite us. In my (short-lived!) experience of our industry, the vast majority of us are here for the right reasons, with our hearts in the right place, and sometimes we make mistakes. But overall an unprofessional, unethical interpreter is easily spotted and distinguished through above-mentioned behaviours. My 2 cents worth 🙂

  • Jules Lehto Reply

    Love this post! And sorry to Amanda, but I like the term LAM. Yes, Deaf folks looking at us for access is a part of our job but LAM’s want everyone–arguably mostly they want the hearing people–to look and see what a beautiful job the interpreter is doing (and by doing so, miss the performance they paid to see.) Or LAM’s want others to be jealous of the access they get as a part of their job. Sorry, but you don’t see the actors, directors, or even stage hands doing this–because it’s their job! As you said, “what separates the professional…is their behavior and conduct.” Is wanting everyone to look at you appropriate conduct? Oddly, I had an experience recently where the talent saw me interpreting and ran over during the performance and took a selfie with me in the background. Surreal!

    Let’s spin this argument a bit and ask what if Deaf folks were given a chance to take these high profile jobs? Or at the very least, what about up and coming new, promising interpreters? Is anyone giving them (Deaf or hearing) a hand up to get into these spaces? A professional interpreter works to strengthen our field and seeks to find and mentor initiates that are interested in doing the work. Sadly not many of the theatre interpreters in my area work to expand the competition–a few do but most are only open to adding to the pool when there is a show no one wants.

    It seems that the author is asking theatre interpreters how we can prevent becoming LAM’s. When we do the work in a way that represents the performance and honoring everyone that has had a hand in creating it, it’s a step in the right direction. I plan to share this blog with my colleagues and see what people in my area have to say. Thanks for the challenge!