The sidewalks surrounding Seattle’s Benaroya Hall bustled Sunday night with the protests of deaf-community members and advocates who say that since the 1980s, they have wanted to see the Seattle Men’s Chorus hire an interpreter more fluent in sign language.
While many spoke to reporters and people going into the Seattle Men’s Chorus performance that night through interpreters, other protesters in the group of about 60 held signs that read “Stop the minstrel show,” “No language exploitation,” “Equal access” and “Stop the one-man show.”
The chorus’ interpreter, Kevin Gallagher, has been with the group for about 31 years. The protesters said his interpretations of performances are beautiful and engaging, but not accurate. They seem designed more for the hearing audience than for the hard of hearing or deaf who want to understand the lyrics, the protesters say.
Frank Stilwagner, the executive director of Flying House Productions, the parent of the men’s chorus, has agreed to meet with protesters, said deaf activist Crystal Green, of Tacoma. No date has been set for the meeting.
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Green said Stilwagner has offered worded captioning for deaf audiences to supplement Gallagher, but that isn’t what she and other protesters want to see. English and sign language are as different languages as English and French, she said.
Green, deaf since birth, said sign language is her native language and she wants it used beautifully and fluently when she pays the same price as every other concertgoer.
The first locally organized effort to oust Gallagher came in 1989 and was followed by another in 1999. Neither attempt was successful, but local deaf writer Ellie Savidge says she’s a lot more hopeful about this year’s effort, which was spurred by the fake interpreter who performed at Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony in South Africa this month.
“I do feel much more optimistic about this year because of how social media gives more opportunity to network with others,” she said. “We could organize something and reach people almost immediately.”