South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, Sign Interpreters to Perform in Fort Lauderdale
For two decades, Lew Balaban has been a familiar face at concerts and performances across South Florida. He’s often on stage and gives a compelling performance, but he’s not a singer or actor.
Balaban is a sign language interpreter who is passionate about his job interpreting for the hearing impaired and deaf, and this weekend, audiences at the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida concerts will witness his commitment in concerts at the Sunshine Cathedral in South Florida.
Signing was a natural for the 64-year-old native New Yorker who made a career transcribing testimony verbatim as a court reporter before moving to South Florida two decades ago to be with his aging parents.
"I hate being a court reporter," Balaban admitted with a haughty laugh, "and I’m not ashamed to say it."
While capturing every word at a trial was tedious, he was introduced to sign language interpretation at a church service where his mentor and friend, Keith Muller, was signing.
"I remember watching Keith sign at that service and I just fell in love with it," Balaban recalled. "It was so beautiful."
He learned to sign and soon was teaching and interpreting for many local LGBT performing groups, including the Lambda Chorale, Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus and now the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus.
He also maintains a very busy schedule providing captioning services for the Broward, Kravis and Arsht Centers and productions on Broadway, assisting the hard of hearing with use of a LED display on the stage.
"I love working with the hearing impaired population," he said. "It’s my passion."
And while his captioning work provides literal translations of the action on a stage, sign language interpretation is much more challenging. American Sign Language does not follow normal spoken grammatical syntax and the music calls for an added artistic interpretation.
He and his fellow chorus interpreters, Karen Dougherty and Muller, spend weeks preparing for each performance, just like the singers in the chorus.
They are given sheet music initially. The interpreters take the lyrics and practice carefully, making sure they are accurately translated.
"Not every word has a sign and so we have to find the words that have a sign to convey that message," explained Balaban.
They then attend many rehearsals and carefully work out the interpretation.
The next step is to create a "visual story" for the song.
He says, "We try get into the spirit of the song, the meaning, and use our faces and body language to convey the music."
One of the biggest challenges is interpreting songs written in foreign languages, like the ones featured in this weekend’s Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida concert, "Take Me to the World."
The 100-voice chorus, conducted by Gordon Roberts and accompanied by a full symphony orchestra, will be singing a wide range of works from every corner of the glob, many originally written in French, German, Hebrew and other languages.
"That’s a big challenge because we have to get a good translation and then figure out how to sign it," he said.
At a recent chorus concert, Balaban found himself interpreting a song with only two words, "Ave Maria," repeated over and over for four minutes.
"Keith told me not to sign it since it’s just two words, but I felt the music through my soul," he said, and audiences at the spring concert approved.
Balaban and Dougherty will interpret "Take Me to the World," Friday, June 22 and Saturday, June 23 at 8 p.m. at the Sunshine Cathedral, 1480 SW 9th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. General admission tickets are $30 at GMCSF.org.