How this unique partnership is bringing American Sign Language interpreters to Overton Park Shell

The Overton Park Shell is one of the most historic and beloved venues in Memphis. Now the Shell has partnered with DeafConnect of the Mid-South to make sure that even more Memphians can enjoy the great music that fills the Shell this summer, by providing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for some of the Shell’s events.

“DeafConnect uses several of our professional interpreters to provide American Sign Language interpreters to interpret both the lyrics of the songs and the emcee remarks at selected concerts,” says Natasha Parks, CEO of DeafConnect. 

ASL interpreter Tekosha Johnson onstage at the Overton Park Shell. (Photo: Craig Thompson / Courtesy of Overton Park Shell)
This latest effort is part of The Shell’s ongoing effort to broaden its reach and include more Memphians in its programming.

“In an effort to provide an inclusive concert experience at the Shell, we are constantly looking for community partnerships to broaden our reach, intentionally building relationships that can bring new populations to the Shell,” says Natalie Wilson, executive director of Overton Park Shell.

“Our ultimate goal is to make the performing arts accessible to everyone.”

Organizers say their efforts have been very well received by the deaf and hard of hearing community, as well as the Memphis community at large.

“It has made deaf people feel like they can be involved with the community,” says Mary Gill, a staff interpreter at DeafConnect who works select shows at the Shell. “And for the hearing people, they were able to see the interpreters moving to the music and interpreting the songs and they loved it.”

Mary Gill, staff interpreter at DeafConnect of the Mid-South.
Here’s how it began

This partnership started last summer when DeafConnect provided ASL interpreters for cardio workouts at the Shell. The cardio workouts and the interpreters were very well received, leading to a partnership between DeafConnect and the Shell.

“When I learned about Natasha and her work at DeafConnect, I was overjoyed about their mission,” says Wilson. “I asked her if she would consider talking with me about partnering together.”

The idea also resonated with volunteers.

“My parents, my nieces, and my nephew are deaf,” says Gill. “When the Shell called for an interpreter, I jumped on the opportunity because people don’t know that deaf people love music.”

These discussions lead to DeafConnect providing ASL interpreters for several of the Shell’s free concerts. They also resulted in ASL interpreters being included in the Shell’s Health + Wellness program and the new Shell on Wheels program, the latter of which will bring Shell programming to underserved communities — and now complete with ASL interpreters. 

ASL interpretation of live music in action at the Overton Park Shell.This partnership is filling a serious need.

“There are more than 100,000 people in Memphis who are deaf or hard of hearing,” Parks says. “It is important that the community events are inclusive for all members.”

Wilson says that it’s all part of the Shell’s responsibility to make the Overton Park Shell experience a more inclusive one.

“We all have a responsibility to think through the lens of access — and, for the Shell’s mission, specifically access to the performing arts.”

Just getting started

This partnership is going to be around for a while, organizers say, as both the Shell and Deaf Connect are in it for the long run.

“We definitely plan on making this an annual thing,” says Parks. “Inclusiveness is something both DeafConnect and the Shell agree on and fight for.”

Wilson could not agree more.

“When I look out on our lawn, my greatest joy is seeing it filled with a melting pot of diversity, just as rich as our incredibility,” says Wilson. “We are Memphis’ stage and we want all community members to feel ownership of it and have a place on our lawn.”

Visit DeafConnect of the Mid-South and the Overton Park Shell online for up-to-date performance schedules, programs, and more.
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Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.