Shakespeare, Dancing, And All That Jazz
BOSTON — In 2011, Emerson College and Berklee College of Music students came up with the idea to fuse two great art forms — Shakespearean drama and jazz. Two years later, “The Shakespearean Jazz Show” comes home for a two-night run, melding the eloquence of the Bard with the raucous, celebratory sounds of New Orleans jazz July 18 and 19 at the Paramount Theatre, which ArtsEmerson is presenting in conjunction with the Outside the Box Festival.
The ensemble — The Nine Worthies Band — performs original songs with lyrics taken from Shakespeare and combines them with singing, dancing, and acting. The group of multitalented students and recent graduates write, direct, you name it, and the result is a vivacious performance with plenty of soulful singing and foot-stomping playing.
Take a look. And a listen.
Here’s what Emerson graduate Alex Ates, the conceiver, co-creator, producer, and director had to say about the production.
Claire Dickson: Where did you get the idea to mix Shakespeare and jazz?
I was born and raised in New Orleans and I spent a lot of time in high school exploring the French Quarter and the music scene in my hometown. I remember being so impressed with the ability of jazz performers — particularly traditional jazz performers — to draw in audience, create a connection, and to play material that is considered early-form in a new and lively way each time they did it. At the time (in high school), I was working as an actor with a Shakespeare company in New Orleans and I remember feeling frustrated that the model of classical theater performance wasn’t very accessible, relevant, interactive … or even very alive. I saw a kinship between the trad jazz artist and the classical actor — both performing formative work in their discipline with the same goal: keeping it alive and bringing it to audiences for their enjoyment.
What’s the story behind how the group formed?
I was a student at Emerson College studying theater and working with a student-run company for Shakespearean performance. I collaborated with some of my peers in creating a cabaret concert of Shakespeare’s words. So I was excited to take it to the next step and see what happened if we combined the traditional jazz style of composition and performance and paired it directly with Shakespeare. Also, I was extremely homesick and wanted to create a close connection to the culture of my home that I loved. I got in touch with my friend and frequent collaborator, Patrick Greeley, who composed the music. We assembled a cast of students from Emerson and Berklee — all of them young artists who we worked with before and trusted to help us build the piece. We created our own rehearsal process for our own specific show and then we created our own show with our own model and proposition of performance.
How do you choose what Shakespeare passages to use?
We went through the canon and used pieces that seemed highly musical or spoke particularly to Patrick. Sometimes Patrick would read one and immediately get a melody. We use sonnets, songs (Shakespeare did indeed write a lot of them), monologues, scenes — it’s all fair game. We took the pieces and arranged our set list into a loose dramatic structure, so there would be a progression to the material and the insinuation of a plot and story that the audience can latch onto.
What is the process of writing a Shakespearean jazz song?
Patrick would find a piece, we’d go over it, see if it’s one we’d want to work with and explore, and then he would sit with the material for a while over a piano and compose. He’s incredibly quick with his compositions because his brain is naturally geared towards creating harmonies and melodies. We did a lot of research to understand the New Orleans jazz style, but to also create our own. Early in the process I would constantly send Patrick videos from New Orleans musicians either that I found online or recorded. We would pass along CDs. And each time we tackled a new piece, we opened it up to the band to arrange and fill in. We still adjust the songs to this day. Each time we perform the show, we schedule a time to sit with the material and play around with it.
Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?
It changes frequently. Right now, it’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” All of the characters are incredibly well-developed and the plot is extremely mature, compelling, resonant, and honest. Shakespeare really captures the blockades us humans have a way of putting up on the road to love. Additionally, it’s a play of two genres, it starts off as a hilarious comedy and a stereotypical love scenario and then it turns quickly into intense, naturalistic drama in a very intense and unexpected way. It’s quite brilliant. In fact, it was on a production of “Much Ado” that Patrick and I first collaborated I directed and he composed the music. However, I must also say, I love “Love’s Labour’s Lost” because I can find a lot of connection to its young energy… and the name of our band, The Nine Worthies,” is snatched from “Love’s Labour’s.”
Claire Dickson is a 16-year-old jazz vocalist. She has received six Downbeat Student Music awards and is a 2013 National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner. Her website is clairedicksonmusic.com.