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Shakespearean Jazz: A Tale of Two Cities

 

It’s funny, after almost a year and a half of existence, The Shakespearean Jazz Show has lived in two cites. Two very different cities…in two very different regions. However, both cities are crucial to the production’s existence and development: Boston and New Orleans.

The piece was born in Boston as a student production at Emerson College, but the streets of New Orleans stirred the initial impulse for the piece –both cities inspired the inception equally.

The original production of The Shakespearean Jazz Show at Emerson College in Fall 2011.

New Orleans’ street music culture was the first spark. The jazz music of New Orleans perpetuates this artistic tradition with an amazing  fluidity. Musicians play standard jazz numbers that have lived in the streets for decades, yet each time they perform, the improvisatory nature of the form allows for the artists to create a completely original interpretation of the song that only exists in that moment for the artist and audience. In many ways, this unique experience of distinction is the aim of the classical theatre artist. Boston’s strong theatre scene, with the ever-existing air of innovation, forward push and experimentation, allowed for a safe incubator to do a test: Could the loose nature of jazz open a new door of performance style for the perceived strictness of Shakespearean verse? It turned out: yes.

In some ways, The Shakespearean Jazz Show could be considered a lovechild of both cities. The piece germinated  from contrary environments. Ensemble member Jemila Dunham and I knew both cities: we grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, but went to school in Boston. The rest of the ensemble had either never been to New Orleans, or had only visited once or twice for short amounts of time.

Once the show was produced, and once it became clear we could do more performances of it, it was important for both  the composer, Patrick Greeley, me and, indeed, the entire ensemble of The Nine Worthies (our collective name as a band of players) that we all experience the city of New Orleans and see if the production could survive there. It worked in Boston. But could it work in the city that created jazz? Could it work with New Orleanians who not only know the tradition of jazz very well, but also perpetuate that tradition everyday through their distinctive culture?

The company of The Shakespearean Jazz Show at Tulane in Summer 2012.

It was important to our process that we experience the environment of the city, reflect that in our work, and present it for the community. We produced our piece at The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane on their experimental second stage. In New Orleans, the production gained depth, grittiness and heat. Like the weather outside, The Shakespearean Jazz Show was hot.

Since then, we’ve carried that New Orleans heat back to the icy Boston winter, when we performed for ArtsEmerson’s The Next Thing Festival (TNT). Like food, there’s something tantalizing about hot and cold together. Each time we perform the show, whether in Boston or New Orleans, we experience the excitement of a chemical reaction between two opposites.

The Shakespearean Jazz show performs for a full house in the Paramount Center Mainstage for ArtsEmerson’s The Next Thing (TNT) Festival.

As we prepare to bring the show back to New Orleans to perform on the Mainstage of the Festival, I’ll be curious to see how our twist of Boston innovation reacts in New Orleans. Then after that performance, we return to Boston to perform for ArtsEmerson again. What will we bring with us from New Orleans this time?

As young artists with a fresh piece, we are fortunate to have the opportunities to develop our work in an exchange between two mighty American cities with two mighty audiences. And trust me, we’re soaking up the experience for all its worth.

 

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