This fall, we’re excited to perform some jigs that were common in Shakespearean England for our first concert of the season, entitled “Kemp’s Jig.” Back then, a jig was a humorous skit that was set to music and was usually performed at the end of a stage play or on its own as street entertainment.
To help us in the production, we’ve invited Steve Player, one of the foremost experts in Elizabethan jigs, to join us as a guest performer.
A native of England, Player is a dancer, musician, choreographer and actor who is an expert on Will Kemp, a clown who performed in Shakespeare’s original company of actors.
After studying guitar and lute at the Royal College of Music as well as Commedia delle Arte, Player devoted his career to performing music and dance from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Today, he performs with various early music groups all over the world and lectures at various universities.
We recently caught up with Steve to ask him a little bit more about his background and why he loves the music of the Elizabethan stage.
Newberry Consort: How did you first get interested in early music?
Player: I discovered the Spanish Guitar when I stopped at a music shop on the way home from school as a teenager and was immediately drawn to arrangements of Renaissance and Baroque music for lute and early guitar.
After years at art school, I met a man selling sheet music when I was buying a guitar arrangement of the Lachrimae Pavane by John Dowland. It transpired that the man was a maker of early musical instruments. He gave me a lute and encouraged me to study “early performance practice,” which was exciting as it flew against the standard “romantic” interpretation of everything as it was played 40 years ago.
Newberry Consort: How did you get interested in the dances of the Renaissance era?
Player: Most of the music from the Renaissance is dance music, and it turns out that there was a newly formed “early dance group” run by the wife of the man who sold me the sheet music. And since I was living in the countryside with little to do on a weekday evening in the winter, I went along to check it out. There I discovered a talent for Renaissance dance and a belief in its importance in interpreting the music of the time.
Newberry Consort: Who was Will Kemp?
Player: Shakespeare (if it was he) was a wonderful writer, but he didn’t write in isolation, and he was certainly business minded, as many “artists” are today. Also, I think, his stage needed star actors who would draw in a crowd. Will Kemp was such a man. He was already famous as a clown, acrobat and dancer before he worked with Shakespeare. Both he and his fame travelled throughout Europe. He belonged to a more traditional style of entertainer — the fool, clown or jester. It was expected that in any “stage play” the clown could operate within the characters as written, but also he could extemporize at any suitable point, to the delight of the audience. Shakespeare wrote parts which we think were for Kemp: Bottom, Dogberry, Falstaff and others.
Newberry Consort: Tell us a little bit about what a jig was like during Shakespeare’s age.
Player: The Jig was a low-brow, end-of-play entertainment that was normally penned by the clown, but also other pamphleteers, ballad writers and trainee authors. It contained slapstick, fights and dances, and its text was sung to well-known broadside tunes. The text has mainly to do with sex, such as a young wife who is seduced behind the back of the old rich husband by a poor but quick-witted commoner. Usually the stories turn the heroes into fools and the fools into heroes. Kemp wrote and published a few. They were as popular as the main play and may have lasted with improvisation as long as an hour. They appealed to everyman in the pit but also maybe to the boxes.
Newberry Consort: Why are you looking forward to playing with the Newberry Consort?
Player: I love working with many different ensembles. I have worked with Ellen and David in the past and also with Jeff and Corey before. That we shall all throw ourselves into these jigs is an exciting prospect for we don’t know what might come out. They are all such wonderful performers that it will be fun.
Get tickets to our upcoming concert, Kemp’s Jig, taking place Oct. 23 through 25!
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