Our 2018-19 season opener is “Will Kemp Returns! A Jigs Revival.” But who was Will Kemp?

Will Kemp was a real man — a professional clown and comedic actor in Elizabethan England.

Kemp (also known as Kempe), is best-known as one of the original members of Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the troupe of actors for whom Shakespeare wrote most of his plays. Kemp is thought to have originated the role of Bottom, the wily weaver, transformed by Puck into a donkey in Midsummer Night’s Dream; Peter, the tone-deaf servant who lends much-needed comic relief to Romeo and Juliet; the bumbling policeman Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, as well as a host of other memorable characters.

Kemp first came to prominence around 1585, when he was performing with a group called Leicester’s Men, a troupe that often performed for Queen Elizabeth I’s Court. Throughout the next decade Kemp’s reputation as a comedian grew throughout England, so that by the time he joined Shakespeare’s troupe in 1594, he was already a box-office draw.

“He was already famous as a clown, acrobat and dancer before he worked with Shakespeare,” says Steven Player, an expert in Renaissance music and dancing who will be playing the role of Will Kemp in our upcoming production. “Both he and his fame traveled throughout Europe.”

Known for his broad physical comedy and low-brow humor, Kemp made a name for himself performing jigs, sung comedic skits that served as pre-show entertainment at public theaters and were just as often performed on the streets. Kemp sang and danced these jigs while accompanying himself on pipe and tabor.

Kemp was an especially gifted improvisor, often fleshing out his small roles in Shakespeare’s plays by improvising dialogue — “chewing the scenery” to garner himself more stage time. He also improvised extensively in his jigs, often extemporizing whole verses on the spot.

Luckily for us, he did write down some of these jigs, including “Singing Simpkin,” a centerpiece of our upcoming production, which was very likely performed both on Shakespeare’s stage and on Kemp’s travels through Germany and the Lowlands.

“Singing Simpkin” tells the story of an adulterous wife and the shenanigans that arise when, mid-tryst, her husband (and yet another lover!) show up to her door. The jig is bawdy and slapstick and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. In our version, the text is sung to the tune of three songs — “Robin Hood,” “O Man of Desperation,” and “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home.”

Although Kemp is largely unknown today, his clowning left an indelible mark on British comedy. Our co-artistic director Ellen Hargis, who will perform alongside Steven Player in our program says: “We feel like we’ve found the roots of Monty Python, Benny Hill, Roland Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, Ricky Gervais, and other purveyors of modern English humor. Getting to know the clowns of early England has helped us to connect the dots – we hope you’ll enjoy making their acquaintance, too!” 

POSTPONED: April Fundraiser

Dear Valued Patrons,
We regret to share that due to concerns relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided to postpone our April 19th fundraising event, Ecco la Primavera. We expect to reschedule this event for a weekend between July and September – stay posted! Please know this decision does not reduce the Newberry Consort’s need for your support. Indeed, now more than ever, we hope you will consider making a tax-deductible donation to help us not only minimize the losses from this postponement but also contribute to our future events.

If you currently hold a ticket for this event, refunds are available upon request. Otherwise, the cost of your ticket will be applied to the rescheduled event. If you are a current ticket-holder for this event, Consort General Manager Hannah De Priest will be in touch with you directly very soon.
You can always donate to the Newberry Consort online  or via check. Our mailing address is The Newberry Consort, P.O. Box 60212, Chicago, IL, 60660-0212. Please reach out to manager@newberryconsort.org if you have any questions or leave a message at 773-669-7335 and one of our staff will be in touch with you.
We appreciate your understanding and very much look forward to welcoming you to Newberry Consort concerts in the future. Till then, wishing you all good health and safety in these uncertain times.