Nick Demeris Connects Hip-Hop With Shakespeare | WGLT

Nick Demeris Connects Hip-Hop With Shakespeare

May 5, 2016

Nick Demeris leads the cast of In The Heights as Usnavi

Illinois State University Theater grad Nick Demeris is a whirling dervish.  His own Twitter account lists him as a writer, composer, actor, & street artist.  He teaches workshops on Hip Hop & Shakespeare, and is part of the vocal improvisational group Moving Star currently serving as an artist in residence at Carnegie Hall.  And that's just the beginning.

"My short term goal when I left ISU was to work at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.  My longer term goal had a trajectory closer to doing theater in Chicago then move to Los Angeles to do film and television."

But he says toward the end of his time at ISU, his goals were shifting rapidly.

"I started studying vocal jazz privately and I really got into Shakespeare and physical theater.  When I graduated, my professor at the time, Alec Wild, who was head of the Illinois Shakespeare at the time, invited me to a Shakespeare festival in Minnesota he co-founded called the Great River Shakespeare Festival."

Demeris said that festival changed everything for him.

"Going to a Shakespeare Festival that really valued the text and the words being said, and how the kinda thesis ... that a third grader should be able to understand what's being said on stage allowed me to unpack language in a way I had never understood before.  I never related to Shakespeare in high school, even a lot of college. "

He said at that festival, he dove into Shakespeare "the man" the way an actor would exploring the background of a character he was playing.

"I finally understood once I realized this guy was writing for a contemporary audience.  He was writing for people who were mostly uneducated. Yet they had a vocabulary 10 times the vocabulary we have today.  All his characters were engaging the audience in a very direct way.  And then they were engaging him back. And the characters would shout at the audience, and the audience would shout back."

Demeris, a veteran if the Illinois Shakespeare Festival,  had a "light-bulb" moment at the festival in Minnesota.  He connected Shakespeare from hundreds of years ago to his own background in beat boxing and hip-hop.

"I was always listening to hip-hop growing up, and I was like 'this is exactly what is happening in music today.'  There's a rapper, a guy who stands on stage that uses words in an order that engages the audience, then the audience engages him or her back.  The further I investigated, the further I learned about how Shakespeare was sampling other writers, other stories, and the music of the time."

Demeris said the sampling Shakespeare did hundreds of years ago is comparable to hip-hop artists today sampling music or lyrics from contemporary music.   And he uses that idea in the Shakespeare hip-hop workshops he leads.

"The whole model is to engage people at the level they're at.  Teaching them from a place that's above you doesn't ever serve them.  So if you meet them where they're at, then you can give them something they don't know."

Demeris says hip-hop is that central meeting place.

"If you understand hip-hop already, you can study Shakespeare. You're going to learn more language, you're going to understand bigger structures and how to write and create.  And you're also going be able to make a connection that's over 400 years old.  So not only do I know how to rap and create music and invent language, but also, I know how this is connected to every other thing that has been made in the past. And Shakespeare is the high water mark for English.  So if I can connect what I'm doing with Shakespeare, then I have a reference for all culture that everyone understands."

Understand Shakespeare's motivation and culture from hundreds of years ago cleared one hurdle.  Another came when Demeris initially took his workshop to the predominantly black areas on the south and west sides of Chicago.

"I was a bit naive where I didn't think about words, or didn't even know to be honest words like white privilege or the things that could make people feel alienated as a young white man coming into a school, university or theater, and be sharing something which is from a lineage that comes from New York, from the Bronx, and before that connected to slavery."

Demeris says he quickly learned that once he acknowledged to his students that hip-hop wasn't part of his lineage, he was able to more quickly connect with his students. 

"I tell my students I love it, I respect it, I work on it, I practice it, I want to honor it.  So you all have to know I am not going to necessarily teach you anything you don't know.  What I'm here to do it empower you to be creators.  And that is to say you have the power to be Shakespeare, you have the power to be Jay-Z, you have the power to be Barack Obama.  Or even Warren Buffet.  But the first three achieved what they achieved on the power of their written and spoken words.  I'm one to really encourage the idea that through this kind of accumulation of understanding of knowledge and ultimately of wisdom, you can mold your world in the way you see fit."