Fighting Spirit: Actor, director/fight director, rare-book-dealer, fencing instructor, author - Jared Kirby
It’s clear that Honors-CLA alumnus Jared Kirby has designed a life to match both his interests and his passions. Honors student Brianne Ketteman asked him a bit more about how his approach to life has resulted in such unique vocations.
Tell us about your work with rare books and historical documents?
I manage Seth Kaller Inc. We buy and sell original documents, art and artifacts from American History. These are the original documents written by people like George Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Einstein and many others. You can get an idea of the variety of documents on the website at sethkaller.net. It never gets old because we get so many different documents even though we focus on Revolutionary War to Civil War.
The most exciting part of the job is getting to read letters from these great men to see a side of them you never read in history books. You get to see the loving father, the homesick farmer, the adoring husband, the self doubts and confusions of the men who created the country we live in. Most of all you can taste the passion and zeal that they had for creating a new system of government and a free Republic. It is really amazing.
How did you get involved with it?
My degree is in Theatre (with a minor in History), and I was a professional actor in NY for over half a decade. I had just finished doing Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet and I had 5 weeks before my next gig. That meant I needed to get some kind of a job in between the two so I could cover rent that month. I thought to myself “what is something interesting I could do to make some money?” I decided long ago that life is too short to hate what you are doing for even a few hours a day. I realized that I hadn’t done a “day job” in approximately 12 years, so I thought it would be fun to wear a tie to work. I sat down with the Sunday NY Times and applied for a variety of jobs that seemed interesting.
One of these was a small ad for a “rare document business.” I was always interested in history and I collect rare fencing books, so this intrigued me. When I went in for the interview I was blown away by the whole concept of handling original documents written by the most important people in history and it just so happened my skills were a perfect match for the company.
What’s the most interesting item you’ve seen?
That changes every 3-6 months! We recently purchased George Washington’s cover letter to Thomas Jefferson sending a copy of the Constitution the day after it was finished (Jefferson was in France at the time). There was also a copy of the 13th Amendment signed by Lincoln, Hamlin and most of the Congressmen who voted for it. It was extremely fun to find a previously unknown writ from Lincoln to suspend Habeas Corpus during the NYC draft riots. The people of the time and scholars ever since have debated why he did not declare martial law and it turns out that he did, but the General never needed to use it so it was never known.
One of my all time favorites was a young George Custer writing from a Civil War battlefield to defend himself against accusations that he has been “an opponent to the Lincoln administration.” Custer states that he is totally against slavery and that the rumors of his disloyalty bear no truth. He goes as far to say “I would, and do, favor a war of extermination. I would hang every human being who possesses a drop of rebel blood in their veins whether they be men, women or children.”
How did you get involved with fencing and fight direction?
I have been doing stage combat since I started at the U of M in 95. I love the magic of creating violence on stage that is safe, but looks extremely realistic. I first became interested when I saw the human chess match at the MN Renaissance Faire and I said “I’m going to do that some day.” It took me 4 years to get there, but I did exactly that. This love of fake fighting led me to wonder how they really used to do this. A friend of mine who moved to Scotland for 6 months came home and had studied exactly that while he was abroad. He started showing me what he learned and I
was hooked. We created the New Dawn Duellists Society in Minneapolis to introduce others who were also interested.
This has really changed my life. I moved to Scotland for 6 months to study with that same person and then moved to New York for acting, but also to study with the only fencing master teaching Spanish Rapier. I am now an instructor at their academy in Italian and Spanish Rapier (you can see more at martinez-destreza.com).
Tell us about your current projects and your next book.
That is a dangerous question! I keep myself way too busy, but everything is something that I love and I have not found a way to say no to something that I love to do.
I started Jared Kirby Rare Books a few years ago to focus on selling original rare fencing books (I have been collecting them for years and finally have a few I can part with). You can see more at jaredkirby.com/rarebooks.htm. It’s very small because I am still much more of a collector than a seller. I have put out a couple of books on historical fencing. The first was a professional translation of Capo Ferro’s 1610 treatise on the Italian Rapier (thus titled “Italian Rapier Combat”). The second was a republication of Angelo’s late 18th century French Smallsword book, “The School of Fencing,” which was annotated by the foremost expert on French Smallsword. I am now working on my third book which is an annotated version of Saviolo’s 2nd book “Of Honor and Honourable Quarrels.” I am looking forward to getting it finished up as it became a much bigger project then I originally envisioned.
I travel around the world teaching workshops on historical fencing. In the last year I have been to several different countries and taught half a dozen workshops in the US. I have always loved to travel and this is a wonderful way to put two things that I love together.
I have joined the ranks of college instructors as well! I teach a classical French foil class at SUNY Purchase in New York. It’s very strange; although I graduated from the U of M in 1998, I still feel like a college kid inside, so it’s strange to walk into the classroom and be the teacher.
I still act, but only roles that interest me. I just did a reading of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. I also enjoy directing. Last year I did “The Woman in Black” which is a show I highly recommend. You can see it in London (it is the 2nd longest running show in the West End yet pretty unknown in the US). It's rare that you get to scare people with theatre and this is a very scary play. This coming spring I will be directing “Same Time, Next Year” and I am looking forward to that.
How do you think your experience in Honors- CLA affected your career or other aspects of your life?
It really helped me refine my understanding of the importance of creating goals in life. Without choosing a destination it is very hard to go anywhere. You can not always dictate the path that will get you there, but you can make sure that you arrive. The way that the honors program is set up helped me work on this. You don’t just need good grades to graduate with honors, you also have to do an honors project. My project was an insane undertaking and one that I would never do again, but it was well received and I learned a lot from it (even though many of the lessons were things never to do again). This process helped me to ‘think outside of the box’, so I took on several more projects in the next years as independent study and really enjoyed them. I never would have thought to do them if I had not been in the honors program.
My advisor (Kit Gordon) was also very important. I found (and still find) that many college professors treat students like child and I think this does an injustice to them. College is the time for you to transition from being a kid into an adult and the best people at the U of M had adult expectations of me. Kit was particularly good at this and her guidance was very helpful.
Do you have any advice for students?
Growing up in Minnesota I found a lot of people who tried to crush my dreams and make me set “realistic” goals. They said, sure you can do this as a hobby, but you can’t make a living at it. It was sad to see half of my graduating class of Theatre majors succumb to this as they did not even make it through the summer before they had given up theatre for a “real job.”
It is not easy, but you really can do whatever you want in life as long as you set clear goals and don’t stop until you achieve them. Surround yourself with like minded people and ignore the critics. One of my favorite quotes on Kit’s wall when I would visit her for advice was: “Every society celebrates its live conformist and its dead troublemakers.” Don’t be afraid to go against the norm to achieve what you want.
--Interviewed by Brianne Ketteman