A preview peek as Washington Revels prepares its 40th Christmas Revels

Good news. Good news. The Washington Revels is back at Lisner Auditorium this year to celebrate its fortieth Christmas Revels with a program entitled Christmas Revels: Celtic Crossroads.

Generations of families across the DMV have made this an annual tradition in their season’s planning. Let’s call it part of the Holy Triumvirate of holiday culture, along with The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. (Ah, let me apologize for not mentioning The Folger Consort, half a dozen Messiahs, and Black Nativity.)

Washington Revels stands alone as a cultural institution dedicated to reviving, sustaining, expanding, and celebrating cultural traditions in communal performance and ritual. The Christmas shows go back to musician and educator John Langstaff, who founded Revels, Inc. and created the first Christmas Revels in 1971 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The shows’ popularity spread, so now there are 9 Revels companies nationwide producing Christmas Revels — all familiar but never quite the same — combining music, dance, storytelling, and rustic playacting – and they invite people on and off stage to join in a sense of community and joy.

Washington, DC. theater icon Catherine Flye rehearses the opening scene of the Christmas Revels. Photo courtesy of Washington Revels.

Since more than half the magic is participatory, I wanted to experience the making of the recipe for myself and spent a morning recently at Potomac School, where the organization had taken over the building to pull the pieces together in anticipation of a load-in to Lisner Auditorium.

The first thing is the sheer size of the undertaking. Over 80 people are in the cast. This is something on the scale of a Metropolitan opera. The organization is a well-oiled machine. Everyone wears nametags, all first names only. Every classroom had signs posted — Wardrobes for Men, Women, and Children, Brass Band, Children’s and Adult Choruses, and my favorite, “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”

The only thing I found in the WBB room was Bob, practicing on his “small pipes” Highlander favorites.

Andrew Cohen with his set design for ‘Christmas Revels: Celtic Crossroads.’ Photo courtesy of Washington Revels.

Some like Susan had in tow three generations of her family participating, all getting costume fittings. One young lass, her granddaughter, was all aglow at being part of the Revels for the first time.

Nearby, other volunteers were sewing on collars or attaching new buttons.

Already costumed “characters” milled in the school lobby, waiting to be daubed and dabbed at the make-up station manned by a sharp-eyed supervisor and several volunteers. It takes a village.

The company is made up almost entirely of volunteers with just a nominal few professional “ringers.” Direction and design teams are professional as are many of the musicians. This year, the show features veteran and much beloved local actor Catherine Flye as Gran. Also featured are Byron Thomas on banjo, Scottish piper Bob Mitchell, Whiskey Before Breakfast Band, and Washington Revels Brass.

Joining the team this year is Executive Director Tamara C. Williams, who is bent on honoring the artistic traditions while expanding inclusion as well as supporting structures. This year, for instance, the company has acquired a costume shop to consolidate for the first time storage and assembly.

The show is not shaped by plot. There is not a lot of emphasis on spot-on accuracy, either in accents or nuanced performance. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to call most of it acting, it is so purposefully rough-hewn; its lovability factor comes from everyone recognizing when a moment is created, part ham and part cornball.

To give some idea of the homespun nature of the script’s style, here’s a scene I observed rehearsed.

Gran, with her doctor’s bag, enters on a hobby-horse and reins up her mount. She calls on a lanky lad to hold her horse. He crosses his arms in front of his chest.

Boy: Does he bite?
Gran: No.
Boy:  Does he kick?
Gran:  No.
Boy: Does he need two to hold him?
Gran: No.
Boy: Then hold him yourself!

There is a distinct process in the creation that gets passed on each year.

The Christmas Revels chorus rehearses with the brass and practices blocking at the Potomac School. Photos by Erin Sutherland, courtesy of Washington Revels.

The creative team chooses the theme 12 months before and looks to find a new culture or tradition that makes up our local community. Since 1983, over 39 productions have generated shows drawing on different eras and cultures, including Bulgarian, Greek, Nordic-American, Roma, Early American, African-American, and Andalusia’s blending of Muslin, Jewish, and Spanish traditions.

Artistic Director Roberta Gasbarre shared how she begins the research and the conversations with Music Director Elizabeth Fulford and Associate Director Andrea Jones Blackford. Somewhat later, longtime collaborator and multi-award-winning designer Colin K. Bills enters the process.

On this day, as production manager, Colin walked through the space in workmanlike manner, unruffled and ready for whatever would be laid down.

This year’s theme, Celtic Crossroads, was chosen as a way to trace roots of Celtic music coming from what we mostly associate with music from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, but also other musical traditions, including Appalachian and African, demonstrating with well-researched authority how our local sound world reflects the community’s depth and richness.

A skeletal script is prepared, sometimes with dialogue sketched in, but only as a starting point. The “tradition” is purposefully elastic. Roberta elaborates, “It’s only when people are standing in the space together that we all get to explore possibilities and adaptations through improvisation. Ideas are welcome, even essential. It’s what comes from the people who are the characters themselves that creates the special authenticity of a Revels performance.”

Scene from ‘The Christmas Revels: An American Celebration of the Winter Solstice’ (2021). Photo courtesy of Washington Revels.

Charlie tells me, “When a person joins a Revels cast, that person is assigned a family.” Charlie has been part of the larger Revels family for years. This year he decided to forego his place on stage. On this day, though no young lad, he was a “runner” and literally popped up everywhere, beaming and full of purpose. He happily tells me how each family works out on its own the relationship history of its members, “who you are and what you need to know to be present every moment on stage and have a reason to speak to each other when called for in a scene, mostly all improvised. It’s always familiar. It’s always new. That’s the magic.”

I am reminded of the author Henry Miller, who wrote in his novella The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder about a clown who finds his place when he joins a circus: “I do whatever comes to hand.” Like Miller’s clown, a Revels member is not about star billing or number of lines. It’s doing “whatever comes to hand” — to feel part of something, to spread joy and light, marking the turn of a season from darkness to light.

If the Revels have not been part of your family’s tradition, you may want to come on down as the company bursts open the doors to Lisner Auditorium once more after this unwelcome break. Whether it’s joining in a song, clapping, stomping, or dancing in the aisles, there will be many moments when the audience is invited in to be part of the family of fools. And isn’t that what we all need: to come together and feel part of community, maybe now more than ever?

The Christmas Revels: Celtic Crossroads will play December 10–11 and 16–18, 2022, presented by Washington Revels performing live at GW Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st Street NW, Washington, DC. A virtual encore streaming option will follow beginning on December 23 through January 6, 2023. Purchase in-person tickets ($12–$65; 25% off youth tickets for December 16 Family Friday performance) online. On-demand tickets for online viewing ($40) are now available for purchase.

COVID Safety:  Masking is optional but strongly encouraged for audience members in Lisner Auditorium. For more information see Revels’ COVID policy. In an effort to offer a safe and accessible option, Christmas Revels will also be available for online viewing for patrons who purchase a virtual ticket.

Creative Team:
Tamara C. Williams, Executive Director
Roberta Gasbarre, Artistic Director
Andrea Jones Blackford, Associate Artistic Director
Elizabeth Fulford, Music Director
Colin K. Bills, Production Manager
Kristen H. Murray, Development Coordinator

Featuring:
Catherine Flye as Gran
Byron Thomas, banjo
The Highland Pipes
Washington Revels Brass
Whiskey Before Breakfast Band

SEE ALSO: 
‘The Christmas Revels’ return with spirituals, carols, and family fun (review of last year’s performance by Darby DeJarnette, December 14, 2021)