Revels’ Pandemic Promise: Join Us (Virtually) and Be Joyous

By Steven Libowitz   |   December 24, 2020

Every year, the December performances of Santa Barbara Revels are meant to mark the winter solstice, which represents the shortest day of the year, the deepest dive into darkness before emerging back into the light. So perhaps it was fitting that my conversation with Susan Keller, founder of and still the main force in the local chapter of the national Revels organization, took place this past Monday, just as the first doses of the new COVID-19 vaccine were being administered to health care workers across the nation, perhaps signaling the USA’s first steps toward recovering from the pandemic. 

The Christmas Revels: A Virtual Celebration of the Winter Solstice, starring Susan Keller, will be streamed on Vimeo on December 21

The lockdown, of course, has prevented Revels from mounting its usual massive production at the Lobero Theatre, a themed extravaganza replete with dancing, songs, stories, mirth, and merriment and even a Mummer’s Play in the middle, each year a different theatrical and musical experience to bring the world’s cultural traditions and celebrations to our shores.

But the local Revel-ers were committed enough to put something together within the confines of the safety protocols, an ambitious revue-style production called The Christmas Revels: A Virtual Celebration of the Winter Solstice that will be streamed on Vimeo this Monday, December 21. 

“We put a lot of energy and effort into trying to keep this going because people look forward so much to it, to the performances and the celebration,” Keller said. “We didn’t want to be defeated by the technology or by the inability to gather together. So we’re creating very inventive ways to make that happen.”

The fact that this year’s production gets back to the early roots of the Christmas Revels to feature choral music from Renaissance England, as well as favorite Christmas carols, stories, and standard Revels fare from Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and Lord of the Dance numbers should also provide some comfort in these challenging times. 

“We’re doing what they call the basic Revels show, which is what we did our first year in town,” Keller epxlained. “It isn’t as scripted as most of our other shows, but it is all music of the Renaissance with poetry and readings, the classic Revels show, which is nice to be able to go back to. Of course we aren’t doing anything like pulling people out of the audience onto the stage, which we did in that original show, because there isn’t one. But it’s beautiful material, really lovely music and the poems are very touching.” 

Fear not, though. While the audience will be watching at home rather than sitting shoulder to shoulder in the cozy confines of the Lobero Theatre and enjoying each other’s voices in the audience singalongs, the onlookers are still being invited to participate via a number of singalong opportunities where the lyrics will scroll at the bottom of the screen as subtitles. Music director Erin McKibben will be teaching the songs during a Zoom Preview Party hosted by Keller, who will talk about the background of Revels traditions, and dramaturg Anna Jensen, who will discuss the historic setting of the music.

Favorite elements to be featured include the Santa Barbara Trombone Society Quartet (Eric Heidner, Lisa Price, Michael Dolin,and Stephen Hughes) who have a big role in the 2020 Revels, including providing musical bookends of the show as they open with “Pastime with Good Company,” the English folk song written by King Henry VIII shortly after his coronation in the beginning of the 16th century. The foursome will also play “Deck the Hall” and “The First Nowell” for audience singalongs, and provide the brassy backbone for the annual Lord of the Dance danced by Matthew and Sara Weitzel with singer Josh Jenkins and chorus and the traditional Gloucestershire Wassail before closing out the show with Sussex Mummer’s Carol for the entire company and the audience singing along. 

Vocal and instrumental offerings include Keller, McKibben, and Meredith McMinn singing “The Holly and the Ivy” accompanied by harp and cello; traditionals “We’ve Been A While A Wandering” and “Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies” from the Revels’ Children’s Chorus backed by mandolin and cello; the Teen Chorus taking on “Make We Joy”; and a Entr’acte: “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst as an instrumental quartet. Among the spoken selections are Keller reading Susan Cooper’s poems “Remember” and “The Shortest Day”; a recitation from Hamlet, Act. 1, Scene 1 by Shakespeare from McMinn; and Salutation from “A Letter to the Most Illustrious the Contessina Allagia Dela Aldobrandeschi, Written Christmas Eve Anno Domini 1513” by Fra Giovanni recited by Josh Jenkins.  

Creating a revue-style albeit abridged Revels show that still contains just shy of 25 numbers proved to be quite an undertaking, Keller said. But it’s also one that should bring smiles to the faces of longtime fans of the Revels shows as well as newcomers. 

 “We had to be really inventive to be able to do the show,” explained Keller, who noted that online rehearsals of the choral groups preceded socially-distanced in-person ones in the center courtyard at the Girls Inc. complex in Goleta before the audio was recorded at the site earlier this month. Last Thursday the singers showed up at the Marjorie Luke Theatre for the digital video recording, no more than half a dozen at a time. “We had them lip-syncing to their pre-recorded audio,” Keller said. Meanwhile, the horn dance with antlers was shot in Oak Park. 

 “It has been a terrible year and we just wanted to show the hope for the coming year and the rebirth of joy, because Revels has always been about bringing people joy, happiness, and celebration,” Keller said. “So, it’s really nice to have something that mirrors what I hope will be the end of darkness and the beginning of hope and light.”

Tickets for the Santa Barbara Revels’ The Christmas Revels: A Virtual Celebration of the Winter Solstice and pre-show gathering are included with a $50 donation and cover the livestreaming for the entire household that begins at 5 pm on December 21. For more information, visit www.santabarbararevels.org.

Talking Theater: Welsh ‘Jam’ by Thomas on Zoom 

Under Milk Wood, the 1954 radio drama by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas that was commissioned by the BBC and later adapted for the theater, gets a staged reading from DIJO Productions this weekend on Zoom. The work features an omniscient narrator who invites the audience to listen to the dreams and innermost thoughts of the inhabitants of the fictional small Welsh fishing village that include Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, who relentlessly nags her two dead husbands; Captain Cat reliving his seafaring times; Organ Morgan, who is obsessed with his music; and Polly Garter, who pines for her dead lover. Later, the town awakens and, aware now of how their feelings affect whatever they do, we see them go about their daily business. The ensemble cast for the reading of the lyrical work include Deborah Helm, Ming Holden, Sean Jackson, Kathy Marden, Jerry Oshinsky, E Bonnie Lewis, Ken Gilbert, Mindy Turano, Stuart Orenstein,and Edward Giron, who also directs.

Watch the tale unfold 6-8 pm on Saturday, December 19, at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/8010350269. Make sure to enter the Zoom room with video and audio turned off. Details at www.facebook.com/events/819023545311549. 

They’ve had ‘#ENOUGH’ 

Center Stage Theater and the UCSB Initiative For New & Reimagined Work are participating in the nationwide reading of the seven winning entries into a national short play competition for middle and high school students this month known as #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence. #ENOUGH’s call for teens to write 10-minute plays that confront the issue of gun violence received submissions from 184 students across 23 states and three countries. A panel of nationally recognized dramatists featuring Lauren Gunderson, who was recognized as America’s most produced living playwright in 2017; Tarell Alvin McCraney, the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama who won an Academy Award for co-writing the 2016 film Moonlight based on his play; Robert Schenkkan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 for penning The Kentucky Cycle and the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play for All the Way; David Henry Hwang, playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and theater professor at Columbia University who won a Tony in 1988 for M. Butterfly; and Karen Zacarías, who chose the seven winners. All were written by high school students and tackle gun violence through different lenses, from the threat of and anxiety over school shootings, police shootings, community violence, race, and gun culture in American history. 

The short works were set to be performed at theaters and schools across the country and abroad on December 14, the eight-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook that killed 20 children aged six to seven and six adult staff members. #ENOUGH made the plays available for free to schools, theaters, and community organizations to stage a reading of them, either virtually or in-person. Center Stage Theater is among the locations that hosted readings, having enlisted 43 Santa Barbara area artists including UCSB and SBCC students, graduates, and faculty. The digital productions remain available for streaming through December 30 on the CST website (www.centerstagetheater.org), where you can also find details about the cast and directors for each piece.

Read about the seven winning playwrights, including bios and headshots, and their plays, online at www.enoughplays.com/plays.  

 

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