The urge to ritualize the coming of winter is as old as recorded history. When days are short and nights are long, people instinctively re-create mythic adventures in which they herald the anticipated rebirth of life, even as they huddle together against the cold. It was with an expansive and cultivated sense of this impulse to celebrate the winter season that Revels, a nationwide participatory performing-arts phenomenon, began 40 years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since then, Revels has spread to 10 cities, with Santa Barbara as the most recent addition to the list. Led by Susan Keller, an Equity actress and experienced producer who took up the cause five years ago, Santa Barbara has thus joined an extraordinarily active, thoughtful, and talented network of people devoted to spreading holiday cheer through music, dance, and theater. Among the many spectacles offered in the holiday season, Revels stands out as an unusual blend of antiquarian research, historically accurate period performance, and audience participation. In an era when the true spirit of Christmas can seem elusive, Revels evokes only the noblest of holiday traditions and presents them in a way that radiates a painstaking yet happy authenticity.
The process begins each year in February, when the leaders of the various Revels around the country gather to prepare for the following winter’s performances. This is when the agenda gets set, and each individual company determines what its theme for the year will be. Some groups will produce shows set in medieval England, while others will draw on traditions as various as those of Celtic Ireland or the Appalachian Mountains. This year in Santa Barbara, The Christmas Revels will be set in Victorian England, one of the most popular and beloved of all the eras represented. More than 60 performers will take to the Lobero stage in ensembles ranging from The Solstice Singers and The Yuletide Children’s Chorus to The Pacific Sword Ensemble and The Revels Morris Men, all accompanied by The Coastal Brass Quintet and Ye Olde Parlour Players. Individual performances of note include Ken Ryals as Thaddeus Hatcher, Chairman of the Lyceum Theatre; Matt Tavianini as the Cockney Henry Croft; and Diane Stevenett as Vesta Victoria, a grand music hall queen.
At the heart of Revels are the traditional songs, dances, and stories that have been handed down from one generation to the next, all the way from the Victorian period to ours. Revels founder John Langstaff was a musician, a performer, and a scholar, but, first and foremost, an educator. His mission was to bring the great communal traditions of the holidays to a world of people whom he saw as badly in need of a stronger connection, both to the past and to one another. As producer and founder of the Christmas Revels project here in Santa Barbara, Keller shares in Langstaff’s vision, and communicates the same kind of enlightened reverence for tradition that animated the original group in Cambridge. Along with theatrical director Maggie Mixsell, Keller works tirelessly to ensure that the Santa Barbara production not only retains the authenticity that is the hallmark of all the Revels but also attains the highest professional standards of performance. She has recruited some of the city’s top actors, singers, dancers, and musicians and encouraged all of them to follow her lead and, as she puts it, “trust the material.” “It’s supposed to be traditional, but not folky,” Keller explains, “and when it all comes together, the result is magical.” From pub songs to hymns and traditional carols, the music celebrates the occasion as an opportunity to “join in and be joyous,” and, on a winter’s night not so far from now, people young and old will gather at the Lobero to do just that.
The Christmas Revels: A Victorian Celebration of the Winter Solstice will be at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, December 18, at 3 and 8 p.m. and on Sunday, December 19, at 3 p.m. For tickets and information, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.