A dozen years ago, a brave new Christmas season tradition in the making hit town, in the form of a local branch of the winter-solstice-themed Christmas Revels program. With roots in 19th British Yuletide celebration tradition, Christmas Revels debuted in New York City in 1957 and became an official organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1974, now including ten Revels companies around the nation.
Here in Santa Barbara, the effort was launched by intrepid founder/artistic director and participant Susan Keller and is firmly entrenched in the canon of perennial Christmas-calendar-timed activities in town (apart from a hastily canceled 2017 program, due to the Thomas Fire’s interruption of life-as-usual). Each production shifts locale and setting, from various points in the British Isles to New England and, locally, making a thematic stop in Alta California’s “Rancho” period.
This weekend, the music-dance-singalong-vintage merriment-narrative production arrives for two performances at the Lobero Theatre. This time out, Revels goes Italianate, in the form of a show dubbed The Christmas Revels: A Venetian Celebration of the Winter Solstice.
Revels executive director Nick Jurkowski explained that the new edition aims at “a nice balance between the light-hearted, physical humor of our commedia dell’arte players and some beautifully complex Renaissance choral and instrumental music.”
“Every show has a certain flavor, of course, and this year’s show brings into focus the fun of the season in our imagined Venice during the Festival of the Seven Fishes. As always, there are songs to sing along with, dancing, and some beautiful costumes and sets.”
Although the directorial parties involved have shifted over the years, the current team is a strong one: Keller leads the charge, alongside stage director Matthew Tavianini and music director Erin McKibben (Jurkowski, who helped orchestrate the Alta California show, is McKibben’s husband). Of the current creative team, he notes “the three have a very open and collaborative working relationship so it makes hashing out the details of the production a relatively smooth process.”
As it happens, collaborative machinery and community involvement is key to the success of the cast-of-many Revels productions, which draw on diverse talents in the music, dance, and thespian niches in Santa Barbara. Jurkowski points out that “Santa Barbara has an outsized community of skilled performers for a city its size. A point of pride for us is integrating professional musicians, actors, and dancers with talented community members for a really beautiful result.”
He points with special pride to the chorus in this year’s model, “made up of talented, seasoned Revelers, plus new members — children, teens, and adults — drawn from this skilled community, which also includes thriving theater, instrumental music, and dance, complete with a sword company.”
A new addition to the package this year is the participation of the Santa Barbara Trombone Society Sackbut Ensemble, weighing in with the fitting vintage sonorities of the sackbut, a Renaissance precursor to the trombone.
Underscoring the Revels experience and agenda is the fact of its general avoidance of religious affiliation in this season grounded in Christian ideology. Is its popularity partly to do with a desire to celebrate the season in a non-sectarian, secular way? “Revels occupies an interesting spot,” Jurkowski suggests, “in that it is neither explicitly religious nor entirely secular. There is music in the show that is essentially Christian in its text. Part of that is the setting for this particular show — it would be hard to include Renaissance Italian Christmas music that wasn’t. But part of that is also some of the songs that all Revels shows feature — the Lord of the Dance, for example.
“That said, the Revels program has a broader subtext: that of the coming of darkness and the return of light. In the Revels context, this relates very much to the cyclic seasonal pattern of the year, but more broadly, this arc is common to many religions in one form or another. I think it is elemental for humans, or at least for humans that live in environments that reflect this cycle: We experience the continual change of seasons; we see the recurring cycle of growth/death/rebirth, and so it has a profound significance for us that is almost subconscious.”
He adds that “there are Revels fans of many, or no, religions, and I think that that is a testament to the job Revels has done tapping into that elemental feeling. I think we do offer a unique way to celebrate the season, one that not only provides beautiful performances but one that also encourages interaction, movement, and community both for the audience and for the performers.”
4•1•1 | The Christmas Revels: A Venetian Celebration of the Winter Solstice, Saturday, December 21, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, December 22, at 2:30 p.m. For more information, visit santabarbararevels.org.