A One-Hanger Year for Costumes

Let me quote for you an excerpt from a conversation between me and my dear friend Cheryl, who I met through Revels but hasn’t been in the Christmas show in a few years, due to an unnatural preoccupation with such things as “raising small children” and “not failing her classes.”

Me: My whole costume fits on one hanger this year.

See? Whole costume, one hanger. Note also the plastic bag o' bling. Photo: Helen Fields

Cheryl: Really??!!??

If there is one thing I have learned from Revels about people in olden times, it is that they wore a lot of clothes. In 2004, my first year, I was utterly flummoxed by the clothes they handed me at dress parade. I mean, I didn’t even know what order they were supposed to go on. It turned out to be a white shift thing, like a slip, with a long lavender robe over it, then a white aprony thing over that.

I was a medieval cook’s assistant that year, but aprons have been a common theme; last year, for 19th century England, I wore an apron over my dress, which I believe came from a store that specializes in clothes for Civil War re-enactors. That was a particularly complicated year for costumes. There’s the dress and apron and a petticoat, which is three hangers right there. Then the second part of the show started outdoors, so at intermission, everyone had to put on outerwear – I had a cloak and a bonnet and gloves. In 2005, when we reveled Scandinavian-style, I wore a petticoat, an absolutely massive black skirt, a blouse, and a bodice. I wasn’t in the 2009 Italian Renaissance show, but it involved a lot of tying laces.

This year my costume is exactly one piece. It’s pretty, it’s as comfortable as a nightgown, and it goes on in about 15 seconds. The massive strip of snaps up the back is a hassle, but it’s a hassle for the wardrobe volunteers, not for me. I’ve never had such an easy time getting dressed.

Some of the outerwear for the second half of last year's Christmas Revels. Photo: Helen Fields

Wearing a costume helps me inhabit the show. I feel like a different person. It’s not acting. I have no idea how to act. I couldn’t act my way out of a paper bag. When I’m standing on stage having a conversation with the person next to me, and it looks like I’m acting, I’m actually just talking to the person next to me. I’m told that standing around on stage looking like myself works for Revels, so I keep doing it.

But the way the fabric feels and moves and takes up space helps me be a version of myself in 19th century Quebec, or Elizabethan England, or whatever. If I don’t stand tall in this year’s costume, it looks and feels weird. The big swirly skirt I wore in the Scandinavian show connected me with some old-fashioned sense of womanliness that contributed to how I walked and moved, and it was perfect for dancing a schottische.

In this modern life, my body is probably very little like that of my characters in all these different shows. I never milk cows or carry buckets of water and I sit hunched over a computer all day. But at least the clothes push my look – and feel – in the right direction.

Learn more about the 2011 Christmas Revels: Andalusian Treasures
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In the Makeup Room

The makeup room backstage at Lisner Auditorium. Photo: Helen Fields

There are a lot of things I like about Revels. The community. The singing. The costumes. The ribbon sticks. Here’s something I don’t like: makeup. My goodness, stage makeup does not feel nice. And it doesn’t look so nice, either, up close.

That’s ok, because stage makeup isn’t meant to be seen up close. It has to be so heavy because of the bright stage lights. They cut right through the top layer of skin, I am told, and leave you looking like a ghost. That’s why the foundation has to be super-thick, so the light will bounce off of the makeup and go back to the audience’s eyes. Basically, so we’ll look human.

Stage makeup probably doesn’t look so bad if it’s put on by an expert. But the person who puts on my stage makeup is, for the most part, me. And I am most emphatically not a makeup expert. Fortunately, Revels is prepared for people like me. Signs are posted with the steps in makeup application, from face-washing to blush. Volunteers are on hand to do eyes and anything else we can’t figure out on our own, and middle-school-aged girls apply powder.

Also, I am not that chalky in real life. Photo: Helen Fields

This year there’s a new addition to my makeup kit: False eyelashes. Yipe. I have actually worn false eyelashes once before, for the only show I ever did in college. (I was a Hot Box Doll in Guys & Dolls, and no, I will not be sharing photographs.) I think I must have put the eyelashes on myself then, but last night I just could not figure out how to do it. So a volunteer agreed to glue them on, reluctantly – she’d never put on false eyelashes before. I said I was ok with being at the bottom end of her learning curve.

The result: the false eyelashes landed way above my real eyelash line, like emaciated caterpillars who had lost their way, and my upper eyelids were glued partway open. The volunteer and I got sort of a collective case of the giggles. She wiped off the excess glue and sent me to rehearsal with functional, if slightly goofy, eyelids. Practice makes perfect, right?

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A Little Bit of Help on the Program

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few days helping to finish the Christmas Revels program. Our program is really elaborate. It has about eight articles, some about Revels activities and some about aspects of this year’s show. There’s a section of program notes that list every song, poem, and dance in the show, with a ton of information contributed by a lot of different people. It’s quite a job to make the notes both accurate and concise. Not to mention that things change, so we have to make sure the items are in the right order and list the right performers. The final product is beautiful. (And, I hope, interesting.)

Yesterday I had some expert assistance on the final proofread.

The tarasque checks out its portrait in the program. Photo: Helen Fields

That’s a teeny knitted tarasque, the mythical beast that will appear on stage. We plan to sell these little guys at Lisner, so start saving your pennies. Not this one, though – I don’t think I can part with him.

We saw the full-sized tarasque in action yesterday. WOW. Seriously. I had no idea. It’s so…lively. And I heard the tarasque puppeteers are scheduled for a special rehearsal tonight to make it even cooler.

By the way, if anyone wants to pitch in and knit some tarasques for the merchandise table, I’ll e-mail you the pattern. It takes about three hours for me to knit one. There’s no crochet pattern, but anyone is welcome to design one and share it.

Learn more about the 2011 Christmas Revels: Andalusian Treasures
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Secret Hiding Places for Running Orders

Monday night was our first night at Lisner Auditorium. We were all in costume to work on the first part of the show. This was our first time seeing the set (wow) and finding out what it’s like to do this show on that stage.

Most of us carry a paper copy of the running order on stage to remind us what’s coming up next. The running orders are covered in notes about where to go and what to do. By the first performance, on Saturday, we’ll know the show well enough to banish most running orders. But for now, the rule is that the director shouldn’t be able to see them.

Now, here’s the challenge: Our costumes have no pockets.

Running order peeking out of a lovely purse. Photo: Helen Fields

 

Why, hello, running order. I see you there in that waistband. Photo: Helen Fields

 

I do believe that is a running order in a learned man's book. Photo: Helen Fields

 

A running order makes an escape up a sleeve. Photo: Helen Fields

 

Jody Frye points at his running order. I thought he meant it's in that red fabric somewhere, but no, it's in his head. Oh, you teenagers with your flexible brains. Photo: Helen Fields

 

This is NOT what I expected when I asked this chorus member where he hides his running order. (He wears swimming trunks under his costume, for the pockets.) Photo: Helen Fields

 

If it's in my hat, it'll soak into my brain faster. That's how it works, right? Photo: Helen Fields

 

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Revels Across the Country

Intermission at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, 2009. Photo: Helen Fields

The Christmas Revels you get here in Washington is wonderful and unique, but it’s not the only Christmas Revels. We’re one of 10 Revels cities across the U.S. We’re all under a national Revels organization based in Cambridge, Mass. In addition to D.C. and Massachusetts, you can see The Christmas Revels in New Hampshire; New York; Houston; Boulder, Colo.; Tacoma, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; Oakland, Calif.; and Santa Barbara.

The Revels cities share scripts and major prop pieces. In 2008, someone drove a van up to Cambridge to get the flying canoe for our French Canadian production. Our show this year, Andalusian Treasures, is based on the show that Portland did last year. This year, Portland is visiting medieval England with “The King and the Fool,” which we last did in 2004.

I’ve been lucky enough to see productions in two other Revels cities. Washington’s performances are among the earliest, so it’s possible to sing in eight performances here, then travel to other cities and celebrate with them. In 2009, I went to Boston with my parents to see a version of the American show we did in 2006. It was fascinating to see another city’s take on a show I knew so well.

The lobby in Oakland, 2010. Photo: Helen Fields

I particularly envied their performance space. The Cambridge production is in Sanders Theatre, this absolutely gorgeous wood-paneled hall at Harvard University. They don’t have the things you would expect in a theater, like a curtain, and it does not matter at all. Then when the audience joins hands and dances out of the theater at the end of the first half, for “Lord of the Dance,” they end up winding back and forth in this lobby with extremely high ceilings and, generally, an enchanted historical feel. The California Revels, in Oakland, has a similarly gorgeous hall, the Oakland Scottish Rite Center.

Lisner Auditorium, our Christmas Revels home since 1983, is more cavernous than intimate. The lobby doesn’t have that warm, cozy, Revels-y ambience I felt in Cambridge and Oakland. Also, we have to worry about electric shocks from feet shuffling along the carpet during “Lord of the Dance.” (Tip: Pick up your feet.) But it’s been a wonderful home, and I’m excited to be moving in there tonight for my seventh Christmas Revels tech week.

Learn more about the 2011 Christmas Revels: Andalusian Treasures
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Dancing Around the World

Six men performed the Saidi dance in today's rehearsal. Photo: Helen Fields

There are two really exciting dances in this year’s show. I’m not in either one, which means I’ve had opportunities to take blurry pictures of both. One is called “Saidi” – it’s a dance from southern Egypt with its roots in Ancient Egyptian martial arts. It involves guys dancing with sticks.

Revels aficionados may think, “guys with sticks? that sounds familiar.” Indeed, guys have danced with sticks on our stage many times. They’re usually morris dancers. Morris is an English dancing tradition which is most commonly associated with big white handkerchiefs and bells on the ankles, but can also involve sticks.

Last summer I was in England and saw a bunch of morris teams performing in a town square. One of them was doing a stick dance and another team kept messing with them by running up, grabbing a stick, and giving them something else – a different team’s stick, a bit of ivy, a coffee mug, a flower, a member of another team. It was the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time. I was informed later by an experienced morris dancer that this is utterly old hat, but, you know, it was the first time I’d seen it. I was impressed.

Eight women practicing their Spanish dance last weekend. Photo: Helen Fields

I do not recommend trying that trick during a Christmas Revels performance, by the way.

Anyway, the point of that little digression on morris dancing is that the word morris supposedly comes from the Middle English word morys, which meant “Moorish.” I don’t think anyone actually thinks the stick dances of the Border Morris tradition came from the Upper Nile, but it’s an interesting connection, isn’t it?

 

 

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Singing in Foreign Languages

Every year, The Christmas Revels has a different theme. Those themes bring different languages with them. And different languages have different levels of difficulty. Before this year, the toughest show I’d been in for languages was the Scandinavian show in 2005, when we sang in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Finnish.

Some of the dictionaries I've used over the years to help me learn lyrics. From left: Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish. Photo: Helen Fields

Actually, that one wasn’t all that hard for me because I speak a little Norwegian, and once you know Norwegian, you basically know Swedish and Danish, too. They’re all very closely related. Finnish, on the other hand, isn’t even Indo-European (the language group that includes English, French, and a whole slew of languages from Russian to Hindi). Finnish is Uralic, the family that includes Hungarian and Estonian. For the songs in Finnish, I was basically memorizing nonsense syllables along with everyone else.

This year’s equivalent of Finnish is Arabic. We’re only singing three songs in Arabic; mostly we’re singing in Spanish and a few other languages that are closely related to Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but it’s reasonably familiar, and I can look up the words I don’t know in a dictionary.

But with Arabic, I’m lost. We’re given translations, so I can find out what the songs are about, but I don’t know the individual words. This makes memorizing the songs extra-challenging. I’ve come up with little stories based on what the words sound like, or words they remind me of in other languages. A line in “Qum Tara” reminds me of the Norwegian for “I got some tuna,” for example.

Memorization isn’t the only problem with singing in Arabic; pronunciation is challenging, too. Arabic has a lot of sounds we don’t have in English. Sometimes in rehearsal it feels like we’re having this conversation:

Chorus: “eh”

Rachid Halihal: “No, it’s ‘eh.'”

Chorus: “eh?”

Rachid: “No, it’s ‘eh.'”

Chorus: [confused]

It reminds me of when I taught English in Japan – Japanese doesn’t have an “L” sound, and the “R” sound falls kind of in between our “L” and “R.” One time I was teaching a private lesson on directions, and I discovered that when I told them “turn right at the light,” the words “right” and “light” sounded exactly the same. I showed them the difference in how I form the two sounds. They could see it, but they still couldn’t hear it.

So, now that I’m singing in Arabic, I think I understand a little bit of what those Japanese students were dealing with. We’ve been told how to handle the Arabic vowels, so don’t worry. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to produce exactly the right vowel, but at least I know how to make that pesky “eh” sound so that it doesn’t sound totally wrong.

Fun website about languages

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Snap Encounters the Tarasque

Volunteer Leanne Wiberg has put in a lot of hours sewing scales onto the tarasque the last few days. She’s been keeping me up to date on the goings-on in the basement at the office, where this work is being done.

I have to share this picture Leanne took of Snap, a dragon puppet who has appeared on the Lisner stage many times. He lives in a prop storage area next to where the team is working on the tarasque. I particularly enjoyed Leanne’s caption.

Other dragons watch in horror as it dawns them that they too were made and constructed...that they too are motherless. Photo (and caption): Leanne Wiberg

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The Terrible, Adorable Tarasque

Usually our Mummers play–the play-within-a-play in the second part of The Christmas Revels–features a hero fighting some kind of terrible monster. St. George and the dragon, for example.

This year instead of a dragon we have a tarasque. The tarasque is a fearsome beast that ravaged, so the story goes, a town in Provence and was tamed by a young girl. You may recall seeing it carved on a pumpkin.

On Sunday we got our first look at our tarasque’s body–including all six legs. Take a look at this:

Two chorus members put the tarasque through its paces. Photo: Helen Fields

That is one exciting puppet.

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Seven Ways to Prepare Eggplant

Eggplant! Photo: David Monniaux

Last night I was chatting with John Pomeranz, the Washington Revels board member and sometime chorus member who is making the food for the cast party in a couple of weeks. He chastised me for not having previously mentioned that we’re singing a whole song about food. It’s called “Siete modos de guisar las barenjenas”–Seven Ways to Prepare Eggplant–and, well, that’s what it is. I promised I’d send him the recipes, so here they are, just in time for Thanksgiving.

1. Vava – Cut it into bite-sized pieces and serve it for supper.

2. Dolma – Hollow it out and fill it with herbs.

3. Almondrote – Hollow it out and fill it with rice.

4. Alburnia – Ok, the song doesn’t actually give this recipe, but I can tell you that it’s tasty and you should eat it before the worm gets to it.

5. Jandrajo – Little pastries of eggplant, served with hard-boiled eggs.

6. Maljasina salad – Make it with a lot of olive oil and serve it with leftover hen.

7. Meyina – In the oven with an open dish with oil and pepper.

Ok, I didn’t say they were detailed recipes. If you don’t feel up to the recipes, maybe you’ll take inspiration from the chorus: “My uncle Cerasi likes to drink wine. Lots of it. He feels fine.”

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