Between the Feet and the Stage

You would not believe how much angst I had in my first year as a member of The Christmas Revels chorus. The culprit: shoes. It was 2004 and the show was set in medieval England, so we had to have very simple flat shoes. At one point I thought I’d had a pair of old shoes approved, but it turned out the person who said she thought they were ok wasn’t actually allowed to approve shoes, and their thick soles made them look too modern.

That meant, 12 days before the 2004 show opened, I discovered I was shoeless. This may not sound so bad, but I was totally stressed out. I was going to be spending approximately three bazillion hours standing over the next few weeks and I have picky feet. I was also new and didn’t have a sense yet of how flexible things were; I just knew there were rules about shoes, and I am a rule-follower.

The next night, I drove around the suburbs collecting pairs of black shoes. I brought them all to the next rehearsal – our first night in Lisner Auditorium – and showed them to Mari Parkar, a veteran Reveler who’d been assigned to be my “chorus buddy,” a kind of mentor who can answer your newbie questions. I told her I was afraid the costume ladies would pick the men’s slippers with the rock-hard soles and I’d be in pain for the next two weeks.

Seven years later, I don’t remember Mari’s exact words, but it was along these lines: “Here’s what you do, Helen. Only show them those two pairs.”

So simple, and so brilliant! They chose the reasonably cute black flats with subtle white stitching, which will be appearing this December in their fourth Christmas Revels. For most other shows, I wear a pair of boots I bought on eBay in 2006 (which apparently look 19th-century enough to get by). And, one year, I got to wear my completely fabulous Norwegian dance shoes.

From left: Norwegian dance shoes - note moose on label; shoes that pass for 19th century; black flats. Photo: Helen Fields

It’s nice not to have to worry about things like this anymore. I feel like this was also a useful lesson. Follow the rules, yes–but also ask your community for help.

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Widening the Circle

A chorus-sized circle lines the rehearsal room at the Revels office. Photo: Helen Fields

At the beginning of most rehearsals, and before every performance, we all stand in a circle for something we call – wait, the clever name will amaze you – “circle.” Some people find this a bit off-putting. Yeah, there’s a certain amount of hand-holding. But it’s part of what brings us together, and coming together is what makes The Christmas Revels.

Circle is a time for announcements about logistics and schedule, and for standing with your stage family, hand in hand, getting your body ready for singing. It’s for people who aren’t on stage and aren’t singing, too. The circle keeps getting bigger, reaching out to hold more and more of the Revels community and beyond.

The circle was pretty big at Saturday's all-day rehearsal. Photo: Helen Fields

Artistic Director Roberta Gasbarre explains it to us like this. At the first circle of the year, in May or June, the circle is just the adults in the chorus and a few other people. As the year goes on, the circle expands. The teens join us in September. In October we meet our children for the first time. Volunteers appear to work on props and make crafts to sell at the merchandise tables. Designers stop by.

In November we have weekend rehearsals in larger spaces. The costume and props crews start fixing us up with things to wear and things to hold. In a little over a week, we’ll be holding circle under the stage at Lisner, where there’s no room for a single file circle. The usual call is “Come to circle!” but at Lisner, it’s “Come to blob!” as we all squish in to listen to each other’s words.

The 2007 cast assembles under the stage for circle. Photo: Erin Sutherland

Finally, in December, the cast and volunteers and whoever else is there will end every performance singing Sussex Mummers Carol, holding hands, across the front of the stage and up the stairs at the side of the theater to encircle the audience. That’s when the circle is at its largest.

The point of Revels isn’t to stand on stage and sound pretty. (Although we do that, and quite well.) What makes Revels special is that we build a real community among ourselves, as we learn and practice the traditions represented in a particular show, and then keep expanding that community to include the whole audience in our celebration of the seasons. As the poem goes: “Singing, dancing to drive the dark away.”

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Eight Hours Beneath the Basketball Hoops

Chorus members line up to carry props from the rental truck into the gym. Photo: Helen Fields

As the fall goes on, rehearsal starts taking up more time and more space. This weekend we have two all-day rehearsals at a school in Bethesda. Saturday there were props. Today there will be costumes. There are musicians wielding brass instruments. There are musicians wielding every other kind of instrument, too. And apparently we’re going to perform this show in two weeks in front of a paying audience, so Saturday seemed like a good time for the directors tell us where to stand for the second half of the show.

So we spent all day Saturday under fluorescent lights in a gym, walking through the second part of the show. Lines on the floor corresponded to the borders of the Lisner Auditorium stage. We got a bit of music practice with the brass quintet and Trio Sefardi. I used to find these all-day blocking rehearsals exhausting, but I’ve learned over the years when I need to pay attention and when I can zone out. I impressed one of the new people with my ability to knit whenever there was a break in the action.

I made a lot of progress on this baby sweater today. Photo: Helen Fields

One of the teenagers got excited this morning when she heard I was writing a blog and said I should do it Gossip Girl-style. Me: “I heard a rumor that someone hasn’t memorized all her lyrics yet.” Her: “Is it…95 percent of the chorus?”

I think most of us know most of the lyrics already, and I know I’ll have it all down by the time the show opens (hopefully earlier). But the lyrics don’t really get solidified in my head until I put my notebook down, walk around, and sing the songs as if we were on stage. With more than 40 hours of rehearsal in the next two weeks, I’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that.

Makeup designer Roger Riggle saw everyone on Saturday to match their skin tone with foundation. Photo: Helen Fields

Today we’re back for another six hours in the gym. It’ll be our first time running the whole show, our first time rehearsing in costume–and our first rehearsal “off book.” That means the notebook, with my script and music, stays in my backpack. Yikes. I’ll be spending the morning transferring all of my blocking notes onto a piece of paper and copying the lyrics I’m not totally sure about onto index cards. Then I just have to confront the reality of a day where I’m reliant on pieces of paper and wearing lovely white robes…with no pockets.

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Ocho Kandelas Para Mi

Trio Sefardi and Flory Jagoda perform. Photo: Helen Fields

Last night at the Trio Sefardi concert we had the privilege of hearing Flory Jagoda sing her song “Ocho Kandelikas.” Trio Sefardi are playing in this year’s Christmas Revels; they’re the specialists in Sephardic music.

The members of Trio Sefardi all learned from Flory, a wonderfully talented musician who lives here in the D.C. area. Flory was born in Bosnia in the 1920s and came to the U.S. after the Second World War. She’s not joining us for the exhausting weeks of rehearsals and performances we have coming up, so this was a special occasion.

For about half of the concert, Flory sang, played guitar and percussion, and told stories about her childhood in Bosnia. Like the one about the aunts who knitted sweaters; one of them always made the sleeves too short and one made the sleeves too long. So if you met someone with a new sweater, you could tell which aunt made it.

“Ocho Kandelikas” is a counting song about the eight candles of Hanukkah. A “kandela” is a candle, so a “kandelika” is a little candle. The chorus goes “Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas….” We’ve learned a version arranged by Trio Sefardi member Tina Chancey, so it was so exciting to hear Flory singing her composition tonight.

You may wish to study, because this is one of the times when the audience gets to sing along.

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The Future Has Arrived

iPad Sheet Music at the InterFaith Concert
My friends, the future has arrived. Photo: Helen Fields

Tuesday’s InterFaith Concert was lovely – there was such a delightful variety of performances, from traditional choirs in formal wear to barefoot dancers in shiny costumes. But this may be the thing that amazed me the most that night…

See that thing on the piano? Ramon Bryant Braxton, the accompanist for the combined choir pieces, played from an iPad! I hope he had a paper backup. You’d hate to have the battery run out halfway through the song.

Actually, the fact that pianists are using iPads these days wasn’t the only fun new thing I learned while we were at the cathedral. Terry Winslow, one of the esteemed veterans of our chorus, told me he grew up a few blocks away from the cathedral and, in the 1950’s, played tag among the chapels on the lower level. Another chorus member has been performing there since she was in high school (and I don’t think she even grew up in the D.C. area). Still another sang in a wedding there sometime in the last few years. The best part of being involved in Revels is getting to hang out with all these cool people and hear their stories.

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A Night in the Cathedral

The Natananjali Dance Group lines up before their performance. Photo: Helen Fields

Yesterday afternoon I had an exciting trip: A fellow member of the Christmas Revels chorus picked me up at Dulles – I’d just flown in from a weekend in Ontario – and rushed me to the Washington National Cathedral. We were headed there to perform in the InterFaith Concert, which is put on every year by the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. (We made it in plenty of time – we even got there before they cleared away the pizza from the pre-concert dinner.)

This year’s concert included sweet singing from the Mormon Choir of Washington and a really nice performance by a choir from Howard University. A gaggle of talented teenage girls represented the Hindu and Jain faiths with a classical Indian dance. The men and women of Sikh Kirtain Jatha sat on the floor to share one of the gorgeous hymns they sing in Sikh services. We performed right after the choir from Temple Sinai, which also sang in the first two InterFaith Concerts, 30-some years ago.

Revelers practice their handclapping for "Ríu Ríu Chíu." Photo: Helen Fields

Washington Revels isn’t a religious group. We were invited to perform because this year’s Christmas Revels is set in a time and place when three major religions coexisted. They weren’t always living in peace and harmony, but still, medieval Andalusia has come to be seen by some people as a symbol of tolerance and acceptance.

For the InterFaith Concert, we sang the spirited Spanish Christmas carol “Ríu Ríu Chíu.” The music for this year’s Christmas Revels is really exciting – there’s a lot of cool rhythms. A few members of the chorus were assigned to execute the complicated hand-clapping rhythm.

Washington InterFaith Concert - view of combined choir
The combined choir sings to open the concert. Photo: Elizabeth Fulford Miller

Now, here’s the exciting part for me: I sang a solo! In the cathedral! I am told that it sounded good. My completely unbiased source for that review is my parents, who were in the audience.

Singing in the cathedral is fun. The singers from all of the choirs joined together at the beginning and end to sing two pieces. It was so exciting to sing a big chord, cut off, and hear it ringing through the huge stone building. The cathedral has been closed since the earthquake in August; it opened for the first time this weekend, just in time to consecrate a new bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

The cathedral has a long rebuilding process ahead of it – the building has been declared structurally sound, but they’ll need to rebuild the limestone pinnacles atop the central tower. It was exciting to sing there so soon after it reopened.

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Welcome to the Blog!

Helen with a "big spoon" in the 2004 Christmas Revels
Helen with a "big spoon" in the 2004 Christmas Revels. Photo by Sheppard Ferguson

At last, the blog is launched. Welcome, dear readers! I hope you’ll read along with me through the Christmas Revels in December.

If you want to catch up, you can read my introduction. (Short version: I’m a veteran chorus member.) I’ve already blogged about trying on my costume, a truly amazing pumpkin, and singing a song with the word “nimrod” in it.

Enjoy!

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A Visit from Trio Sefardi

Trio Sefardi
Trio Sefardi (Howard Bass, Susan Gaeta and Tina Chancey). Photo by Jeff Malet, MaletPhoto.

Here’s an instruction I haven’t gotten before: “I need you to channel your inner Fiddler on the Roof.”

Tonight was our first time practicing with all three of the members of Trio Sefardi – Susan Gaeta, Howard Bass, and Tina Chancey. They’re a local group that plays Sephardic music.

When Tina instructed us to find our inner Tevye, we were singing “Quando El Rey Nimrod,” one of the Sephardic songs in this year’s Christmas Revels. In the song, Nimrod, a king in the Bible, goes out to the fields, looks at the sky, and foretells the birth of Abraham.

Nimrod seems like a funny name for a king. But of course the king came first; it was only recently that his name came to mean “stupid person.”

I thought maybe dictionaries could tell me how that happened. The first one I tried only gave two definitions: the great-grandson of Noah, noted as a great hunter; a person expert in or devoted to hunting. The next dictionary was the same. The third, a dictionary of word origins, skips the issue entirely, going straight from “nimbose” to “nincompoop.”

A brief internet search tells me this question comes up a lot. One possibility is that it was because Bugs Bunny used “Nimrod” sarcastically to describe Elmer Fudd. Because he’s not a great hunter – get it? (The Online Etymology Dictionary refers to this hypothesis as “amateur.”)

Anyway, the song we were working on is about King Nimrod. It’s lovely, with flowing, melodic choruses and a bouncy refrain. Tina, Howard, and Susan sat facing the chorus, playing instruments and, in Susan’s case, singing. Tina leapt out of her chair to demonstrate how the song’s refrain should move and dance. And we all got even more excited about the music we’re singing for this year’s Christmas Revels.

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Happy Halloween

Nerluc in flames (pumpkin carved by Barry Galef). Photo by Barry Galef.

Every year, Reveler Barry Galef brings us a special treat: One of his carved pumpkins. These aren’t the jack-o-lanterns you’re used to, with the triangles for eyes and the half-moon for a mouth. He treats the pumpkin as a work of art, carving a detailed scene into their orange skin.

The pumpkin always relates to the theme of the Christmas Revels. We had a flying canoe for the French Canadian show in 2008 and Henry VIII for 2007’s Elizabethan show. (Hey, he was Elizabeth’s dad.) So during the break in tonight’s rehearsal, we all filed upstairs to the mezzanine to ooh and ahh over this year’s offering.

The main pumpkin this year has the tale of Saint Margaret and the Tarasque. The Tarasque is a sort of dragon-like creature with lots of legs. It makes an appearance this year in the Christmas Revels, as the monster in the mummers play. In the story, the Tarasque ravages the town of Nerluc, in Provence, and sets it on fire.

Taming the Tarasque (pumpkin carved by Barry Galef). Photo by Barry Galef.

A young woman goes out with a jug of holy water, tames the Tarasque, and brings it back to show everyone how calm it is. But the angry townspeople kill it anyway. In remorse, they name their town “Tarascon.”

You can see some more of Barry’s pumpkins on his website.

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Dress Parade

Rosemary Pardee supervising the Washington Revels costume parade.
Rosemary Pardee supervising the Washington Revels costume parade. Photo: Helen Fields

It’s a time to wait, to memorize lyrics, to wait some more, to do homework, to keep waiting, and to discover the occasional threaded needle stuck in your clothes. It’s dress parade, and it’s part of the reason why we all look so great on stage.

The costume team has been working for months, but this Sunday was the first time the costume designer, artistic director, and a bunch of other people got to see the entire cast in costume.

I showed up at the Revels office for my 5 p.m. appointment – a little early, in some vague (and incorrect) hope that this would mean I would get out early. In the costume work and storage area on the lower level, a helpful volunteer found my hanger on a rack. I’d had a fitting earlier in the week, so I already knew I had a super pretty costume (yay!) and that it’s the right size. It was my first time seeing the headpiece, so I made a guess at how it went on and sat down in the conference room upstairs.

The previous group was still being worked on, so those of us who were scheduled at 5 sat with our music notebooks open on the table, singing together and working on memorization. After about an hour of that, it was finally time to work. And by “work” I mean “stand still while other people work.”

The first thing I learned was that I’d guessed wrong about how my headgear worked – it was on backwards. Designers suggested changes to costumes. Pieces of fabric were grabbed from the overflowing boxes and held up to heads or waistlines. A teenager in my group kept appearing in different dresses. A few different necklaces were put on me and taken off again.

Here I am with my stage husband (not a real husband) and Lois, the inimitable wardrobe mistress. She was trying out options for a wide sash.

Dress parade can be a little boring for the chorus, but it’s downright grueling for the production team – it’s a good idea to bring them snacks. Lois likes chocolate and lemon bars.

At the end of the day, I had new headgear and lots of shiny rings. I’m happy to report that Bobby kept his giant medallion. I’m also happy to report that we were the last group, so I got to eat one of the leftover lemon bars. (After I changed back into my clothes, of course. No eating in costume!)

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