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
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

You Know It’s Tech Week When…

The Top Ten Reasons You Know It’s Tech Week:

The Breakfast of Champions
The Breakfast of Champions (applewood smoked bacon, scrambled eggs with fennel, and chopped avocado). Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller.

1. There is a rehearsal every night

2. You spend a lot of time ascending and descending stairs

3. Lisner Auditorium starts to feel like home

4. The second full day (of your day) begins at 5:00pm (call time!)

5. You wake up in the morning singing “Oy comamos y bebamos”

6. (… and, you can’t remember what words comes next)

7. You start the morning by eating a healthy breakfast

8. A mere single cup of coffee is not enough to get you going in the morning

9. You can’t remember what day of the week it is

AND…

10. Your feet really hurt!

Do you have others?  Let the commenting begin!

Meet Rachid Halihal

Rachid Halihal with his Oud
Rachid Halihal holding his Oud.
Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller

This year we are lucky to have two specialist music groups for our Christmas Revels show. The Arab Andalus group of musicians is named Layali El Andalus and is led by Rachid Halihal.

Rachid is a world-class musician who brings, to us, the true character and spirit of music from Andalusian Spain, the diverse regions of Morocco, and North Africa. As a child, growing up in Morocco, Rachid played the nei and sang, imitating the famous singers of the time. At age fourteen he entered “Dar Aadyil” the Conservatory of Music in Fez. At first he studied Western classical and Andalus music on piano and violin. He soon expanded to include a variety of other instruments in order to better express his native music. In addition to his voice, which is best featured in the Andalus style, his strongest instruments are the oud (similar to a lute without frets) and the violin, which he plays in both the classical manner and upright resting on the knee for Moroccan folkloric music.

Layali El Andalus rehearsing with Tina Chancey and Elisabeth Myers
Layali El Andalus rehearsing with Tina Chancey and Elisabeth Myers. Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller

Rachid arrived this Friday evening  (November 25th) from Colorado, where he was presenting workshops and concerts in Boulder and Denver. Soon after his arrival he began rehearsing with local musicians Tina Chancey (you’ll hear more about her soon) and Elisabeth Myers–Tina and Elisabeth will be joining Layali El Andalus on a few of their songs, and the Washington Revels chorus will be singing with the group as well.

Learn more about Rachid by visiting his Web site (rachidhalihalmusic.com).  And, visit the Layali El Andalus band Web site to learn more about his group (ayalielandalus.com).  We are so excited to have them as part of this year’s Christmas Revels.

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
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

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

Learn more about the 2011 Christmas Revels: Andalusian Treasures
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

Lather, Rinse, Repeat… Memorizing Music

David Giusti leads the Revels men in Abinu Malkeinu
David Giusti leads the Revels men in Abinu Malkeinu... notice how many of them have this piece memorized. Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller

Each year, our amazing Washington Revels Chorus (adults and teen) and Children have to memorize their music. The process begins in September, as we learn each piece, but the actual memory crunch tends to occur sometime in November (like… now!).  Some years our job is easier than others… like last year, when the music was almost all in English.  But, this year, we are singing in Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Judeo-Espagnol (also known as Ladino), Galician Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, and Catalan — this definitely makes the process of learning and memorizing more challenging!

With the exception of a few lucky folks (and yes, Greg Lewis, Washington Revels ED and song leader, is one of them), the memorizing process can be the most frustrating last step on the learning to performance continuum.

Have you ever had to memorize a poem, or some lines of text to repeat in front of an audience, or a class?  This form of memorization only involves words… and, that alone can difficult.  When you memorize music, there are many more details that become part of the process:

  • pitches (the actual notes that you sing)
  • rhythms (the amount of time each note gets)
  • expression (loud, soft, smooth, bouncy, etc.)
  • tuning and harmony (how does your part fit in with the other parts)
  • timing and rests (when do you sing? when do you breathe?)
  • text and pronunciation (what syllables go with what notes, and how do they sound)

As you see, this is a pretty complex set of variables to put together.  And you have to do all of this while walking, interacting, dancing, carrying things, going up and down stairs, spinning around, messing with your costume, ringing bells, gathering children, etc. (and not standing next to someone who is singing the same part that you are singing). We spend a lot of rehearsal time really learning the music, and then each singer has to “lather, rinse and repeat” on their own, in order to develop the muscle memory needed to be able to perform all of this music in a typical Christmas Revels production!   You are memorizing not only what the music sounds like, but what it feels like to perform it.

Here is a list of all of the songs that the chorus has to memorize for this year’s show (including the languages that each song is in):

1. Tan buen ganadico (Castilian Spanish)
2. A vint-i-cinc de desembre (Catalan)
3. Lamma bada yatathanna (Arabic)
4. Quando el rey Nimrod (Ladino)
5. Children’s Songs: Gatatumba (Spanish); Matesha, matesha (Ladino); Tafta Hindi (Arabic)
6. Pues que tanto bien tenemos (Spanish)
7. New Year’s Prayer (Ladino)
8. Rodrigo Martinez (Castilian Spanish)
9 Bain el bareh we’el youm (Arabic)
10. El desembre congelat (Catalan)
11. Riu Riu Chiu (Castilian Spanish)
12. Ay luna que reluces (Castilian Spanish)
13. Cantiga 185: Poder a Santa Maria (Galician Portuguese)
14. Abinu Malkenu (Judeo Espagnol)
15. Hanuka (Ladino)
16. Ocho Kandelikas (Ladino)
17. Shalom Chaverim/Assalam wa aleikum (Hebrew and Arabic)
18. Qum Tara (Arabaic)
19. Siete modos de guisar las berenjenas (Ladino)
20. Hoy comamos y bebamos (Castilian Spanish)
21. Convidando esta la noche (Spanish)

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.

Want more information on the show or to buy tickets? Click here!

Meet the Brass

Washington Revels Brass
Washington Revels Brass in their "practice room" at the Washington Episcopal School... the "family reunion" begins! Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller

Well, it certainly was a big weekend in the life of this year’s Christmas Revels production — the full cast (adults, teens, children, musicians, and actors) finally has an opportunity to work through the entire show… in costume!  The “November weekend” at the Washington Episcopal School is also notable because it is the first time that we get together each year with our wonderful brass quintet.  As Music Director, I can tell you that we have THE BEST brass quintet!  Not only are they great musicians, but they are family.  In fact, they consider each Christmas Revels run (since they started with us in 1996) to be a “family reunion.”

Sharon Tiebert Maddox
Sharon Tiebert Maddox playing her french horn. By day, Sharon is the Director of Strategic Operations in the Office of the Vice President at Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Elizabeth Fulford Miller

Led by Robert Posten (the guy with the beard, above, playing the bass trombone), this group has performed under many “names” over the years — Boar’s Head Brass (2007), Belsnickel Brass (2006), Royall Noyse Brass (2004), Trombadori i Firenze (2009), Puddletown Brass (2010), and more — I wonder what their name will be this year??? Other members of the group are Robert Birch (trumpet), David Cran (trumpet), Sharon Tiebert Maddox (french horn), and Ben Fritz (trombone).

Prior to their yearly gig with The Christmas Revels, these musicians were known as the Annapolis Brass Quintet (at least, most of them).  America’s first full-time performing brass ensemble, this  group spent twenty-two years (from 1971 to 1993) playing in all fifty states and throughout Europe, the Orient, the Middle East, Central America and Canada.  Learn more about them at http://www.annapolisbrass.com/ (and you can even see some great photos of the group).

The next time we see the brass will be on Sunday at our run through at the Sidwell Friends School, and then we all move into Lisner Auditorium on Monday.  I will be sure to get some candid shots of the group in their dressing room.  There are two features that I look forward to each year:  1. A photo retrospective (group photo) from each year that they have performed in The Christmas Revels; and 2. Lots and lots of baked goods and chocolate treats… the brass room is a great place to get a little “nosh” during the show.  Stay tuned …

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.

Want more information on the show or to buy tickets? Click here!

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.”

Want more information on the show or to buy tickets? Click here!