Goodbye to Andalusia

Chorus member Charles Blue carries a piece of the gorgeous flooring from the stage. Photo: Helen Fields

Well, it’s over. Our beautiful Andalusian world has been dismantled.

The final step in The Christmas Revels is taking down the set and moving all of our things out of the theater that we’d occupied for the last two weeks.

The entire cast helps out with strike. The actual set was mostly taken apart by professionals wielding power tools. The main task for the rest of us is carrying things. Props, pieces of flooring, bundles of costumes tied up in sheets. When the truck was full, anyone who was available drove to the Revels office in Silver Spring to move everything back off the truck. I’m not usually one for volunteering for extra heavy lifting, but I know it goes better with more people, and I didn’t have to get up early in the morning.

A box of programs makes the trip back down from the mezzanine. Photo: Helen Fields

We formed bucket brigades passing merchandise up to the mezzanine, programs to the mezzanine, programs back down from the mezzanine (there was indecision about the programs), props into the rehearsal room to await sorting, hair and makeup supplies down to the basement, and programs to their final location, stacked on a landing halfway to the basement. It was midnight when I left the office.

The enchantment has ended. The magnificent treasure room has somehow turned back into two-by-fours and piles of elderly sofa cushions. And those of us in the chorus go back to our regularly scheduled lives as lawyers and teachers and speechwriters and science writers–taking the memory of Al-Andalus forward into the world.

The tarasque returns to its basement lair at the Revels office. Photo: Helen Fields

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Opening Day

Helen Fields and stage husband Bobby Gravitz. Photo: Erin Sutherland

It’s finally here! We auditioned in May, we started rehearsing in September, and we’ve been at Lisner Auditorium every night this week. Last night, we had a rehearsal with a practice audience. This afternoon is our opening night. (Yeah, I know. But “opening matinee” sounds silly.)

In case you’re reading this and don’t already know what I look like, I thought I’d help you out. Friends who’ve known me for years have trouble finding me on stage with no glasses and with my hair covered. Plus there are something like 80 people on the stage.

So, look for the one in white and come say hi to me after the show. Actually, there are at least two of us in white, but you can say hi to anybody you want.

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

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
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

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!

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.

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

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.


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

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!)

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