When Susan Keller founded Santa Barbara Revels in 2008, Santa Barbara became part of a nationwide community of 10 Revels companies that started in Cambridge, Mass., more than 40 years ago.
Each company puts on various events to observe the changing of the seasons, but the centerpiece of the year is “The Christmas Revels: in Celebration of the Winter Solstice.” A fully staged, elaborately costumed, full-length theatrical production, its script and theme changes from year to year, incorporating, music, dance and drama, as well as storytelling and seasonal rituals from various cultures and periods of history. Audience participation is also an integral part of the show, encouraging a sense of community and inclusion.
The Santa Barbara Christmas Revels will take place this weekend at the newly renovated Lobero Theatre, with 2:30 p.m. matinees both days and a 7:30 p.m. show on Saturday. This relatively new tradition has taken hold and become a beloved annual outing for many, a way to “revel” in the season’s festivity without the usual accompanying commercialism, but instead with joy and respect for keeping old holiday customs alive.
The past two years have seen Revels set in Bavaria and Appalachia, but this year’s show, “The Spirits of Haddon Hall,” centers on an English royal family who returns to their ancestral home to find generations of spirits still frolicking there, celebrating the holidays in their own ways.
“This is a return to our Revels ‘roots,’ with a show featuring traditional English music and dance,” says Keller, artistic director. “However, this year, we span 800 years of music, with a broad range of selections. We also have hand bells and a large instrumental ensemble — a brass quintet plus timpani and a wind and string group of seven players. So the music should be spectacular.”
According to Keller, there is a good mix of Revels veterans and fresh faces.
“Approximately half of our Adult Chorus is new this year and over half of our Children's Chorus,” she says. “Revels is a big-time commitment, so not everyone can do it every year. But we do have some notable returnees, such as Matt Tavianini, Robby Robbins, Diane Stevenett, Robert Demetriou, Yvonne Bazinet, Meredith McMinn, Mimi Vanleishout, Charissa Hamel, all the dancers and, of course, Ken Ryals, who is our music director but has also been our song leader since the beginning.
“We also feature a return of our signature Twelve Days of Christmas that Ken does so brilliantly. The Pacific Sword Company is doing a new, very intricate and extremely impressive sword dance, and Draco the Dragon returns by popular demand — from Robby Robbins, who actually plays our dragon!”
The dragon is a towering figure, a wearable puppet built onto a backpack frame, and is featured in the segment of the show that dramatizes St. George’s slaying of the dragon.
“Puppets are a blast!” Robbins, who also portrayed the dragon in 2011’s Bavarian-themed show, says. “Even the best makeup and performance technique will never allow the freedom of being inside that puppet. It truly transforms me into a dragon! I very much enjoy being in the cast as a singer, dancer and actor, but that puppet makes such a big impact onstage. Helping to create the dragon with local artist Diane Arnold definitely gave me great pride in presenting him to the community.”
“This year has been more challenging than in the past,” Keller said. “Because we keep trying to get bigger and better, so that entails more details, more resources, more potential problems and a bigger budget. However, the show is coming together wonderfully, and we're really excited about what we've created.”
“I am thrilled about this year's production,” says Robbins, who is also vice president of the Santa Barbara Revels Board of Directors. “It offers a wonderful and warming through story and covers an extensive period of music, dance, tradition and song. I suppose with a strong heritage originating in the UK in particular, I felt an affinity with this look back through an English family's vibrant and interesting history. Plus, the costuming is very fun.
“The big challenge for this year's production was coordinating costuming for many centuries and building a set to reflect the grandness of Haddon Hall. We could not have pulled off this year's show without the help of our nine fellow Revels troupes across the nation. We share costumes, scripts, music, etc., to help each other out. The reward is a great story and a show that all ages can understand and enjoy.”
Shows will be held at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. this Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available through the Lobero Theatre by clicking here or calling 805.963.0761.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.