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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 6:15 am | Fair 48º


Santa Barbara Revels Unite ‘In Celebration of Winter Solstice’

'The Christmas Revels' returns this weekend at the Lobero Theatre

Anyone who has lived in Santa Barbara for more than a minute knows about the Summer Solstice parade and festival, the eruption of merry-making that has taken place every June since 1974. Just five years ago, a new tradition came onto the scene at the opposite pole of the year — Santa Barbara Revels, with a celebration of winter solstice.

While some may think Revels is the wintertime equivalent of Summer Solstice in Santa Barbara, and while certainly some of the same talented performers, artists and craftspeople are involved, Revels is an entirely different creature.

Ours is the newest of 10 Revels companies across the country nationwide, the first established in Cambridge, Mass., in 1971 by musician, educator and author John Langstaff to celebrate the seasons in performance through the power of traditional song, dance, storytelling and ritual from cultures around the world.

“We are unique but also part of a nationwide entity,” said Susan Keller, founder and producer of Santa Barbara Revels. “Our sister Revels companies also have been most generous in sharing resources: ideas, promotional materials, costumes — a huge help given the number of colorful and elaborate costumes we feature — and lots of moral support. We couldn’t have come this far so fast without these kinds of resources.”

The mission of Revels is to cultivate authentic cultural traditions and celebrate the cycle of the seasons through staged performances of song, dance and drama, education programs, and opportunities for participation by all.

The Christmas Revels: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice is the centerpiece of each Revels company — a fully staged, elaborately costumed, full-length theatrical production that changes scripts, themes and traditions from year to year. Last year’s setting was the streets and taverns of Victorian England, and the year before that it was a medieval castle. This year’s Christmas Revels is set in 19th-century Bavaria and explores the roots of modern Christmas, originating in Nordic and German traditions.

Each Revels show includes the elements of music, dance, drama, storytelling and seasonal rituals. The hallmark of Revels is audience participation, getting people out of their seats to sing and dance. It is not so much a performance or spectacle as an experience.

“All of the affiliated Revels companies celebrate seasonal change, and all the others besides Santa Barbara’s put on a very large Summer Solstice event,” Keller said. “Santa Barbara Revels has kept clear of that out of respect for the already beloved and well established Summer Solstice celebration in our community.”

While they are separate entities, there is some welcome sharing of talent between Solstice and Revels.

“We have quite a few artists from Summer Solstice involved with The Christmas Revels, and we’re very grateful for their talents,” Keller said. “Ann Chevrefils has made several large constructions for us. Tracy Jackson is doing our costumes, and she’s just terrific. Diane Arnold worked with us the very first year we did Revels and has gotten more and more involved with each subsequent year. This year she created the dragon who does battle with St. George. His slaying of the dragon resonates with themes of death and resurrection, and is featured in most production of The Christmas Revels because winter solstice is a time of the dying of the light followed by rebirth or the return of light.”

Robby Robbins, who also has appeared in many Solstice parades, will portray Arnold’s’ dragon and appear as part of the ensemble in this, his first, Revels production.

“I saw the show last year and was very impressed with the variety offered,” he said. “Susan (Keller) overheard me goofing off and singing with Diane Stevenett at the Solstice workshop this year and asked if I would consider auditioning.”

Robbins admitted that the main challenge of his involvement with the Revels company is singing in German. But he takes it in stride and appreciates the opportunity.

“The reward is getting back on stage after an 18-year hiatus,” he said. “I am thrilled to be singing, dancing and acting all in the same show. I love the Santa Barbara Revels slogan — ‘Join us and be joyous’ — and hope the audience feels like a part of show and enjoys not only being entertained, but also seeing the different cultures, stories and legends that other countries and times offer.”

Simon Williams, Matt Tavianini and Diane Stevenett star in this year’s show, and Ken Ryals is musical director.

Emily Jewell, an actor, singer and voice coach, started out working administratively for Revels in 2009 and was then asked to sing in the chorus that year. Last year, she played a featured role, and this year is the Children’s Chorus director.

“I wanted to work with Revels,” she said. “Because I love the idea of community involvement, the music is beautiful and thrilling to sing, and I love working with children. It has been incredibly rewarding to work with these talented kids and see them grow as musicians, actors and people. I love that they play and try new things. It reminds me to be brave and creative as well.”

Maggie Mixsell has been stage director since the Santa Barbara Revels began in 2007.

“Revels rewards in many ways,” she said. “The performers, staff and volunteers offer such dedication and commitment. Listening to the beautiful voices ring out with seasonal music, enjoying the traditional folk and social dances, watching the children gleefully participating in the production consistently brings a sense of connection that is so welcome and nourishing at this time of year. Here in Santa Barbara, we might have to reach a little further for the representation of the emergence from the dark to the light, as we do not live in a cold and dark winter climate like many others who perform Revels, but I believe we fully achieve the sense of optimism, faith and joy of the season.”

The Christmas Revels: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice will be performed at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and at 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido.

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.

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