In the midst of the usual holiday theater fare, two Tacoma productions stand out this weekend. One is new, the other is celebrating 20 years of endless volunteer hours and rehearsals, but both draw the audience into the action and celebrate common themes of light and joy.
The old tradition is the Christmas Revels, turning 20 this year in the Rialto Theater with a medieval English yuletide. The new is Live Paints production of The Snow Queen, blending crafts, story and make-believe for a young audience in a storefront theater space on the Hilltop.
20 YEARS OF THE REVELS
Its a rainy Wednesday night in downtown Tacoma, and about 60 people gather in a church basement to sing medieval folksongs and dance. Theyve been rehearsing like this since September. Many do it year after year.
As they gracefully turn, singing the lusty Masters in the Hall to the piping of shawm, viol and medieval violin, their faces tell a different tale from their jeans and T-shirts a tale of candlelight and feasting, of knights and squires and banqueting halls. For audiences who have flocked to see the Revels, its this tale of olden times and merriment that draws them in to celebrate. For the folks that perform in the Revels, its not just the singing its the community.
When we first saw a Revels, Debbie and I were sitting way up the back and could hardly see, recalls Paul Birkey, who has helped backstage with Revels for 15 years while his wife, Debbie, performs and directs the childrens chorus. But Debbie just stared at them, and said, These are my people. I have to participate.
Like the Birkeys, most members of the Revels are drawn by the unique combination of historically researched folksong, authentic instruments, simple folk dancing and theatrical elements such as medieval mummers plays that make up a Revels show here and in other U.S. cities that perform them.
Others join because of family: In this years Revels, set in 12th century Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, England, there are several parent-and-child sets, couples and a grandmother and grandson. But even those who arent related weave firm bonds.
It really does become a family, said B.J. Douglas, who has stage-directed the Revels since the first Tacoma Christmas show in 1994 (the two prior years were in Seattle) and is one of the Revels few paid professionals. Ive become quite close to many of the people Ive worked with all those years.
The community also includes the audience. Though the show changes period and place each year, one favorite element thats always there is The Lord of the Dance, where the Revels cast dances off the Rialto stage and leads the audience singing through the aisles. The audience also gets to sing other well-known carols and a cappella harmonies of Dona Nobis Pacem, as well as cheer on a dragon and act on stage. This, plus the overall musical atmosphere, keeps audiences coming back, including the original ones from Seattle.
Whats cool about Revels is that while the overall structure is the same, and a few elements, its different every year, said Douglas. Its not like going to The Nutcracker.
Not all Revels performers come back every year. The hours of rehearsal can be difficult.
Some take breaks. Robin Strong, former childrens chorus director, said she found it hard to balance Revels with work.
Others keep coming back. For Mark OKelly, who has performed in every show for the past 20 years, joy overcomes the work.
Its in our blood, our DNA, to celebrate, he said. If you get your blood racing and combine it with stories and music, theres something magical that happens. You cant get that watching TV.
And for executive director Mary Lynn, who has seen the Puget Sound Revels go from a crazy idea at a Seattle meeting to a successful reality, its the doing and sharing that makes it work. The thing that gets you through year after year is the deep sense of satisfaction. (You) want to do it again, see it again, share it with others. Thats whats kept us rolling.
LIVE PAINT: IMAGINATION THEATER
Walk into 1314 Martin Luther King Jr. Way on the Tacoma Hilltop and you go through an old storefront into a magical winter world of white lace, sparkling mirrors and theater that pulls in its young audience.
Im trying to sneak in as much as possible to get the audience involved, said Cindy Arnold, director of childrens art-and-theater group Live Paint. Thats really what theater is about. I want them to feel as if they are part of it.
And they definitely will. After being welcomed at the door by actors, visitors to this weekends performance of the Hans Christian Anderson tale The Snow Queen can do arts activities (aimed at ages 3-8) before entering the tiny theater space, transformed by Arnold into a magical land with an icy blue-white floor, glittery tree branches, silvery tinsel, a purple throne and a frosted mirror. Acting out the story are Arnold as the queen who becomes cold and harsh when a piece of a wicked mirror falls in her eye, and a pair of Tacoma sisters, Rosemary (10) and Lula (5) Sissel, playing children Gerda and Kay. As Gerda decides to rescue Kay from the wicked Queen, she coaxes the audience with convincing charm to the back theater space, decked with green boughs, flowers and fairy lights the home of the Spring Queen (Edith Acosta), where Gerda and the audience children all get to make magical wands that will break the Snow Queens spell through love.
Its an enchanting concept: using theater and art to encourage young children to use their own imaginations to tell a story, and one Arnold has been building up to during the past few years with Live Paints interactive childrens art storytelling workshops.
A theater major who toured internationally with the musical Hair, Arnold has taken Live Paint around the world, including a gig next summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Now that she has a theater space, courtesy of the city of Tacomas Spaceworks program, she can create a magical world to help children tell their own imaginative stories.
Theres only one performance of The Snow Queen, but with an upcoming grant, Arnold is hoping to have more shows in February.
Its been a joy doing it, she said.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568