It’s a rainy Wednesday night in downtown Tacoma, and about 60 people gather in a church basement to sing medieval folksongs and dance. They’ve 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, it’s this tale of olden times and merriment that draws them in to celebrate. For the folks that perform in the Revels, it’s not just the singing – it’s 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 children’s 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 mummer’s plays that make up a Revels show here and in other U.S. cities that perform them.
Others join because of family: In this year’s 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 aren’t 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. “I’ve become quite close to many of the people I’ve worked with all those years.”
The community also includes the audience. Though the show changes period and place each year, one favorite element that’s 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.
“What’s cool about Revels is that while the overall structure is the same, and a few elements, it’s different every year,” said Douglas. “It’s 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 children’s chorus director, said she found it “hard to balance Revels with work.”
Others keep coming back. For Mark O’Kelly, who has performed in every show for the past 20 years, joy overcomes the work.
“It’s in our blood, our DNA, to celebrate,” he said. “If you get your blood racing and combine it with stories and music, there’s something magical that happens. You can’t 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, it’s 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. That’s what’s kept us rolling.”