Q&A: Christmas Revels welcomes winter solstice, pulls Tacoma community into song and dance

Mary Lynn founded, performed in and, this year, is producing the Christmas Revels in Tacoma.

The performance celebrates the winter solstice with traditional carols and dance from a particular period in time each year. It’s put on by the Puget Sound Revels, the local branch started in 1992 of a network that spans the country.

About 4,000 people will see the performance during the six shows this month at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater.

The Revels’ first rehearsal there will be Monday (Dec. 8), and they open Saturday.

Lynn, 58, helps organize the roughly 130 people it takes to put on the show, about 80 of whom appear on stage. She explained what it takes to wrangle the holiday show together each year, and what it is, exactly.

Question: What’s the history of the Tacoma show?

Answer: John “Jack” Meredith Langstaff had a lot of music in him, and he just believed we should be able to sing together and to celebrate. He tried this thing out, called the Christmas Revels. That was in Cambridge, Massachusetts (in 1971), and it’s still going.

There are 10 of us in the country now. We work together, we research things for each other. We started this (Puget Sound) organization in 1992.

I have a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. When I was at Harvard, I first saw the Christmas Revels. I just missed it. I thought it would be fun to have one out here.

Q: What is the show?

A: Every year we choose a different time and place. And we draw from the material of that time and place. This year it’s Italian Renaissance.

It’s a funny thing. It’s not a concert. It’s not exactly a play. There’s kind of a story that runs through it. We create a kind of celebrating village on stage. In this case, it’s the prince’s stage in Salerno (Italy).

If you’ve been going for years, you know you’re kind of going on this ancient metaphoric journey. There’s a huge amount of humor. If we do our job right, as an audience member, you do feel like you’re more than onlookers. You’re part of this community that has formed on stage.

Q: Who is in it?

A: The production intentionally combines both high art and folk idioms, but also amateurs and professionals, children and adults. The heart of this thing is a pretty large adult chorus and a children’s chorus.

They are all auditioned from the community. We add to them professional actors. All the instrumentalists are professionals.

Actually, this year we have an 11-year-old and 13-year-old who are playing something called the viola da gamba. It’s a six-string, fretted renaissance instrument. It’s more closely related to the guitar than the violin family.

Q: What’s your background for this sort of thing?

A: I’ve sang in lots of choruses, but I do not have a background in arts management or nonprofit management. But after 22 years, I have a background in it.

Q: How does the audience participate?

A: Every now and then, we totally bring the audience into it. The audience gets to sing some things. We dance them out to intermission.

The box office is very funny. They tell me some people request to be on the aisle, to be part of it. Others say: “Put me in the middle so they can’t pull me out.”

Q: When and where do you rehearse?

A: Auditions are in the spring. They rehearse every week, Tuesday night, starting about the second week of September. We rehearse in the basement of First United Methodist Church until the Monday before we open. Monday, we load the set in during the day, and the cast comes at 6 p.m. Then it gets really exciting.

Q: What else should people know about the show?

A: It feels magical. You walk into the Rialto, and it’s transformed. Our set designer is phenomenal. Gorgeous costumes. Really beautiful music. A lot of hilarity. There’s going to be a total eclipse of the sun, which doesn’t happen often in a theater.

People tell me they come every year, and it just makes them happy. The set just gives you this feeling of being somewhere else long ago, far away. I think there are 742 seats in the Rialto. It’s not often in this day and age you get to sing with that many people.

There was a woman who told me a couple years ago the people she usually goes with were out of town. She said: “I’m going to go alone.” Then she stopped and said, “But I won’t really be alone, will I?”

You get the feeling that this matters to people.