Washington Revels to Party Like It’s 1599

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Kelly Harro of Dumbarton House with Washington Revels Executive Director Greg Lewis and Artistic Director Roberta Gasbarre at the Nov. 8 Cultural Leadership Breakfast. Photo by Robert Devaney.

“Think of me as your play-by-play and Roberta as your color commentator,” said Washington Revels Executive Director Greg Lewis at Georgetown Media Group’s Nov. 8 Cultural Leadership Breakfast, at which he and Artistic Director Roberta Gasbarre presented in tandem.

More than 10,000 people attend “The Christmas Revels,” the nonprofit organization’s annual pageant at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. The 2018 production — subtitled “An Elizabethan Celebration of the Winter Solstice in Music, Dance & Drama” — will be performed Saturday, Dec. 8, and Saturday, Dec. 15, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 9, at 2 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 14, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets range from $9 to $60 depending on the seat and the date.

This year’s scenario, complete with Morris dancers and the Renaissance band Piffaro, is based on a “progress,” or royal tour of England, by Queen Elizabeth I and her court, taking place at Yuletide instead of during the summer. An incident in 1599, when Will Kemp, a comic actor in Shakespeare’s company, danced from London to Norwich, was made part of the plot, with Kemp — played by leading D.C. jester Mark Jaster — meeting the queen’s entourage in Norwich.

Drawing on more than 250 volunteer performers in a given year — including more than 100 in “The Christmas Revels” — Washington Revels, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, is by far the largest such group outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Revels was established in the 1970s. There are currently nine active companies around the country.

Revels performances, which feature costumed song, dance and storytelling, are rooted in harvest celebrations and folk drama dating back centuries, with a dash of Victorian music hall. Performers directly address the audience, members of which are sometimes called on to participate.

The first “Christmas Revels” was staged by baritone John Langstaff on Dec. 29, 1957, at Town Hall in New York, with a performance at Lisner a few weeks later. At the time, Langstaff was head of music at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia.

Lewis, formerly a partner in an international law firm, performed in the first “Christmas Revels” in D.C. in 1983 and has only missed five since. The show is “the celebration of dark to light,” he explained, “not a celebration of Christmas per se … but the name stuck and was there before we got there.”

Fundamentally, said Lewis, “The Christmas Revels” is about “shining a light through the prism of different cultures on the common humanity that we all have.” There have been shows with Nordic and Roma themes, among others. In 2011, the theme was “Andalusian Treasures,” incorporating Arabic, Jewish and Spanish traditions.

Lewis has also danced around the Maypole in all but three “May Revels” celebrations, held this year at Washington National Cathedral during Flower Mart.

The organization runs regular contra dances and community sing-alongs, also supplying beribboned marchers in the Takoma Park Independence Day Parade and the Kensington Labor Day Parade. In addition, Washington Revels is the umbrella for a madrigal group called Gallery Voices, an African American choir called Jubilee Voices and a sea chantey group called Maritime Voices.

Gasbarre, a Fulbright Scholar who toured Central and South America and did her residency in Poland, is the longtime director of the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, which presents live educational performances for children. She first saw a Revels show in 1990 and thought: “What on earth is this?”

The answer turned out to be “community theater on steroids,” she said, noting that some of the Revelers are doctors, lawyers, judges and such. Participation is multigenerational, from age 8 to 88, the two stated. Young revelers “have no idea they’re being mentored,” said Gasbarre, who added: “Both of my children grew up in Revels.” “And all three of mine,” said Lewis.

Theater professionals, notably set designer Colin Bills and costume designer Rosemary Pardee, who recently retired after 25 years, are key to Washington Revels’ success, as is “the schlepper contingent,” said Gasbarre, people who help get stuff where it needs to go. Others, to give one example, make felt crowns sold in the lobby at performances.

Washington Revels’ annual budget is between $800,000 and $850,000, about 45 percent of which is earned income. The rest comes from grants and donations. There is no endowment and corporate giving has “dried up entirely,” said Lewis.

Asked during the Q&A if Washington Revels inserts political humor into its productions, Gasbarre said no, “but everybody sees it anyway.”

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