Inspired by the Showstopposaurus and Michael Curry’s designs for the Lion King, Barbara, Angie, and Morgan sketched out designs for the dragon, experimenting with style, shape, and engineering. The two main challenges were weight (as an actor would need to wear it on stage) and how to built it so it would move realistically – or how one would imagine a Venetian dragon sea-serpent might move!
We brought three of our best Revels artists on board for this project, Angie Goffredi, Morgan Weber, and Barbara Millikan. They were given a budget of $800 to build the most magnificent dragon they could bring to life, and they set to work together, combining their skills in sewing, dragon-making, welding, illustration and visual design to create a nine-foot Venetian sea-serpent.
POST BY LINDA GOLASZEWSKI
It’s not the Christmas Revels if there isn’t music, and we’re lucky that this year’s show has had so much wonderful music to choose from. Although you will hear some old favorites, our Revels musical leadership sought some pieces unfamiliar to many audiences.
I asked Betsy Branch, our associate music director, to talk about some of the music in the show. Here’s what she has to say about one piece we’re doing:
One of the songs that stands out for me in this show is Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore. As soon as we started talking about doing a show about the sea voyage to America, this song sprung into my mind. The whole song is simply a story about the voyage—leaving Derry Quay, boarding fresh water for the trip, getting seasick, being all alone and scared, and finally arriving in New York.
In Celtic Crossing the people on-board ship, including us in the Revels Band, gradually come together as a community as we share this experience, and that happens in the song, too. At the end, they drink a parting glass, “in case we might never meet more.” The song reminds me of a letter home, describing this new and scary and exciting experience to the loved ones left behind. I learned this song from the singing of Portland harpist Elizabeth Nicholson, who I met when Revels hired her to play in our 2009 Irish show. We have been working together ever since. Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore is special to me because I didn’t learn it from a recording or from sheet music—I learned it from a friend.
This song is typically sung as a solo ballad, so one of the challenges was to make it into a form that could be sung by a chorus on stage. I arranged it with that idea in mind. It can be sung mournfully and slowly, but I didn’t want to do that with the chorus for a number of reasons—I didn’t want it to sound like a dirge, and it would just take too long to sing in a show! We’re doing it more up-tempo, and I like to think of us singing it strongly and bravely, as a way to help us cope with how terrified we all are on every level about this voyage.
One of the songs that is interesting to me is Green Fields of America which Betsy also arranged for the chorus, so I did a little research. It strikes me as so much of a lament, with the sorrow of leaving behind a homeland that one would most likely never see again. We’re singing it a bit more up-tempo than the recordings I found on youtube, but the sentiment still comes through.
The original song (or its variants) goes on for some twelve(!) verses, including:
Oh who would stay here, among want and starvation
to hear the poor children crying for bread.
And many poor creatures without habitation
without a roof to cover their head.
No more will I stay, in the land of oppression
No cruel task masters shall rule over me
To the country of liberty I’ll bid a good morrow
in the green fields of America we will be free.
Farewell to the dances in homes now deserted,
When tips struck the lightening in splanks from the floor,
The paving and crigging of hobnails on flagstones
The tears of the old folk and shouts of encore.
But ends on a positive note:
And if you grow weary of pleasure and plenty
Of fruit from the orchard and fish from the foam,
There’s health and good hunting ‘way back in the forests
Where herds of great moose and wild buffalo roam.
The song is sometimes known as the “Green Fields of Canada” with similar verses. The idea of emigration as a voluntary act is somewhat a new one. The Irish Gaelic word for emigration, eisimirce, wasn’t in common use until the early 20th century. Before that, the Irish used the word deorai meaning exile. Emigration then was not exactly a voluntary act – especially in the famine years when individuals and families were given tickets to America as they were dispossessed of any means of survival. Even in the post famine years, while people emigrated for a better life, it was not exactly seen as free choice the way we might think of it today.
We’re not only singing songs of longing. Some Irish favorites, including Whiskey in the Jar, will be featured. And Whiskey has a surprise up its sleeve for the audience (no I won’t tell you what it is). I heard it years ago as a traditional tune done by the Dubliners with slightly different words. You might expect that primarily Irish bands have performed the tune, and while that’s mostly true, I was surprised to learn that both the Grateful Dead and Metallica have covered it. Even Belle and Sebastian and Thin Lizzy have recorded it. Like many songs in the popular vernacular, it has roots going way back, possibly to the 1600s and certainly by the 1800s it was pretty commonly sung. One writer called it “a drunk Grimm’s fairy tale”, given that the hero is a highwayman with a bad history. No matter, our upbeat take will be coming to a theater soon. We hope you’ll join us.
(In the interest of research, I did listen to some different versions of these songs on youtube. And you can too – just search for Whiskey in the Jar).
Since its beginning, Revels has involved children. As an educator as well as singer/performer, Revels founder Jack Langstaff was always sure to bring the energy and excitement of children into almost all aspects of the show. This is somewhat unusual, especially when it comes to choral music, as age segregation in performance groups seems to be the norm. To find a truly inter-generational singing environment is pretty darn rare (inter-generational these days seems to mean having seniors in your chorus!)
This year’s show involves 15 kids of varying ages (from 7-13), three boys and twelve girls, as well as four teens. The children’s chorus rehearses separately from the adults most of the time, but the teens are incorporated into the adult chorus and attend all adult rehearsals. Kids, like adults, become entranced with Revels and we have quite a few repeat performers. All of the teens have been in the Revels children’s chorus in the past, and seven of the fifteen children were in last year’s show.
I know from personal experience how engaged kids get in the music and the magic. When my son was in the children’s chorus, through some mystical osmosis he would learn all of the songs (including ones that weren’t his!) and a good bit of the lines as well. That’s pretty common as I’ve heard from current and past Revels parents.
Revels kids represent talented children from all over Portland. Schools they currently attend include Portland Village School, Rosa Parks, MLC (Metropolitan Learning Center), Cedarwood Waldorf School, the Renaissance School, Holy Redeemer and Bonny Slope Elementary.
In the past, Revels kids attended St. Mary’s, Cleveland High School, da Vinci Middle School, Buckman Elementary, and Portland Waldorf to name a few. Some years it seems like most of the kids go to the same school; in one recent year it was the Portland Village School.
Children’s chorus members must audition, just like the adults. And those kids rehearse just as hard as the adults, meeting every Monday from September to December for two hours, as well as attending our mega rehearsals which are weekend-long events. Tech week – the week that the show launches – brings its own challenges. Early on we learned to let the kids go home at a decent hour, even if the adults plow on til eleven or later (my own son fell asleep on stage once after a particularly grueling week).
In the able bodied hands of choir director Regina Pirruccelo and kids’ backstage manager Shari Goss, the kids get to know each other, their music, dance, staging and the fun of putting on a full-fledged Revels.
And what happens to those Revels kids when they grow up?
Some have gone on to careers in the arts including Ryan Heller who is the director of Chorus Austin, Signe Larsen, an actress and teacher at Oregon Children’s Theater, Sienna Miller undertaking a career in opera, and Rafe Larsen and Madison Rowley who are both cinematographers. Incidentally, Madison is the World Record holder of the Best Beard…. http://www.worldbeardchampionships.com/results). You can see Madison, and his beard, at this year’s show, dancing the Lord of the Dance with his similarly bearded father, Charley.
Over hundred teens and about one hundred seventy children have been part of the Portland Christmas Revels community through the years. May Revels kids past and present keep a song in their hearts and the Revels spirit forever after.
POST BY LINDA GOLASZEWSKI
Halloween will come will come
Spells be set a going
Fairies at full speed will run
Avoid the road and roamin’ (adapted from South Uist Scotland)
Neighborhood houses are bedecked in orange lights, wispy “spider webs” spin from tree to bush and jack o’ lanterns are found scattered on porches and stairs. All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween as we commonly know, is creeping up on the October calendar. Halloween has roots in Samhain, pronounced sah-win, a Celtic festival which can be traced back in old Irish literature to the 10th century.
Samhain was the twin festival to Beltane (or May Day) and represented the close of the year. The Celts believed (as did many other peoples) that at certain times of the year the boundary between living and dead was at its thinnest. The dead could walk amongst us or at least see, hear, and partake of the feasts of the living, hence the traditions of leaving gifts of food, drink and tobacco on graves. The living too could see and hear the mysteries of the dark side and so could both touch the “good” of the other side through divination.
At Beltane, however, humans were seen as more at risk of interception by fairies and malevolent spirits. In some places, this drove people to stay indoors or at least close to home. In other places, mumming or guising were part of Samhain as disguises could keep you safe.
In Ireland, “costumes were sometimes worn by those who went about before nightfall collecting for a Samhain feast. In parts of southern Ireland during the 19th century, the guisers included a hobby horse known as the Láir Bhán (white mare). A man covered in a white sheet and carrying a decorated horse skull (representing the Láir Bhán) would lead a group of youths, blowing on cow horns, from farm to farm. At each they recited verses and the farmer was expected to donate food. If the farmer donated food he could expect good fortune; not doing so would bring misfortune.” (Quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain#cite_note-50)
Another specific Irish custom is the Barmbrack (recipe below) which traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread, somewhat like the New Orleans King Cake. Four or so charms would be stirred into the batter – a piece of cloth, a penny, a ring and a pea – each representing a “fortune”. See if you can figure out what future each represented.*
Bonfires, and yes, jack o’ lanterns also figure into the Celtic or Irish celebrations. Jack o’ lanterns in particular are thought to have a distinctively Irish origin. The custom may have its roots in the warding off of malicious forces which would shy away from “light” while the souls of the dead would be attracted by the reminder of home and hearth. But jack o’ lanterns did not start out as carved pumpkins since pumpkins came from the New World. Originally, people carved turnips or beets into lanterns.
The origin story of “Jack of the lantern” concerns an Irish blacksmith, naturally named Jack, who bested the Devil and in return asked that his soul never been taken. Unfortunately, he led a less than exemplary life and could not get into heaven either. Condemned to haunt the earth, he was given a burning ember which he carried in a hollowed out turnip, searching for eternal rest. Jack o’ lanterns then morphed into a way to protect a home from the spirits (and Jack) wandering on All Hallows eve.**
Halloween is on the weekend this year. Perhaps there will be some dancing down of the sun as we turn into the dark time of the year.
Trick and Treat
Irish Barmbrack (from Saveur)
2 cups black tea, cooled
3⁄4 cup raisins
1⁄2 cup dried currants, cranberries, or cherries
2 tbsp. each candied lemon and orange peel, minced
2 cups flour, plus more
1⁄4 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1⁄4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1⁄4 tsp. ground cloves
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted, plus more
1⁄4 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
Assorted charms, wrapped individually in parchment paper
1⁄3 cup honey, warmed
Stir tea, raisins, currants, candied lemon and orange peel in a bowl; cover with plastic wrap and let sit 2 hours, then drain and set aside. Heat oven to 325°. Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves in a bowl; make a well in the center. Mix reserved fruit, the butter, milk, and egg in a bowl and add to well; stir until a wet dough forms. Press dough into a greased 8″ cake pan and push charms into dough. Bake until firm, 35–40 minutes. Brush with honey; bake 2 minutes more. Let cool slightly; serve with butter, if you like.
*Piece of cloth – your wealth shall neither increase nor decrease
A penny – your fortune shall increase
A ring- you shall wed within the year
Pea – you will not marry this year
Another defensive mechanism was to carry a spring of rowan or ash tree as a protective amulet or attach a branch or sprig of rowan to the door lintel during the days around Samhain.
The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996),
Circle Round. Starhawk, Diane Baker, Anne Hill
Dance featured in the Revels is often primarily based on traditional Morris dance, but not this year. When we’re not doing a “strictly English” Revels, dances highlighted in the show must be relevant to the script and at least roughly related to the time period. The exception is Lord of the Dance, which is a signature Revels piece and occurs in every show. The Lord of the Dance was choreographed by Jack Langstaff’s daughter Carol, and incorporates steps and moves from several Morris dance traditions.
Most people are familiar with Irish Step dancing, a la Riverdance, but this year the Christmas Revels is featuring sean-nós – a very distinctive and old style of Irish dance. There is also sean-nós singing, which is a distinctively Irish a cappella style.
Sean-nós dance is an improvisational style with an emphasis on percussion. It accompanies instruments the way a drum would. This style is very relaxed, featuring low to the ground stepping and easy arm and torso movements. Because it is an improv style, no two performances are alike. The music and dancers are “one”…. the music informs the dancer and, as a percussive counterpoint, the dancer informs the music.
There’s not too much to research on the origins or sean-nós but step-dancing can be dated to the 1750s. In the 1800s the role of “Irish dance master” appeared. These itinerant dance instructors each had a “district” in which they traveled from village to village giving dance instruction. And in 1893, following the great Irish diaspora, the Gaelic League was established “to preserve and strengthen all elements of Irish culture.” The League organized dance classes and competitions, which focused on step-dancing.
In this year’s Christmas Revels you’ll see examples of traditional sean-nós dancing, as well as a “set dance” or social dance, often found in the context of a Ceili or other Irish dance gatherings. Set dances are thought to be related to the French Quadrille. We’ve been instructed to dance as though we were dancing in a kitchen, complete with obstacles! I suppose that’s what it might have been like, dancing on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic.
For a chance to try out the kind of dance you’ll see at this year’s Christmas Revels, join us on November 14th for our Family Friendly Irish Ceili Dance at the Kells. More information can be found here.
Some Sean-nós and dance video
You can see Maldon Meehan our dance master and choreographer dancing at minute 2:45:
A short but pointed introduction by someone who’s been doing it a while:
Irish set dancing example (video plays on YouTube.com):
Resources and information
The roof of the gym resembles ship’s ribs, which seems fitting this year as the theme and location of this year’s Christmas Revels is aboard an immigrant ship bound for America sometime in the late 1800s.
The gym has the familiar quality of an old friend as we pull up our chairs to start shaping something thrilling — as magical for the audience as it will be for the company that comes together to form the show.
I actually got there late, having helmed a performance to celebrate the opening of the Orange Line Max line. The thrill of slipping into my seat at the back and looking over the old and new friends in the company was as strong as ever. There were some faces I missed of course: our rehearsal accompanist Michael Fox has retired after many years of devoted service, and other friends were likewise not in the group. But there were new people to get to know and many old friends with which to share the miseries of learning yet another language.
The emigrants in our story were facing the unfamiliar and frightening. Most had never ventured more than a few miles beyond their village. They were excited surely, and scared.
No matter how often I’ve sailed on this Revels ship, and it’s been more than a few times, there is still the element of the unfamiliar, excitement and a wee bit of terror. (Just a very wee bit which is a good thing I think.) Like the men and women we represent we’ll face whatever challenges lie ahead and make it to the farther shore.
Here we’ll post backstage sneak peeks, notes from our community, artistic team, executive staff and board, and other articles of interest to our Portland Revels friends. To gear up for this year’s Christmas Revels, Celtic Crossing, we’ve asked long-time cast and community member Linda Golaszewski to share her experiences behind the scenes of the show.