Reveling in the North
Fresh out of Plymouth State University with a bachelor’s degree in acting, Sam Clifton was, well, reveling in the chance to play a lead role in his debut at the Christmas Revels.
And, between his own moments in the spotlight at the Lebanon Opera House last December, the 2015 graduate of Lebanon High School was paying close attention to the Mummer’s Dance – the number that every year interrupts the main storyline of Revels North’s long-running celebration of the solstice.
“While I was standing by as a spectator, I got an idea of the basic plot, and the importance of Saint George,” Clifton recalls. “You get to slay the giant and the dragon. You’re the hero. What more could you ask?”
What he learned by watching – and by listening – Clifton wove into his vocal performance as George in All Shall Be Well Again – the 17-minute animated film that Revels North is sharing on small screens in lieu of the live performances that the coronavirus pandemic is making impossible. “I haven’t been able to do a lot of voice-acting work so far,” he says. “I thought this would be a way to get a solid role onto my résumé.”
For the leadership of Revels North, the film emerged last spring and summer as a way to bridge the seasonal gap, and to keep Revels – which had to cancel its schedule of live music in the name of singer and listener safety – on the Upper Valley’s radar screen. “It wasn’t long before we began to realize that there was no way we could plan on live performances,” Executive Director Brian Cook says. “There was so much that we couldn’t anticipate.”
Instead, Cook, Artistic Director Nils Fredland, and members of the Revels North board of directors started brainstorming, and quickly eliminated the idea of trying to do a hybrid live through online technology. “Singing with people in Zoom is miserable, because of the delay,” says Revels Board President Kim Rheinlander, a Lebanon resident.
With input from Revels creatives, they found consensus around the idea of a short film – mixing animation and footage from previous years’ Revels – that area audiences could stream on their computers, and watch on Community Access Television (CATV).
“It got us excited like nothing else was going to,” Cook recalls. “It was going to be the costliest option, in a year where maybe fundraising would be harder than usual because of the pandemic. But it really energized everybody, and seemed the most likely to get the audience excited.”
The Revels board bought into the plan from the outset. “Suddenly there was a spark,” Rheinlander says. “People really embraced it. It was something so different, and something positive.”
With money from a variety of sources – including an anonymous donation of $10,000, plus $7,500 from a Vital Communities crowdsourcing campaign, a Covid-relief grant of $7,500 from the New Hampshire Council on the Art, $5,000 from regular underwriter Mascoma Bank, on top of earlier contributions from regular individual benefactors – Revels North enlisted a Keene, NH-based nonprofit, The SALT Project, to weave animation around a storyline invoking Revels traditions.
“A big part of our thinking was to seek out local artists, who need the work right now,” Cook says. “When the pandemic hit and lingered on, their livelihoods went up in smoke. We really wanted to support them as much as possible.” Toward that end, Revels hired the No Strings Marionette Company in Randolph, VT, which had crafted puppets for the 2015 show at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. The troupe crafted and brought to life a puppet host for the film, in the persona of Jack Langstaff, the founder of the original Christmas Revels pageant in New York City, and who had established a comparable program in Cambridge, MA in 1971.
Langstaff, who would have turned 100 this year, was the father of Carol Langstaff, the Sharon resident who founded Revels North in 1974. “When I first saw the puppet, I thought that that was just the best,” Rheinlander recalls. “I’d crossed paths with Jack over the years, when he would come up to see the shows during the time Carol was putting them on, and he was a very, very powerful and strong personality. This is very much in his spirit.”
Rheinlander first found herself caught up in the Revels spirit as a child in Cambridge in the early 1970s. “I was, like, ‘What is this thing? This is so cool,’” she says. “It was very engaging, and I really wanted to be a part of it.”
Upon moving to the Upper Valley in the mid-1980s, Rheinlander became a part in a variety of capacities, from backstage technical support to singing and acting with the ensemble.
Even after joining the board of directors, Rheinlander stayed active with the productions until 2019, when Revels moved the solstice pageant from the Hopkins Center’s Spaulding Auditorium to the Opera House. While the latter seats 800 people, to Spaulding’s 900, the 2019 show, drew a combined 3,000 people to five performances. Many of them, Rheinlander found while conducting exit interviews, had never seen the show at Dartmouth. “I was so excited that Revels finally came to Lebanon,” Rheinlander says. “It’s a much more traditional theater.”
“The people I talked with were so enthusiastic, and we were very excited about having a second show there this year. The arts community has been growing so much in Lebanon, and we were excited about being a part of that. We’d talked with the AVA Gallery about doing a pre-show event there this year. There seemed like a lot of opportunities.”
With All Shall Be Well Again, Rheinlander added, the Revels leadership and rank-and-file “hope to keep things going, keep people enthused, knowing we’re still around.”
Revels’ Executive Director isn’t worried. “The film is just lovely to behold,” says Cook, who performed in Revels while growing up in Norwich and took the reins in 2017. “The animation feels very, very true to the Revels spirit, a respect for traditional style.”
And while Revels North will miss its main revenue source – ticket sales – the organization wants to make the movie available for free for members of the Upper Valley community who might be struggling financially and otherwise during the pandemic, Cook adds. “It is a message of hope that dovetails with our message, our mission, of bringing light to the darkest time of the year,” he says. “People right now are experiencing the darkness in a very real way.”
Sam Clifton hopes that even when live performances of Revels resume at the Opera House – preferably a year from now – devotees will revisit All Shall Be Well Again the way they do traditional holiday programs such as A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. “We can now add this to the others on the list,” Clifton said. “Anything we can do to spread our message to a larger audience is a good thing.”
Revels North was scheduled to start streaming All Shall Be Well Again on November 20. The local cable station CATV was scheduled to start showing the film on Thanksgiving Day (November 26 at 2pm) with subsequent screenings on Giving Tuesday (December 1), and on December 21 (the winter solstice), Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. To learn more, visit http://www.revelsnorth.org.