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A Bit of Quebec for Christmas

The Washington Christmas Revels brings French-Canadian traditions to area audiences.

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Revelers - back row (from left): Victoria Metz, Steve Miller. Front row (from left): Erin Schwartz, Caroline Birasa, Jill Kester

Several Alexandria and Arlington residents are playing a part in the annual Washington Christmas Revels performance, celebrating the Winter Solstice — the shortest day of the year — a midwinter tradition that dates back to medieval Europe. This year, Christmas Revels will bring the songs, dances and theatrical traditions of early Quebec to area audiences.

The show tells the story of a group of revelers bringing in the New Year in Troi Rivieres, a historic town in Quebec. The action follows a group of men who leave the party by canoe, traveling along one of the three rivers that flows through the town in search of adventure. They find it in the way of the Devil, whom the men must defeat in a dance-off in order to return home.

The show has a cast of 80, including 60 adult chorus members, about a dozen children and a handful of specialty performers, including the "tradition bearers," internationally known professional performers brought in from Quebec to play featured roles. About 10,000 people attend the event annually.

Local residents have been participating in weekly evening and bi-monthly weekend rehearsals since early September.

"It’s a lot of work, but it’s absolutely worth it," said Arlingtonian Erin Schwartz, who is performing in the chorus for the second time this year.

Schwartz first joined the Revels in 2006, auditioning just four days after moving to the area in an effort to meet people. Last year she worked backstage, serving as volunteer coordinator.

"It’s very different being onstage versus backstage," she said. "Being able to see both sides gives you a really good idea how much goes into it. People work year round on the show."

FOR SCHWARTZ, the most important part of the show is the community it brings together.

"It doesn’t feel like traditional theater," said Schwartz, who has acted in community and summer stock theater for years. "There are no egos. Everyone is there as part of a family."

Alexandria-based elementary school teacher Jill Kester is performing in the chorus for the first time this year.

"It’s remarkable how open [Revels] is to new people," said Kester. As a newcomer, she was paired with a veteran "buddy" who helped her and served as a resource for any questions or problems that arose during rehearsals.

"What really blows me away is the size and scope of the show," she added. Kester was particularly impressed by the commitment to historical accuracy and careful attention to detail demonstrated by the show’s organizers and creative directors.

Melissa Carter agrees. She’s participated with the Revels since 1989, first as a volunteer performer and now as assistant musical director. In that time she’s seen the chorus grow by 50 per cent and a more narrative, complex story structure taking shape in the performances.

"AT THE BEGINNING there was a lot less choral involvement. Now there is a story behind every person on stage. It’s much more intricate," she said. "When the chorus has full knowledge of the story’s timeline and storyline, they are more able to reach out to the audience and draw people in."

This idea — of incorporating the audience into the action on stage — is a key component of the Revels. Carter contends that the Revels is also one of the few places where audiences can experience traditional folk music from all over the world. This year’s show is uniquely French-Canadian, she explained, in that it represents at all aspects of the culture, incorporating Native American and French influences and all of the nuances they bring to Québécois traditions.

"It’s really a wonderful experience," said Carter. "Everyone should experience it at least once."