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    California Revels Artistic Director Rene Collins: ‘Revels Is Always Seeking to Break the Fourth Wall and Draw the Audience In’

    Rene Collins, the Artistic Director of California Revels, has a long history with the organization, having originated The Fool character in the first CA Christmas Revels and performing in numerous productions ever since, including the highly acclaimed 2014 show An American Journey. (The custom of Christmas fooling, also sometimes called “mumming,” goes back hundreds of years. It was sort of like trick-or-treating for entire families or other groups, where they disguised themselves and “fool”ed others.)

    This year’s Christmas Revels show, La Sirène, is poised to be one of the Revels best ever for many reasons, including the fact that it will star 3-time Grammy Award nominee Melanie DeMore. We are grateful to California Revels Executive Director Lisa Lowe, in addition to Collins and his team and cast, for their help in making this interview possible during a hectic time of rehearsals and more.

    San Francisco Bay Times: For those who are not familiar with the Revels, please explain what it is.

    Rene Collins: Revels is a celebration of the turning of the seasons through traditional song, dance, and storytelling. We spend the year highlighting various cultures and their celebrations. We end each year with our annual Christmas Revels, not really a pageant or a play, focusing on a particular culture or historical time period and its winter solstice traditions. Through these events we come together as a community to lift our voices and spirits in revelry.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We are looking forward to this year’s Christmas Revels. Please tell us about it.

    Rene Collins: This year’s Christmas Revels, La Sirène, weaves a diverse cast to bring in elements of people of color especially from the Caribbean and Gullah Traditions. Melanie DeMore joins us this year not only as our featured performer, but also as a Tradition Bearer.

    Following the stories of Joseph Johnson, a sailor turned busker, we come upon the Gullah Islands where Melanie will be leading traditional stick pounding rhythms and Gullah songs. La Sirène, the titular character, is a water goddess guiding Joseph’s journey through life. La Sirène also takes us to the Caribbean for a Jonkonnu Parade, featuring a troupe of Tradition Bearer dancers, drummers, and stilt walkers.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Was Joseph Johnson an actual person in history?

    Rene Collins: Yes! Joseph Johnson was an historical person. Joseph Johnson, or Black Joe, was a 19th-century London street performer and beggar. Despite injuries, Johnson didn’t receive any compensation even though he is recorded as a British merchant sailor. To make ends meet, he began singing in public. His creative genius led him to create a model of the ship Nelson, which he mounted on his hat. It was reported he would make the ship dip and sway while singing songs of the sea. There is no other information about his past, so we chose to give him a history in the form of La Sirène!

    San Francisco Bay Times: Melanie DeMore is one of our favorite performers. How did you first learn about her work?

    Rene Collins: We first met Melanie through a long-time chorus and board member as we sought to partner with her for our Juneteenth and Summer Solstice event. I began following her inspiring performances. She is a force of nature, wisdom, and truth that uplifts and unifies both cast and audience through her voice, charismatic storytelling, and Gullah stick pounding. Revels is always seeking to break the fourth wall and draw the audience in. Melanie is a perfect agent to induce this phenomenon.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We love how each of the Revels productions includes old favorite segments—mirroring the dynamic of treasured interfaith holiday traditions—along with new material. Please highlight your favorites.

    Rene Collins: Professionals and amateurs join to present our gifts on stage, and invite the audience to participate as equals in our performance, especially the “Dona Nobis Pacem” round, this year led by Melanie DeMore. Each year, no matter what the theme of the show, the whole theater sings a song with only three words: “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Give Us Peace). Hundreds of voices, singing together regardless of race, religion, gender identity, or ability, are moving and powerful.

    Another recurring element is the Mummers Play of St. George and the Dragon—symbolizing the return of spring. This year we especially show the commonality across cultures by fusing our traditions with others. A Caribbean Jonkonnu Parade features recurring characters and a set storyline, akin to the structure of a Mummers Play. Our Mummers Play tells the story of John Canoe, an African King who successfully fought off European slave traders for twenty years.

    Even the Revels audience favorite, “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance,” is blended with Caribbean and Gullah culture in beautiful ways.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What do performers love about Revels?

    Cast Member RM: Revels is a community of friendship and kindredship, embodied in the circle we form at the beginning of every rehearsal. As opening night approaches, the circle expands to include performers from small children to professional musicians from around the world. With each show, we on stage open our circle and invite the audience to lift their voices with ours and join us in celebration. It is painful and sweet and laughing all at the same time; I guess the best word to describe it is “joy.”

    A Young Performer: I immediately fell in love with the embracing of tradition and cultures. This is my first year participating in the Revels Christmas show. I was warmly welcomed and included in a community that accepts everyone for who they are. One of my favorite things about Revels is coming together to sing; it feels like I am in heaven with the harmonies and the emotion.

    Cast Member MS: I was immediately struck by the power of the community that appears during each Revels performance. The stage families blend and flow to include the audience in timeless rituals celebrating the turning of the seasons.

    Rene Collins: It is inspiring to realize that this season—for me, Yuletide—brings people of different cultures and creeds together, allowing our divisions to be set aside. One’s background doesn’t matter; in this season the world longs for peace and good will. We are reminded of the heritage of the human family. This year’s Revels celebrates the winter solstice and we joyfully aspire to inspire people from every walk of life. I participate because coming together with likeminded people creates and reinforces a deeply spiritual connection with my community seen and unseen. We’ve always been an advocate for social change. I started with California Revels in the ’80s as The Fool character and now I am the first African American Artistic Director in the 50 years since Revels inception. Revels was the highlight of my life then as it is now.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We have always enjoyed the holiday “market” set up during intermission. Will you have merchandise available for purchase this year?

    Rene Collins: Yes! Our Revels store and tables are largely stocked with goods from local artists and businesses. Some items are available now through our online store via our website ( https://tinyurl.com/2p8pvt33 ). More items will be released December 3, including our annual show ornament. Merchandise tables will be open at the live shows as well.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We’re excited to learn about what’s in store for the Revels in 2022.

    Rene Collins: Lots of projects are coming down the pipe for 2022! We will be launching our first Educational Theater Program next year. The details are still being worked out, but we are committed to widening our doors to more of the community. A youth theater program, focused on bridging generations, will help keep our traditions alive. We hope to return to more live events while continuing to provide new online content.

    San Francisco Bay Times: How do we find out more about this year’s Christmas Revels?

    Rene Collins: La Sirène runs December 11–12 and 17–19. For more information, go to our website: https://www.californiarevels.org/

    Tickets are on sale now!

    We will be releasing an on-demand streaming version of La Sirène through December 21 to January 5. Preorders will be available starting December 1. 

    Published on December 2, 2021