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    Q&A with Dirk Burns, Executive Director of California Revels

    Interview with Dick Burns

    1-PHOTO-Revels-Guest Contributor-Dirk_and_Lisby_cropped - CopyCrossing religious, ethnic and other boundaries, California Revels is a Bay Times favorite. Its productions blend traditional music, dance, ritual and folk plays in magical, dream-like shows. They are performed by a large volunteer chorus of children and adults, plus a number of highly talented professional actors, musicians, artists, directors, and bearers of tradition from many cultures.

    Each December, California Revels produces The Christmas Revels, a joyous show welcoming the return of the light back from the darkness of winter. Bay Times recently spoke with Dirk Burns, Executive Director of California Revels, about the organization and its latest production.

    BT: For someone who has never been to The Christmas Revels before, please explain what’s in store for them.

    DB: Our Artistic Director David Parr was asked this question recently, and I think he says it best: “Revels is people coming together to celebrate the season. It’s musical theatre that holds something special for the whole family. You don’t just ‘go to’ Revels; you are Revels. You will hear music and make music, see dancing and have the chance to dance yourself, and be part of ceremonies and traditions that people have used to celebrate the seasons for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.”

    “Oddly enough, we draw on tradition to create a holiday celebration that is non-traditional; one that moves people in deep and special ways and keeps them coming back, season after season. For many families, the holiday season begins with The Christmas Revels, and for many more, the holidays wouldn’t be complete without us. The audience forms a wonderful community, joyous and inviting. Once you’ve Reveled, chances are you’ll be back to Revel again and again.”

    BT: What’s new this year?

    DB: The twentieth century is new this year! This year is post World-War I for the first time ever. The show is set in the year 1925 at Haddon Hall. Haddon is a real place, located on the banks of the river Wye near the town of Bakewell in Derbyshire, England.


    Currently occupied by the family of the Duke of Rutland, the hall has witnessed a lot of history in the more than nine hundred years of its existence. Our production showcases the music, dance, ritual, stories and holiday traditions that likely played out at the castle since its 12th century beginnings.

    As the show opens, the spirits of the past ages have gathered to celebrate the annual winter solstice. There’s a knock at the door, and in comes John Manners, 9th Duke of Rutland and landlord of the premises. Manners wants everybody out because the Hall is about to fall, a victim of progress and the demands of economics.

    What will happen to Haddon? What will be the fate of the Spirits that inhabit it, not to mention their annual Revels? Will the joy of celebration, community and madcap revelry be enough to deter the Duke from his plan? The battle is joined and just as the outcome seems apparent, there is another knock at the door…

    BT: Since Revels programs happen across the country, is there anything particularly unique about California Revels and the productions here in Northern California?

    DB: Yes, but it’s subtle. Having grown up in the Midwest before moving to the deep South, then New York and finally landing in San Francisco just after the Loma Prieta earthquake, I find that those of us in the Bay Area perceive ‘family traditions,’ ritual and fellowship differently than in other parts of the country and that is subtly reflected in our Revels productions. For one thing, we are a more secular community here. Although I am sure that many of our cast and audience members may be active in an organized religious community, many of us are not.

    The audience at probably every Christmas Revels production in the nine states across the country will sing Dona Nobis Pacem (“Give Us Peace”) at some point in the show every year, and whereas in most cities it is sung as a prayer, here
    I think it becomes almost a ritual chant affirming that it is us, the people, who must create the change for peace
    on Earth.


    BT: Are there any direct connections between the Revels- either past or present- and the gay community? The productions themselves strike us as having a very inclusive mindset, incorporating all sorts of traditions, lifestyles and beliefs.

    DB: Exactly. Thank you for saying that. We try very hard to be inclusive of everyone while staying true to historical traditions surrounding the winter holidays. Our chorus members form on-stage families each year. You will see the same two or three people onstage together throughout the production. If you look closely you will almost always see at least one or two families that contain same-sex adult partners. We don’t showcase it. It’s not a big deal. We are all the same when it comes to the holidays.

    BT: Please share a bit about yourself and why you were drawn to the Revels.

    DB: As a gay man and an agnostic now nearing sixty (groan), the Christmas holiday was always a very difficult time for me. I didn’t have traditions and rituals that I could use to bring special meaning to my life. Revels, at least for me, filled that void. It’s all of the joy of the holidays without any of the baggage. It’s grandma’s not quite forgotten gingerbread cookies and a warm cup of cocoa with good friends without the hassle and hustle of shopping at Macy’s for my brother-in-law that I don’t actually know much about. (Editor’s Note: Warm cookies and other goodies really are served at the productions.)

    Every Revels is quite different from the previous one, but some things remain the same each year. Singing Dona Nobis Pacem is one. Another is an old English ritual dance called the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.” I remember the first time I saw a Revels production, there came a point in the evening where the stage lights were turned down very low. Out of the darkness appeared six men wearing deer antlers followed by a fully bearded bear of a man dressed as a medieval woman, another man in a hobby-horse costume, a teen boy dressed as Robin Hood, a fool and a piper. The hush in the crowd was palpable as these performers danced a four-minute ritual dance to the tune of a single flute. It took my breath away. Here was an ancient ritual that I didn’t know, yet somehow by just by witnessing it, I became part of the larger community. Twelve years later, I still don’t know what the ritual means, but I never miss a single performance of it. I’m a high stress kind of guy and the “Abbots Bromley” never fails to fill me with serenity.  I’ve probably seen it a hundred times.

    The 28th annual Christmas Revels runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays December 13-22 at the beautiful and historic Scottish Rite Theater on Oakland’s Lake Merritt. It’s a five minute walk from the 19th street BART Station. For tickets and information see or call 510-452-8800. Tickets start at only $20. (Use price code BAYTIMES for a 10% discount.) Welcome Yule!