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"Welcome Yule': come celebrate the return of light

  • TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Musicians in the upcoming Welcome Yule performance at the Shea Theatre in Turners Falls practice during a dress rehearsal on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Musicians in the upcoming Welcome Yule performance at the Shea Theatre in Turners Falls practice during a dress rehearsal on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Cast members practice a musical number for Welcome Yule during a dress rehearsal on Sunday. The performance features live music, singing and dance. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Cast members practice a musical number for Welcome Yule during a dress rehearsal on Sunday. The performance features live music, singing and dance. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Young cast members of Welcome Yule spontaneously surround musical director Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy during a dance number being rehearsed at the Shea Theater on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Young cast members of Welcome Yule spontaneously surround musical director Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy during a dance number being rehearsed at the Shea Theater on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Musicians in the upcoming Welcome Yule performance at the Shea Theatre in Turners Falls practice during a dress rehearsal on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Cast members practice a musical number for Welcome Yule during a dress rehearsal on Sunday. The performance features live music, singing and dance. Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Young cast members of Welcome Yule spontaneously surround musical director Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy during a dance number being rehearsed at the Shea Theater on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo

A young girl, the eldest daughter of a visiting Swedish family, awakes early on Santa Lucia Day and makes her way out into the English village to serve coffee and Saint Lucia buns to the people who live there.

It is the winter solstice, the date upon which winter passes its darkest point and days become gradually longer.

The girl is wearing a white robe, red sash and wire crown covered with twigs and candles. She will, with the rest of her family, share Sweden’s customs and traditions with those living in the village, who will also share their traditions. Together, they will help drive away the darkness with song and dance.

Such will be the setting when “Welcome Yule,” a mid-winter celebration that has been running for almost three decades, comes to the Shea Theater in Turners Falls on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s always set in an old English village, but every year we try to come up with a new theme for a common story and a family from somewhere else in the world who shares their own story,” said Rachel Roy, the production’s artistic and stage director.

Roy, 32, of Greenfield, wrote this year’s script and said the idea for a Swedish theme came to her because of her love of Kirsten, an American Girl Doll whose backstory includes being born in Sweden and treasuring her home country’s tradition of celebrating St. Lucia’s Day.

“The American Girl dolls came from all different backgrounds and I had always wished that my family would celebrate some of the Swedish traditions around this time of year,” said Roy. “I just thought they were awesome.”

“Welcome Yule,” which is celebrating its 29th year, has been called a “magical” variety show with a theme.

Roy, who has been a part of the production for nine years, said that many times in the past the audience has gotten up in the aisles to dance and sing with the cast by the end of the show.

Fred Momaney, also of Greenfield, has been with “Welcome Yule” for 24 of its 29 years. “People join and they don’t want to leave,” said Momaney, who said there are about 45 people currently involved.

“The great thing is that we have entire families who are cast each year,” said Roy, who adds cast members range in age from 5 to being in their 60s.

“People love it so much that each year we have a lot of audience members (who) end up signing up to be part of the following year’s production,” said Roy. “People really get in the spirit when they come to a show.”

Roy said seasonal and holiday songs, dances, storytelling and traditions are always incorporated into the main story line.

Momaney said the productions also typically include poetry, wassailing and a mummers play or theatrical vignettes.

Roy and Momaney said the cast strives to conjure up images of yule logs and Christmas trees, caroling door to door and festive celebrations for audience members.

“Cast members will be dressed in colorful, beautiful costumes,” said Roy. “It’s all so festive.”

She said “Welcome Yule” is really about coming together as a community.

“It’s about the return of light,” said Roy. “The performance takes place on the shortest day of the year. People gather in the village and (they) all sing and dance as they remember that light is on its way back.”

“We want to spark some warm memories in people,” she said. “We want people to remember that even when it’s freezing and dark, they will get through and the light will return.”

Roy said cast members come from all over Franklin County and a few come from elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley and Vermont. She said most have full-time jobs, but “Welcome Yule” rehearses only on Sundays, so most can make just about every rehearsal.

She said about a third of the cast is between the ages of 6 and 16.

“They come from every profession,” said Roy. “Some are farmers, some are educators, some are businessmen and businesswomen.”

The show is always performed in mid-December and by January, said Roy, people are writing and submitting scripts for the following year.

The board of directors reads each script and votes on the following year’s show by March.

“Once a script is chosen, the board and artistic director choose people for all of the production crew,” said Roy. “Then, we send an email to the cast to let them know what show has been chosen.”

Roy said the cast has usually been chosen by summer and by September, people have begun to take the stage to practice their parts.

“We keep a list of the people who are interested and we contact them when we need someone,” said Momaney. “If nothing else, we check in with folks who have shown interest.”

Roy said “Welcome Yule” is community theater at its best.

“It’s the entire community involved in a colorful, holiday, winter celebration,” said Roy. “We have only one performance a year, but many of us spend most of the year getting ready.”

“There’s never really a lead in the show, so we don’t run into some of the ego problems you can encounter,” said Roy. “We’re an ensemble.”

The show begins with actors passing through the audience to the stage.

“We immediately want to set the tone of ‘community,’” Roy said.

Momaney said “Welcome Yule” was originally performed in a coffee house in Amherst and moved to The Shea in 1990.

“That has allowed our sets to get more elaborate over the years,” said Momaney. “We’ve increased lighting and been able to use more props and fixtures.”

Roy said if it’s anything like past years, “Welcome Yule” will see a total of 600 to 700 people in the audience over its three-day run.

“Welcome Yule” will be performed in Shea Theater, 71 Avenue A in Turners Falls, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. To reserve tickets, call the Shea at 413-863-2281.

Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and children ages 5 to 16 and free for children 4 and under. Families of five pay $40. Tickets will be sold at the door and are also available in advance at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls, the Jones Library in Amherst, Broadside Books in Northampton and at Brattleborotix.com.

Find Welcome Yule on Facebook and at www.welcomeyule.org.

Staff reporter Anita Fritz worked at The Recorder from 2002 to 2005 and then returned in 2006. She covers Greenfield and can be reached at afritz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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