Midwinter Revels Performer Spotlight – Carolyn Saxon
Revels fan favorite Carolyn Saxon has been performing with Revels since our 2019 American Christmas Revels, and has been back for every December production since, as well as 2022’s RiverSing! This year, Carolyn took to the Sanders Theatre stage as the mystical Spirit of Place, guiding our characters through their journeys at Ellis Island. Revels’ Digital Communications Manager, Sydney Roslin, was lucky enough to chat with Carolyn about her role in Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration – Tales from Ellis Island and her career as a performer in Boston and beyond.
Sydney: How did you end up at Revels to begin with?
Carolyn: The music director of a church that I sing at asked me if he could forward my contact info to Revels’ former Music Director, Megan Henderson. So I came in and sang, and Megan put me in the 2019 American Christmas Revels. I’ve been flattered and honored that they’ve kept asking me back! Every year is different – there are a lot of people who I’ve been seeing come back over the four years, but there are also new people every year as well. It’s a wonderful time.
S: What’s a memory that sticks out to you, either from previous Christmas Revels shows or from your time at RiverSing?
C: One of my favorite memories is just the feeling that goes through the entire audience, and through all of Sanders, when “The Shortest Day” is recited. Every time is different and singular and very special. That’s usually my favorite part of the show.
S: Can you tell our audiences a little bit about your role in this year’s production, Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration – Tales from Ellis Island?
C: So this year’s production is interesting. It’s set in Ellis Island, and we’re focusing on the Jewish, Mexican, and Irish experiences, just about anyone who might be crossing through Ellis Island around Christmas in 1924. When I heard what cultures they were going to be exploring, I figured I wouldn’t be involved this year, as I’m neither Mexican, Irish, or Jewish. But Paddy was kind and dear enough to write a role for me, and I am referred to as “The Spirit of Place.” I’m a kind of guide throughout this moment at Ellis Island, and I’m dressed up in Grecian robes. I feel like I’m a muse that is trying to get people to tell their stories, sing their songs, have their memories and their traditions, and learn from the past… all those things that I think Revels is about in the first place.
S: Have there been any challenges you’ve had to overcome this year?
C: I don’t really sing much in this one, so I don’t get to rely on that. I’ve been singing forever, and everyone always is like “Oh, Carolyn can sing, Carolyn can do it,” which is great. I love singing. But it’s nice to be telling the story in another way and not fall back on my voice. I’m having to use other instruments and remember that I’m a storyteller. Getting to flex those muscles has been great.
S: Do you have a favorite song in the show?
C: My dear friend Ricky Holguin is singing these Mexican songs – I have no idea what is going on, but he sounds so good. It’s interesting because my experience with Revels has always been in the English language. I know that they often sing a lot of music in foreign languages, and I often hear that a lot of people’s favorite show is the Scandinavian show, which was in three different Scandinavian languages. I’ve always wondered how that works. But then I sit out in the audience and I listen to Ricky singing these songs, or I listen to Stephanie singing these beautiful songs in Hebrew or Yiddish, and I realize don’t have to understand the lyrics. The best thing that I’m learning from this experience is that music is so universal and so powerful that it doesn’t matter what language it’s in, it’s wonderful and you can enjoy it. I find that amazing. The music is so transcendent, performed so beautifully by our orchestra and our singers and our performers and our dancers. You will be moved whether understand the lyrics or not.
S: Can you speak a little bit about how you ended up performing in the first place?
C: I was part of a large family with a bunch of kids, and there was not any way to pay enough attention to any of us. And as a lot of kids do when they just need an outlet and they need attention, I started singing, dancing, and acting, When I was seven, I had my first experience with choral music. I didn’t even know I could sing until I did it. And I just never stopped, because it’s one of the things that makes me happiest in life, if not the thing that makes me happiest in life. It’s not a job anymore, it’s not a hobby, it’s just a big part of who I am. Carolyn Saxon sings. Carolyn performs. That’s what I do. It’s such an intrinsic part of me.
S: If you had to pick a style of music to sing for the rest of your life, what would that be?
C: Right now it’s a big fight between the Great American Songbook and Gospel music. And I don’t know what I would do if I would stop singing any of it. It’s interesting though, when I was younger, I used to dance a lot. And my dance teachers always told me that ballet will make all of your dancing better – it will make your jazz better, it will make your tap better, it will make your modern dance better. Similarly, I learned, since gospel was the music that came to me last, that since I’ve been singing gospel music, it has made all of my other music better because it forces me to listen. Gospel music, of course, emanated from the African American diaspora. It was born around campfires, outside with people who couldn’t read words, much less read music. So they were forced to listen to the music, and you have to use your ears in order to participate in it. Gospel has made me such a better listener musically that now I feel like I can sing anything. Even if I don’t read it perfectly, I can just close my eyes and listen. Ballet makes all dance better and gospel has made all other singing better, for me, at least.
S: You’re involved with a number of different Boston-based ensembles and theatre organizations. Are there any projects on the horizon that our audiences should be aware of?
C: When I’m available on Sundays, I sing at the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, where Martin Luther King Jr. went when he was studying for his degree in divinity here in Boston. Sometimes he would even preach there – that was also where he met Coretta Scott King! We’ll have a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration of life the second weekend in January at Twelfth Baptist. Then later in the spring, I am going to be working with the Wheelock Family Theatre on a production of Bud, Not Buddy, based on the children’s story. I’m very much looking forward to working with Dawn Meredith Simmons on that again, she’s a wonderful director here in town.
S: Turning the attention back to Midwinter Revels, what’s something you want audiences to get out of the show this year?
C: I want people who have been audience members and in the Revels community to feel like this is a bit of a coming home for them, because I feel like this is more of a traditional type of Revels production than we have done over the years. And I would love for new people to come see what Revels is all about, to witness and understand that music is power. Music is a powerful thing… it can bring people together, and it can change the world if you let it. Gathering together at this time of year to sing and to Revel is one of the best things you can do.
S: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
C: I just have to give a shoutout to my husband, Jamie, who has been holding it down. I have not been very present in the last couple of weeks between working full-time and doing this thing we call Revels, and he’s just been my rock. I would just like to thank him and wish him a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays!
S: I assume he’ll be joining us in the audience a couple of times?
C: At least once! He’ll start missing me, and he’ll say “I’m going to go to the show, you know, because it’s the only way I get to see you.” So he’s a good egg, and he’s a great supporter and patron of the arts here in Boston. And, you know, my husband is the bomb, but I also want to thank the entire Revels community for being so warm and welcoming and wonderful to work with. Every time I do this, people just extend themselves in a way that makes you feel so welcome. I enjoy this so much.
It’s not too late to watch Carolyn Saxon’s excellent performance in Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration – Tales from Ellis Island – the entire production is available now via Video On Demand through January 8! Bring the magic of Revels to your home and watch the whole show, filmed live during a performance in Sanders Theatre, with unlimited streaming during the viewing period. Learn more and purchase your Virtual Event Pass at revels.org/midwinter.