Amid financial difficulties, Lebanon-based Revels North cancels midwinter show

John Severinghaus, of Norwich, is performing as The Doge, the lead in

John Severinghaus, of Norwich, is performing as The Doge, the lead in "A Venetian Celebration of the Winter Solstice," his 20th Revels North show in the last 22 years. Severinghaus, a psychiatrist on the Geisel School of Medicine faculty, rehearses a scene in the show at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photo – James M. Patterson

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-10-2024 5:31 PM

LEBANON — A Lebanon-based arts organization has canceled an annual production that has been an Upper Valley holiday season staple for decades.

Revels North Creative Director Alex Cumming made the announcement about December’s Midwinter Show in a letter to supporters last week, where he detailed some of the struggles the Lebanon-based nonprofit organization founded in 1974 is facing.

Even though the production does not take place for several months, the theme for the show and audition dates are typically announced in April.

“We have been very honest about our situation, and we don’t want to be leading people to a false sense of what will be happening this year,” Cumming said in a phone interview. The organi zation is planning on bringing the show back in 2025.

The c anceled show has traditionally been performed in December and involves dozen of community performers. Along with guest artists, residents of all ages put on a performance focused on winter traditions and folk stories told throughout the world. There are multiple showtimes over the course of multiple days.

“This past couple of years has been incredibly tough financially for us, like many other arts organizations, and rebuilding as an organization from the pandemic has been a lot tougher than we could have imagined,” Cumming wrote in the letter. “We are now in a financial crisis as an organization and have had to take the very difficult and hard decision to not return with our traditional Midwinter Revels Show this year.”

Among its challenges has been the financial disruption from COVID-19, which led the organization like others to cancel performances. When they returned, there was a decrease in ticket sales and an increase in production costs.

Additionally, grant funding is not as robust as it once was. The nonprofit also has taken on more expenses so it can expand programming.

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Other Revels offerings, including a singing workshop scheduled for Saturday, will continue. The Summer Revels production will take place June 9 at Fairlee Town Hall and town common. The Revels Kids program will return in September and perform shows in December. There also are tentative plans for a winter-themed singalong in December.

The board and staff also are working on planning a new fundraising campaign, as well additional year-round programs and classes to bring in more revenue.

“Our main focus now is building a business infrastructure so that we can rebuild and expand the organization,” Revels North Executive Director Julia Hautaniemi wrote in an email.

Hautaniemi herself is currently forgoing her salary and donating her time until the organization is financially stable.

It costs between $50,000 and $65,000 to produce Midwinter Revels, Hautaniemi said. That includes renting the opera house in addition to production costs and paying visiting artists, among other expenses such as costumes and sets.

“Everything that you see performing on stage, that obviously costs money, but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes (than) you can ever imagine,” Cumming said.

From the mid-1970s through 2018, the show was staged at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. After the Hop closed for renovations, Revels North moved to the Lebanon Opera House for its 2019 production. In 2020, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 2021, a smaller performance took place outdoors at Lebanon’s Colburn Park.

The group returned to the Lebanon Opera House in 2022, but in 2023 was displaced due to renovations there and put on a traveling production instead.

Like other arts organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout has greatly affected Revels North, Hautaniemi said.

“Donations not just for us but for many performing arts organizations has kind of waned in the last year and a half or so,” she said in a phone interview.

Donations were strong at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hautaniemi said. Along with pandemic relief funding for arts organizations, that helped keep Revels North going when they couldn’t raise revenue from performances. Grants also are harder to come by.

“There’s fewer grants and the competition for those grants has gone up,” Cumming said. “There’s just this dangerous cycle of there’s less money in the arts right now.”

In the single midwinter show Revels North has staged at the Lebanon Opera House since the start of the pandemic, audience numbers fell. In 2021, the group sold 1,624 tickets, which brought in around $40,593, according to data provided by Hautaniemi. Prior to the pandemic, ticket sales for the Midwinter Revels shows were between 4,000 and 5,000, which brought in around $125,000.

Revels also has taken on additional expenses so that it can expand programming. In December 2023, the organization began renting the former Black Moon Games space at 2 Mascoma St. in downtown Lebanon.

“We have overhead we didn’t have before. Rent, utilities,” Hautaniemi said in a phone interview. “It’s kind of a Catch-22: we need the space to grow the organization and we need funds to support the space, while we get programs up and running.”

Costs for Revels programs are often offered on a sliding pay-what-you-can sale and the nonprofit organization also offers scholarships, which is something leaders feel strongly about continuing.

“The traditional folk arts is the folks arts and the music and the dance of the people so we don’t want to limit people’s access,” Cumming said.

Peter Lewis, of Norwich, has been involved in Revels North since 2018 when he moved to the Upper Valley. His oldest daughter, Natalie Lewis, now 17, was in fifth grade at the time. The family was looking for ways to get involved in the community when they stumbled across ads for Revels.

“Natalie instantly loved it,” Peter Lewis said in a phone interview. “It was super welcoming.”

Peter Lewis, his wife, Amie Thomasson, and their daughters Natalie Lewis and May Thomasson, 11, have participated in various Revels productions since then.

“Someone gets involved and then everyone gets involved,” Peter Lewis said. When he heard about the decision to cancel Midwinter Revels this year, he was sad. “We were totally surprised and we had not seen that coming. Natalie was especially upset because she was looking forward to this Christmas.”

For more information about upcoming Revels North events, including this Saturday’s Spring Sing, visit revelsnorth.org/programs-events. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.