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Back to the source: Founder of annual “Welcome Yule” production returns to help direct winter celebration

  • “Welcome Yule” is a multi-generational show; both the mother and grandmother of the youngest cast member this year have been part of past productions. Image from Facebook

  • This year’s “Welcome Yule” explores the magic of nature and animals and the importance of music in people’s lives. Image from Facebook

  • “Welcome Yule” has long been an all-volunteer effort involving adults and children. Image from Facebook

  • Rose Sheehan, here with her son Colin de la Barre, began “Welcome Yule” in the mid 1980s in a Greenfield coffeehouse. She has returned after a 20-year absence to help direct this year’s program. Image courtesy of Rose Sheehan

  • “Welcome Yule,” the theatrical production that celebrates the change in season, returns to the Shea Theater in Turners Falls for its 35th year, Dec. 13-15. Image from Facebook

  • “Welcome Yule,” the theatrical production that celebrates the change in season, returns to Turners Falls for its 35th year Dec. 13-15. Image from Facebook



Staff Writer
Thursday, December 05, 2019

December brings time-honored holidays and celebrations marking significant religious dates and cultural traditions — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa — but it also brings the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

But you could also say December marks the time, just after the solstice, when the amount of daily daylight slowly begins to increase. For the people and performers behind “Welcome Yule,” that’s a cause for celebrating.

And this year, the annual theatrical production featuring song, dance and storytelling, held at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, is marking a significant anniversary. It was 35 years ago that the first performance took place, under the direction of founding director Rose Sheehan, who moved out of the region 20 years ago.

Now, Sheehan has returned to direct “Welcome Yule” for the first time since then — and one of her sons, Colin de la Barre, who took part in past productions as a child, also is coming back this year, this time as a featured singer, performing an original song that has served as the genesis for the theme of the 2019 show.

“It is such a thrill to come back and be part of this again,” Sheehan said in a recent phone call from Gloucester, where she now lives. “To think how we started, in the basement of a coffeehouse, and now to still be going strong and doing it on a big stage — that is a joy to me.”

“Welcome Yule” has long been based on folk tales and legends, dances, and songs that are drawn primarily from the British Isles (and from some other countries) and which have traditionally been used to take stock of the arrival of winter and what it means.

“It’s about trying to make sense out of life and recognizing the cyclical nature of the seasons,” said Sheehan. “People seem to take pause and celebrate and consider new questions. What does it mean to be passing through the darkest time of year? What do you do to raise the spirit and drive the dark away?

“We haven’t shied away from from including songs [that reference the birth of Jesus],” she added. “But Christmas is not the focus.”

“Welcome Yule,” which this year will have over 30 performers (including children), has relied on some regular skits over the years, such as the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, in which dancers carry deer or reindeer antlers in a ceremony that’s believed to date back to the early Middle Ages in Britain.

But each year’s production also offers new stories, costumes and dances or variations on previous ones. The theme for 2019, Sheehan notes, is the wisdom of nature — more specifically, that of trees — the power of animals and music, and what humans can learn from all this.

Her son Colin, who also lives in Gloucester and performs as a part of a folk duo, Meridian, wrote a new song, “Come to the Fells,” that has served as the springboard for the 2019 “Welcome Yule” show; the production will also include children following animals on stage to learn their secrets, Sheehan says. (Another son, Owen Bear, who lives in Gill , is also part of the show.)

“The song is very evocative of nature and the senses,” she added. “It’s all about how we need to stop and pay attention” to the natural world.

It was 35 years ago today

Sheehan today works as a “celebrant,” helping people plan for personal and family ceremonies such as weddings, engagements, end of life rituals or significant milestones. But she also has a background as an actress, folk singer and dancer, and in the mid 1980s, living in Millers Falls, she got interested in staging some kind of show about winter’s arrival.

Part of her inspiration came from Revels, a Boston-area company that began staging Christmas and folk-tradition theatrical productions in the early 1970s. Another spur was Anabel Graetz, who created and led a winter-themed show in Boston, “The Festival of Light & Song,” from 1981 to 1994.

In December 1985, Sheehan got about 12 friends to join her for what she calls a “somewhat ad-hoc” performance in the basement of a Greenfield coffeehouse that incorporated some elements from these other shows as well as Sheehan’s ideas about fairy tales, legends and myths.

Ad-hoc or not, the performance proved popular, she says, and more people showed up in the next two years, making it clear the production would have to move to a bigger location. Another friend, Steve Morgan, helped them find a home at the Shea Theater and also connected the group with people with experience in lighting, music direction “and just in general the kinds of things we needed to do to make this work on a bigger stage.”

Though Sheehan left the area around 2000, she stayed in touch with the current artistic director of “Welcome Yule,” Liz Smith, and this past summer the two friends were chatting about what the 2019 show might look like. “I said, kind of joking, ‘Well, Liz, maybe I should come and be director with you,’ and she said ‘Would you do that?’ ”

That’s meant a lot weekend commuting for Sheehan from Gloucester to Turners Falls to work with Smith, music director Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy and the cast. But, she added, “It’s really exciting for me to do this. Plus, this is kind of a transition year for the group, as they’re looking for some new people.”

“Welcome Yule” is in fact an all-volunteer production, and it has benefited over the years from different generations of families, much like Sheehan’s, participating in the show. This year the youngest cast member is a third-generation performer whose grandmother and mother have been regulars over the years, Sheehan says.

She stresses that the show has plenty of merriment, too, like a skit that centers on the death and then sudden revival of a character. The dialogue, according to production notes, is “written for laughs, and the puns are sure to elicit a groan or two.”

Also on tap are giant puppets, close harmony singing and plenty of dancing. “We think there’s a little something for everyone,” said Sheehan.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Welcome Yule” takes place at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls Friday-Saturday, Dec. 13-14, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and children ages 5 to 16; children under 5 attend for free.

Tickets are available at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton; Amherst Books in Amherst; World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield; and at sheatheater.org. Reservations can be made at welcomeyule.org or by contacting info@welcomeyule.org.