This story was originally published on Aug. 25, 2013 on PennLive.
In the bowels of the Globe Theatre, I was handed a pair of peasant’s bloomers. Little did I know that by day’s end, I would be royalty.
Lily Steiner, head costumer for the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire in Mount Hope, dressed me in Renaissance garb in preparation for my day shadowing workers at the Faire. With two caps, an embroidered vest and a skirt, all in a hodgepodge of colors, I looked like a medieval Eliza Doolittle as we listened through the wooden floorboards to Mark Sullivan, artistic director for the Faire, begin the morning meeting on the stage below.
It was 9:30 a.m.; only an hour and a half remained before the gates to the Faire’s medieval land would open and 21st century citizens would flood in.
As the moments until showtime ticked by, all the actors — both the professional Bacchanalians and the volunteer Blackfriars — were given a language challenge. The week prior, they were tasked to devise an insult of five words or more. This time, they had to woo the crowd at every opportunity: praise the of calves of male guests and wax lyrical on the eyes of the ladies in honor of the weekend’s theme, Chivalry and Romance.
Commendations were bestowed upon the winners of last weekend’s “Best Bit.” A “bit” is a spontaneous moment of theater that gathers a crowd. Highly coveted, this title explains many of the antics patrons see at the Faire.
When the gates finally opened, each actor had their own position and their own game plan that they worked on in months of rehearsals. As patrons poured into the Faire, the accents came on and the energy was high.
I, on the other hand, was confused. I had lost Mark — who I was shadowing — and had no instructions about who I was, how to act or what I should say to the stampeding masses. My lack of experience at Ren Faires (I’ve only been to one other before) did not help. Does one say, “Welcome to the Ren Faire?” Or should I opt for something along the lines of, “Welcome to a theatrical pseudo-historical representation of a fictional shire in medieval England?”
Neither, obviously. After a few “Welcome to the Ren Faire”s I gave up. I smiled, nodded and pretended that I was just a patron, a tactic that worked until I found Mark again.
Being “on” all the time was hard, and getting my footing when it came to interacting with the patrons was harder still. What was even more confusing was talking with “playtrons,” those guests who come in costume and pretend they are part of the world. I often got “playtrons” confused with cast members until I learned all cast members wear a black rosette on their costume. During my time at the Ren Faire, I became a champion rosette hunter.
Kelsey “Teddy” Allison of Harrisburg wore her rosette with pride. A member of the Blackfriar cast, her job was interacting with the crowd. “It’s very much a theme park where you feel you can be free and ridiculous,” she said, maintaining her accent throughout the interview. Her tactic for interaction was easy. “You just look for the happiest person… and maybe they have a drink in their hand to loosen them up,” she grinned.
Kelsey was a crowd interaction master. After a few minutes by her side, I felt my own fear of chatting with strangers dissolve. Greeting them with a “Good day” and “God save you” — the appropriate phrases of introduction — became second nature.
As a Blackfriar, Kelsey didn’t appear to take an official break and, to be honest, she did not appear to need one. Her joy in working at the Faire was evident in everything she did and everything she said. But after several minutes with her, I had to plead exhaustion and sit her down for a proper interview.
“So, I’m trying to be a Blackfriar today. What advice would you give me?” I asked, popping a piece of gum in my mouth. I got a few good minty chews in before she answered, “Don’t chew gum.”
I spat the offending object out onto a napkin. “And don’t use paper napkins,” she added.
Blackfriars have strict rules to follow, Kelsey said. They carry a mug at all times, which must have some sort of liquid in it — water is preferable. They eat out of a bowl that they are assigned or that they purchase. They cannot sit without making a big deal of the affair. At the Ren Faire, even sitting down is a performance.
All of them affect an English, Irish or Scottish accent, with varying degrees of accuracy, but all with a concerted effort. My own attempt at an accent, it should be noted, was far from perfect.
As a lowly wench, I was expected to bow to those of noble birth, including the guests and numerous toddlers dressed as princesses and knights.
One guest, Makayla Burns, 5, of Havertown, giggled as I bowed before her. With a painted face of pink, purple and white swirls, she wore a tall pink hat, carried a jewel-encrusted wand and looked every bit the princess. She bid me rise and handed me her wand. I could practically feel it quivering with magic power, I told her, handing it back with as much reverence as I could muster. She insisted that I close my eyes as she said a few magic words. Upon opening them, she revealed that I was now a princess.
Her name was Princess Aurora, she told me, and as a princess, I really ought to wear her hat. I begged off, but she would not have any of it. I took off my two caps and knelt as she placed the pink hat atop my head. The giggles came back full force as she spun around in glee.
“That, for me, is what makes it,” Mark said. I agree: interacting with the children was my favorite part of the Faire. I especially enjoyed my epic sword fight with Jackson Geiger of Pottstown — in which the two-year-old vanquished me mightily, much to his merriment.
There were even plenty of “awwww” moments when it came to the adult patrons. At the wooing contest, Scott Seifer of Morrisville got down on one knee and proposed to Kirsten Rovinski. “She always wanted to be proposed to in front of a crowd of people,” Seifer explained after Rovinski said yes.
The Ren Faire was also the perfect place for the proposal. “I love it,” Rovinski said. “I want to have a medieval wedding and everything.”
But at the Ren Faire, it’s very give and take. For every adorable costume there’s another that makes one squeamish.
Moments after the adorable Princess Aurora elevated me to noble status, Mark and I passed one of those more “interesting” Ren Faire costumes. There was leather in places it shouldn’t have been and skin in places where clothes should have been — it was practically oozing. So tight was the material that the whole construction threatened to snap apart at any given moment.
Following my horrified gaze, Mark sighed, “There are things you see here that will forever burn your eyes.”
But I didn’t let the scary or the weird deter me from enjoying the Ren Faire.
“This is a magical place,” Sydney Schwindt told me. The Colorado-native played the role of historical Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, “One of the biggest badasses of history,” she said.
For her, the Renaissance Faire represents the past, present and future of theatre because of its interactive nature. “It’s what will make it so theatre will never die,” she said.
The Faire is also a playground of learning. As an employee of the Faire, Sydney picked up fire breathing, stilt-walking, juggling and the ability to make balloon animals. Everyone teaches everyone else; there is no cutthroat hoarding of skills.
And for the actors, the Ren Faire is also a whole lot of fun. Richard Furleigh, a Bacchanalian from Texas, explained how they are encouraged to play around.
“One of the things we talk about is having a 7-year-old’s mentality,” he said. “You can go out and be as silly as you want and you don’t care what the neighbors think. I’m playing a very proper lord of England and would never of myself do silly things, and I would kill peasants for talking to me the way people here do.” But at the Ren Faire, Richard’s character isn’t hanging people, even when he is a crab apple. He relishes the role, and that is what makes the Faire fun for visitors. “When you do to enjoy what you are doing, everyone else enjoys it with you that much more.”
When the merriment came to an end and the 12-hour-day was over at last, the Ren Faire actors filed back to the Globe Theatre to change back into their present-day clothes.
With mutterings of “beer” and “trucks,” their accents returned to their normal American flavor, and the cast meandered over to “after hours,” a happy hour at the Faire’s bar.
I joined them, just a group of co-workers and friends enjoying good conversation and a few drinks at a pub. After all, I had my new princess title to celebrate.