Stars and Stripes – As Renaissance festivals reopen, here’s how to make the most of them
Xinyi Xie is reflected in a mirror as she walks past a stand selling garlands at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in 2015 (Matt McClain / The Washington Post)
After the pandemic, signs of economic and cultural recovery began to emerge with the return of market fairs. That was about 670 years ago.
History seems to repeat itself.
European fairs before and after the Black Death were annual events often linked to holy days, when itinerant merchants and artisans pitched tents over the village greenery to sell wares to locals also drawn to food and entertainment.
Fast forward to recent times, when folklore and fantasy fueled a national boom in the elaborate seasonal festivals of the Renaissance. At these multi-weekend events, artisans sold jewelry, candles, and clothing; the musicians played the lute and the flute; and fire-eaters, jugglers, acrobats and jousters performed feats of medieval derring-do. Kids jaded by the video were clamoring for wooden shields, swords and magic wands that could last a summer of backyard play. Many festival-goers attended in costume; people watching alone may be worth the price of admission.
Before COVID 2019, more than one million people attended more than 200 such festivals, from Florida to Alberta. (For attendance and size, the Godzilla is the Texas Renaissance Festival, on 70 acres near Houston. Record attendance for the 2019 race: 467,304.) But most fairs were closed for the 2020 season.
Are they back? In truth, according to industry insiders. The drop in the number of coronavirus infections, the easing of pandemic restrictions, and the external frameworks of festivals are causing their return. “After 16 months of not being anywhere, people want to go out and festivals are opening everywhere,” says Greg Gilbert, creator of therenlist, an online directory of such events.
A dozen festivals that began in the 1970s near major markets follow one another. Here’s what you need to know.
Consult the dates and the sanitary instructions. Some fairs may have later dates than usual due to pandemic restrictions. Gaps between national and local restrictions on rally size, social distancing, and masks can complicate your plans.
Southern California’s Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale – the US premiere (1963) – has canceled its 2021 season, but owner Renaissance Entertainment Productions continues its festivals in Bristol, Wisconsin (July 10 to September 6) and Tuxedo Park, NY, in the south of the state (August 21 to October 3).
Other stars: the twin cities (Shakopee, Minn., August 21 to October 3), Detroit (August 21 to October 3), Kansas City (September 4 to October 17), St. Louis (September 18 to October 17) and Charlotte (from October 2 to November 21). Texas, which hosted its festival in 2020, returns from October 9 to November 28. The Maryland Renaissance Festival, near Annapolis, will run from August 28 to October 24.
Sift for your interests. These historical / fantastic events are not all actually in the European Renaissance (1300-1500). Most of the storylines are vague and fictional, adapting to Robin Hood as well as pirates; a certain point towards the England of Henry VII or Elizabeth I (that of Saint-Louis is attached to Lyon, France, during the reign of Francis I in the 16th century). Some offer Shakespearean plays.
The Maryland Renaissance Festival, owned by the Smith family, highlights the court of Henry VIII and matches his queens to the six wives of that monarch. According to Jules Smith, “Anne Boleyn was here in 2019 but isn’t in court this year, so he’s playing on the pitch and having fun with a young woman.” (Watch for Queen Jane Seymour in 2022.)
Arts and crafts? What sells best in the Midwest isn’t necessarily what works in the Southwest. Southeastern holiday potters, for example, are more likely to have “face jug” pitchers from the region.
Spend wisely. Many festivals make their money by renting stands at the end of the season as well as selling food, so good attendance is crucial. The entrance fee is kept low. Check festival websites and online and newspaper ads for discounts. Cheaper tickets are generally available at the service counters of the cosponsoring grocery chains.
Bring cash or use the ATMs on site. While plastic is accepted at the door and by some vendors, dollars are still prevalent, especially at food stalls. (Popular fare includes turkey thighs and stews served in bread bowls.) You’ll meet touring performers and performing artists who depend on donations.
Stroll through the whole “kingdom” before shopping. Medieval traders were clustered in the streets with others making / selling similar wares, but festival stages, restaurants, and artisans tend to be intertwined for variety.
And don’t worry if you can’t see exactly what you want among the trades. Many artisans have websites – which has kept some in business during the pandemic break. Grab a business card or ask if they can custom make whatever you want and do it there – large fairs have ovens on hand for vendors.
Follow the weather. These outdoor activities take place rain or shine. The seats for the stages are usually hay bales or benches. The day after the rain can mean smaller crowds. Sites tend to be flat – often hayfields the rest of the year – and care is taken to dry out “village streets”, but parking after rain may require walking through mazes of muddy ruts.
Relax. Don’t become obsessed with the printed schedule for the day, advises Renlist’s Greg Gilbert: “Don’t over-plan your day. Be flexible. If you see an act you like, just follow it from step to step, throughout the day. “
Tony Korol-Evans played mistress Anne Fermor during the opening weekend of the Maryland Renaissance Festival in 2015 (Matt McClain / The Washington Post)
Be ready to play the game. Jeff Siegel, who started the Phoenix and Charlotte Fairs (and, like famous magician Penn Jillette, graduated in 1974 from the Ringling Bros. It’s, in some ways, a traditional circus. “And audience participation is a great part of the show.
“What we do is play with the audience,” says Danielle Dupont, founder of Washing Well Wenches, an all-female risky comedy review, “getting people to be like kids again in a sandbox that’s going to happen. have fun together “.
She knows who to choose by their appearance. “When the audience is seated before show time, we try to identify the people (volunteers) whose eyes light up,” Dupont explains. “We don’t want to bring someone on stage who is clearly uncomfortable.”
Itinerant artists also engage with crowds. Give Shamus the Insultor some money, and he will dramatically lower your self-esteem. “I insult everyone in the same way, and with a sincere and loving heart,” says Tony Miller, who has been at fairs for more than a quarter of a century. “If the person isn’t laughing, I haven’t done my job.”
And, as Jeff’s nephew / cohort Matt Siegel notes, “the desire to publicly display the punishment is pretty basic.” You’ll find him at attractions such as Vegetable Justice, where patrons toss squishy tomatoes at an artist’s head spitting insults through a hole in a board.
But jousting is the # 1 attraction of Ren’s festivals. They take place throughout the day in permanent arenas – grandstand seats may be subject to distancing guidelines this year – and some focus on skills, others on theater.
Even in tournaments where knights demonstrate unadulterated mounted skill by putting spears through rings and other challenges, there is room for audience participation. During the competition, each knight’s cheerleaders bait the crowd to verbally slam the other guy. “Crowds at the New York Fair can really be tough,” says Matthew Mansour (Sir Maxxmillian, Earl of Braden), who, along with Aventail Productions, supplies jousting teams to five of Ren’s biggest festivals.
Dress for success. Consider putting together a complete look by purchasing a hat one year, a cape the next year, etc. A quick fix for our time is to create hoodies designed to resemble the clothing of lords, ladies and monarchs specific to heraldry. In terms of more elaborate costumes, Matt Siegel of the Charlotte and Phoenix Fairs says 2019 saw a slight uptick in “Game of Thrones” inspired clothing. Some festivals featured more children and adults as fairies, superheroes and in “steam punk” (Victorian dystopian “Carnival Row”) costume. Trend too? Costumes reflecting cultural diversity / inclusion – customers dressed as Nubian kings or queens, Mongolian khans or princesses.
One 2019 trend that would be inappropriate for 2021 is the macabre “plague doctor” costume: a long black dress topped with a mask featuring a long bird-shaped muzzle and glasses. While historically valid – such outfits were invented to protect doctors during the plague of 1619 in Paris – they would be of questionable taste as fair-goers congregate in what we hope will soon be post-America. COVID.