People often ask me how they should go about “running away and joining the circus” that is the Renaissance Festival. I am often asked for guidance, advice and tips on how to become a part of this wacky world. Today’s column is part one of a two-part series where I tell you how to find, secure and advance in employment in this unique working and living environment. Full disclosure: A longer, naughtier version of this article first appeared in my advice column on Facebook and will feature prominently in my upcoming book.
So you want to work at the Renaissance Festival?
First you need to ask yourself: Why? Why would you WANT to do this? Are you mad at your parents? Are you punishing yourself? Perhaps you should lie down and wait for this funny feeling to pass?
Did that crazy desire go away? No?
Okay next you’ll have to ask yourself “What do I want to do?” “What skills and talents do I have?” What do I want out of this adventure: Money, fun, fulfillment or just puppies?” Ask yourself “What are my priorities?” And most importantly “Are my underwear clean?”
This week I will cover employment in the many positions outside the entertainment field – covering the range from the Artisan to the cooks. In the next column I’ll bare all of the secrets of working in spotlight; so-to-speak.
What are my options for working at the Renaissance Festival, other than as an entertainer?
Perhaps the easiest field to get into would be one of the hundreds of kitchen positions. And by “kitchen position” I mean – “employment in the food service program” – not that naughty thing you caught your parents doing while you were supposed to be away on vacation that one time. These workers are the backbone of the faire. Renaissance Festivals are like an army- they run on their stomachs, (and loins!). When I submitted this article my editor asked me to point out that there are often two divisions in the food services program: The Festival-owned food concerns – which are often equivalent to a fast-food chain in their hiring, staffing and food preparation practices AND the smaller, independent kitchens which are usually run much more like a conventional restaurant.
§ Upsides: This field isn’t overwhelmingly tough to get hired in. There can be – especially in the independent kitchens loads of hourly-wage week work. These jobs can make the difference – especially for someone new to the circuit – between eating nothing but ramen and peanut butter & jelly while sitting in your tent all week and eating pizza, hot dogs and SpaghettiOs warmed over an honest-to-goodness camp stove – while sitting in your tent all week. But seriously folks, Most of the independents kitchens have to make their food products fresh all week to sell on the weekend and there are decent jobs for reliable, hard-working, go-getters.
§ Downsides: It is hot, dirty, and often underpaid. You’ll find that you spend most of the festival day working, but you’ll still get to party at night.
§ How to get hired: Contact the festival office before the faire opens and ask to be referred to the food service program. They often even do Job Fairs!
Rides and Games
You can also go the route of “Gamer” or self-styled “Push monkey”. These are the folks that push the man-powered rides, take your money at the dart games, and teach your children how to shoot a bow-and-arrow. It is a much more social, and fun engagement than some of the others jobs at the faire. The atmosphere and working conditions can be a blast.
§ Upsides: Gamers tend to be young, pretty and looking for a good time. (I’ll bet you can guess why I noticed that.) The job tends to pay better than food service and apparently if you push a heavy ride long enough you become a massive Cimmerian warrior (I saw it in a movie once).
§ Downsides: It can be hot sweaty and thankless and it is definitely WORK. Most of the entry level positions pay like entry level positions
§ How to get hired: Believe it or not; the rides and games often advertise in the classified sections of local newspapers. Or you can call the festival office and ask for the contact information for whoever manages this employment opportunity.
Booth Managers and Employees
If you’re looking for something with more commitment, and more earning potential you might want to get hired as booth help or booth management. These are often (but not exclusively) long term jobs fulfilled by people who tour with the festival from show to show. Your pay can range from a simple, flat day rate – scandalously low in some cases – to extremely lucrative commissioned management gigs. The booth owners who will hire you tend to look for people who are motivated, professional, and ambitious – as graded on the bell curve of Renaissance Festivals that is. Like all of the jobs I have written about so far, it is in fact a JOB! I was so startled the first time I worked (rather than played) at a Renaissance Festival how much it really differed from the play/party/drink/sleep around – philosophy I had as a patron. For those who work the faires; Saturday and Sunday is when you make your dough, Monday through Friday is when you play around. Week work also can figure rather significantly in this class of employment. The booth owners may (and should) pay you for set up, stock making, taking inventory and other weekday tasks necessary to running a business.
§ Upsides: Potential for semi-steady employment and greater earnings. Sometimes even your housing and travel expenses can be covered by your employer.
§ Downsides: Employers are looking for a higher standard in grooming, sobriety, people skills and reliability. Also, your parents may never understand or approve of your career choice.
§ How to get hired: It is often a question of “who you know”. You can sometimes find notices on the festival message boards and the like, but often booth owners will also want references – and who can blame them? Make friends with crafters you frequent and ask them to refer you.
Crafters and Artisans
Finally, do you have skill, a hobby or craft that you can produce items worthy of selling with? Are you an excellent seamstress, leather worker or clothing designer? Can you create stained glass or beautiful jewelry? Then you might want to explore the difficult and rewarding world of being an Artisan or Crafter. Just like during Historical Renaissance times the merchant class is the driving engine behind the Renaissance Festival’s economy. You’ll have to first get your items approved in the often-convoluted jury process. Then either make (or pay to have made) all the stock. You’ll buy, rent or build a booth, pay employees, pay taxes, pay booth fees, pay insurance and pay and pay and pay. For this you’ll get the privilege of selling your wares, sometimes to people who adore your work, sometimes to people who think they can get better Chinese imports from their local “Wally-world”. And sometimes you don’t sell. Not at all. There are people who have made, and continue to make MILLIONS selling their products or art at festivals around the country. There are also folks who have failed spectacularly.
§ Upsides: You are the boss (except for the Festival management of course). You reap the rewards (after taking all the risks) if you don’t go broke you might do very, very well. It’s so much better than a nine-to-five; unless you are trapped in your studio or workshop for even longer hours making stock.
§ Downsides: The jury process is just the first in a long line of approvals you must have to turn your vision, talent, or craft into cold, hard cash. Your expenses will be many. Your concerns will be legion. If you fail there’s no safety net. If the festival experiences rain on 14 of its 18 days – which happened not-so-many-years-ago in Phoenix, of all places – you can get very hungry and very in debt.
§ How to get hired: You’ll have to contact your desired festival and look for the vendor’s application and jurying process. You will often have more luck at the smaller, less established faires as they are ‘hungrier” for merchants. You might also consider apprenticing with an artisan and learning the trade just like in the “good-ol’-days”.
Again my slave-driving editor has asked that I once again stress the availability and value in securing week work. Even if your chosen employment realm doesn’t provide an hourly wage and Monday-through-Friday employment there is often work for the industrious. You can secure piece work or hourly jobs with many of the crafters on site – though you’ll have more luck at Spring and Summer shows when they are stocking for the year. If you have saleable skills or office training you might find work in payroll management, bookkeeping or general office work. Some driven workers find a gig in the festival office, working for security, or even find a temp job in town. Just like in the real world – often, how well off you are is a factor of how ambitious you are. There are even folks who make the majority of their pay during the week utilizing their skills or services in support of the traveling community. Can you teach dance to youngsters? Do you have skills as a hairstylist? Do you love to babysit or are you a massage therapist? You can have a quite successful business in service-related fields or as a teacher or coach.
In part two of this article I will cover the process for getting a gig as a Renaissance Festival Entertainer. I will also once again try to talk you out of it; not only because it can be a brutal soul-crushing experience trying to succeed, but also because if you do – you just may become my competition! I look forward to your creative constructive or critical comments below. I’ll see ya next time!