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Tim’s Festival Hiring Credo

Rhonni —  July 19, 2014 — 8 Comments

The following post is the work of my friends Tim Rosa and Donna D’Ignazio, both long time working participants of the Renaissance Festival industry. We were discussing tips and tricks to hiring good help at festivals, and they shared with me their favorite hiring tool. I’ve included their Preamble … which kind of makes this a preamble to a preamble, but they don’t have an author box for the bottom of this post. I felt I needed to explain it a bit.

Enjoy …

 

Tim’s Preamble

The following credo was written by (us) on a long trip from one show to another. Donna and I have been doing fairs, conventions, and Festivals for many years and these are some of the things we have learned.

We have each new prospective employee read it aloud.

If they don’t understand it, we can’t use them.

If they argue a point, we won’t use them.

We feel that this is a clear and concise set of guidelines to a fun job … but fun isn’t always easy!

Once read, we have them sign the document so that there are no misunderstandings, and no disappointments on either end.

To us these seem rudimentary.

We expect it from others and others should be able to expect it from us.

 

Disclaimer: These are the beliefs of Tim Rosa and Donna D’Ignazio. They are not necessarily those of Fellowship Foundry, Renaissance Pewter, or their affiliates.

 

Fellowship Foundry
Rules of Acquisition

1)  Pretend to be cheerful until you believe it yourself.

2)  Each and every patron deserves the VERY best that each of us can do for them. Smile and say hello to EVERYONE.

3)  SELL THINGS!

a)  Believe in the product.

b)  Take ownership of the product.

c)   Take ownership of the booth.

d)  Never ONCE think you are in charge.

4)  The four basic types of customers:

a)  The small talk
These are the people who you talk to about the weather, are they enjoying themselves, that’s a beautiful baby, etc.

b)  Those you absolutely leave alone
Let them come to you. (Don’t even try to make eye contact).

c)   The hard sell
You know what they want more than they do. Hand it to them or put it around their neck and ask ‘cash or charge?’

d)  The ones you f*ck with
These are the people who are intelligent, fun and funny and have probably been drinking. They will be insulted if you talk down to them. The trick to this is being aware. Be aware of the patron and your surroundings.   ALWAYS!

 

Cursorily, study each patron. Look at their clothes, observe their behavior, their demeanor, but mostly, look at their eyes.
Decide which of the four types best fits them.
This is not an exact science.
The point of this is to make the patron feel comfortable and therefore willing and glad to make a purchase.

Which category?

Which category?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5)  Fun   —  If the patron is having fun they don’t even realize they are shopping.

6)  Appropriate Costuming

a)  Women – May be risqué, but must be tasteful.

b)  Men – Shirts must be worn. No cross-dressing.

c)   Everyone – Hats, garlands, some form of headgear is mandatory.

d)  Must adhere to all faire costume rules.

7)  Work ethic
From the start of your work day until the end of your work day, you represent yourself, your co-workers, the booth and the faire. Your actions reflect upon all of these! Conduct yourself appropriately!
If you are camping on site, these rules apply ALWAYS!

8)  Expectations
You are not expected to be an expert at this from the start. You will have many opportunities to learn and grow. Please do not be discouraged. When you succeed, we all succeed. Many of these skills come from experience and you can learn from others’ mistakes and/or triumphs. Again, be aware. Have fun and help others to have fun.

9)  Co-existence
There will be NO conflicts on the floor! PERIOD! Not between patrons, spouses, boy/girl friends, co-workers, and especially bosses!
If you have a difference of opinion, take it out back.

10)      Push ‘em down and take their lunch money!!!!!!!

Your work day starts at:_________________________________

Your work day ends at:__________________________________

Your pay rate is:____________________________________________

Your employment starts:__________________________________

And ends:_______________________________________

Student Days:___________________________________

 

Breaks will be given every day during slow periods. You are responsible for your pass. Replacement passes are $100. There may be bonuses paid on performance and attitude.

 

 

Name_____________________________________

 

Address__________________________________

____________________________________________

____________________________________________

 

Phone____________________________________

 

Social Security #__________________________

 

 

I, __________________________________, have read and understand these terms and expectations, and will, to the best of my ability, perform these and greater things.

Signed_________________________________________

 

Date______________________________________

 

 

 

 

(Rhonni again here) Do you have favorite tools for getting the right employees for your team? Let us know about your favorites!

The Velvet Cage

John Davis —  June 27, 2013 — 2 Comments

Editor’s note: This week we have a post by our friend John Davis. He’s one of many friends who have utilized their festival experience to build other exciting careers. His motivational speeches are highly sought after in the corporate world, and we are very happy to have him as part of the Festival Prose team.

Often times in life we find ourselves wanting more. Recently I was talking to several festival friends about where they are in their lives and each one, while considered quite successful in their industry, was in the place of wanting more. Every so often we each take stock of where we are in life and dream of where we would like to be. Many times we find ourselves getting by, but not really living.

 

Cages come in all sizes and shapes.

Performers at Renaissance festivals often fall into this trap. They want more. Often that “more” involves financial security, health care, and a home to live in. The main problems arise when they trap themselves in what I call “The Velvet Cage.” If someone finds a place to make a living they can fall into the trap of fear. They become very comfortable in the fact that they can make money performing at the festivals and put themselves in the mindset of “this is what I do.” “Velvet cage” is not meant to be a remark about Renaissance Festival costuming, but more a comment on comfort and perceived luxury within the confines of a small space. These performers become very confident and/or comfortable in this situation but still feel trapped. It’s the risk of failing that keeps them trapped in their velvet cage.

 

I know man who became very successful performer. Over the years, his show was highly sought after by many festivals and he was able to create a product line that sold very well. The problem was he hated the show. He was a very talented Shakespearean actor who loved acting, but the show he created was living his life instead of he living it. When a bird is not allowed to fly, their wings become weak. The only way for the wings to become strong again is to fly. This performer needs to open the door and jump.

 

A dear friend is a very talented artist. Her work consistently takes my breath away. She should be famous and well known, but has fallen into trap of her own velvet cage. Several of her friends have been pushing her to open her door and jump, but her door has been locked. The lock that holds velvet cages closed is our own self-doubt. Self-doubt is just fear, and fear is a choice. To choose a new path is to release an old one. When you know a path we feel very comfortable there. When you step out on a new path, you have to learn the wildlife that lives there to safely make it to your desired end goal. This artist has stepped to the door and is unlocking it now. She will fly to greater heights after she jumps.

 

In my life I have always felt compelled to help people. It has been my driving force. My show became very popular and we used the show to do a lot of good for a lot of people with our charity and USO work. I wanted more. I wanted to share with people how to reach their goals and coach them through that process and I wanted financial security, healthcare, and a nice home while I did it. My “velvet cage” was my show and Renaissance festivals. It wasn’t until I was willing to open my own door and jump that I saw real change begin to happen.

 

I now travel all over the world showing people how to set and reach their potential. I feel fulfilled every time I step off the stage after delivering another keynote. I keep in flight towards my goals, my wings getting ever stronger. I know I will reach my destination. When I do, I will open the door of that cage and jump towards another. Life is motion and new experiences. Trapping yourself in a cage will slowly sap your strength and lead to a comfortably unhappy life. Open that door and JUMP!!

Summer Job Lady

Rhonni —  May 23, 2013 — 6 Comments

This post originally appeared on my personal blog, but just this week I was having a conversation with a Crafter about hiring good help, and the choice to become a mentor. Many many people have their first job experience at an outdoor festival or theme park. It is something we need to remember as the people doing the hiring.

I’ve been the “Summer Job Lady” for 23 summers now. Before we had our own businesses there, I managed all of the personnel and payroll for the man that owned 75% of the food program at the New York Renaissance Faire. With an attrition rate of 10%, and 85 positions to fill, some summers I’d hire 135 kids during the 8 week run of the festival.
These days, for our own operation, we need about 25 people. We have a more generous pay scale, and the fact that The Hubby and I work in the kitchens with our employees, rather than just counting the money in an office combine to give us a lower rate of attrition. We now hire the younger siblings and even the children of some of my former summer hires. We have a solid and reliable crew in New York, and I’m looking forward to establishing the same type of team in the shows where I have less tenure.

My Summer Job Application

Still, I’ve learned a few things over the years about summer jobs.
1. 8 weeks is a “lot” of someone’s summer to give up. I talk about it being 17 days when asking them for a commitment. We’re open on weekends only, for high-volume sales. There is no room for extra bodies, and consequently no real way to hire extra people … (except …)
2. There are people that simply cannot give up all of these weekends. I take their info, and enlist them as backup. If they are former employees who cannot make the full commitment, I go ahead and hire them for the busiest weekend, or a holiday weekend … “someone” is going to flake, and you’ll still be ready for your biggest day, as well as maintaining a relationship with that employee as she’s moving off to college or whatever.
3. This is often someone’s FIRST JOB. Any incorrect assumptions they make are the manager’s fault for improper training. For example: We are now hiring a generation of people who have never been away from their cell phones. Getting peeved when you find the 16 year old texting between customers is absurd. It’s the management’s fault for not explaining that there is no phone use while on the clock. Reprogramming a young person to ignore a ring or buzz of his phone is harder than you might think. Instead, provide a secure lock-up near the time clock. Let employees know they can check their phones for messages when off the clock; otherwise the number of bathroom breaks required appears to be related to their text and voicemail frequency.
4. When hiring people under 16 (Yes, it’s legal for some positions.), It’s their parents that have to acknowledge the commitment to punctuality and attendance required of the job. I *have* made arrangements with parents of school-age kids that if the student’s grades dropped, he or she would lose their permission to work. I’ve always been fine with this, and it allows me to establish a partnership with the parent that has always worked in my favor over consecutive summers.
5. This is simply a personal theory, but I have hired in Texas, Colorado, New York, Maryland, and Georgia. In my opinion, the likelihood of an employee being a no-call, no-show is directly related to the rate of unemployment in their parent’s experience. Areas that have known double-digit unemployment any time in the last 30 years seem to instill in the younger generation an awareness that jobs require a level of responsibility that at least requires a well-crafted excuse and a phone call. This level of consideration is not as common in states where the unemployment rate stayed low.
6. Ask questions that will help you decipher a personality and match a potential employee with the proper manager. On my application, I ask the following:
a) What was the last book you read?
This one often tells me more about the local school’s curriculum than it does the interviewee, but often we have these books in common, and it eases some of the tension of what might be his or her first job interview.
b) What is your MySpace or FaceBook URL?
I probably don’t need to explain why this is of value. You can really learn a lot about someone with this information.
c) What was the last music you bought for yourself?
In a time when file-swapping is the norm, knowing what music she assigns value, tells me a great deal, and again, gives me a conversation point in the interview process.
d) What Team Sports / Athletics experience do you have?
This is key. You see, The Hubby communicates like a basketball coach … mid-mistake corrections, short sentences, an expectation of follow-through on whatever “play” he’s just called for. It can be disastrous for me to place someone with no team sports experience in his shop, especially if they have any self-confidence issues, because they have no point of reference for his management style and tend to go directly to “He doesn’t like me.”.
e) What Music or Theatre experience do you have?
We’re vending in an entertainment venue. If I’m staffing for a Front-of-House position, I’m asking them to wear silly clothes and fake an accent. Theatre geeks live for this … it makes job placement very easy.
f) Do you believe that life is a set of circumstances one makes the best of, or that life is a result of choices one has made? (Please circle your selection.)
a) Circumstances b) Choices

This is my favorite question. I have had several applicants draw in an option c) “Combination of Both”. They gets props for creativity with that one. While I would officially say that there is not a right or wrong answer to this question, we all know that’s not entirely true. Answers to this question have never kept me from hiring a person, and folks 17 and under will have a tendency towards selection ‘A’ because their parents are making the choices. I’ve watched with interest as people’s answers change over several years of summer returns. However, as a manager I need to know that it’s risky to place a selection ‘A’ person in a position with a high level of responsibility. This is  the person who could have a flat tire on the way to work, and not recognize that his choice of buying cigarettes instead of new tires affected his day, and then his lack of a job. If I’ve invested a lot of training in a choice ‘A’ person, I may just have to do it all over again with another hire before the summer season is over. However, if he truly makes the best of his circumstance, he still comes up with a ride to work … hence my not holding to a right or wrong answer for that question.

The most important thing I’ve learned in the 20 years of being the Summer Job Lady is that hiring kids for their first jobs is an honor. We have the opportunity to be mentors and a role models for an upcoming generation. Recognizing this privilege and living up to its responsibilities help create the future we are all hoping to see.

What are some of your experiences in hiring or in being hired at events? What do you think could have been done better? Please let us know in the comment section.

So you want to work at the Renaissance Festival?

 

This column is the finale of a two part series on the wonderful world of Renaissance Festival Employment. The first installment described the stalwart staff of the CraftsFoodservice, and Gaming divisions. Today we take on the Prima Donnas; The Entertainers.

 Tortugas Angelic

Are you a show-off? Do you like playing dress-up? Are you funny (or do you just think you’re funny)?  Do you wish to set yourself up for epic rejection for rewards as meager as applause? Can you REALLY not find something better to do with seven to forty weekends of your year? If you have answered “Yes” to these questions, you just might want to consider a “career” as a Renaissance Festival Entertainer! I understand your shame and your pain. I too have stood-up in the meetings and declared, “I am Scaramouche, and I’m an entertainer”. It truly is an addiction.

 

There are also many parallels between the entertainment and non-entertainment world… Just like in my last column your first question needs to be “What are my strengths? What can I do? What will I do and where do I draw the line?”  My last column described the divisions in the merchant’s and crafter’s world. There are also many subdivisions in the entertainer’s realm. What is completely different however is that you don’t need clean underwear! It’s true! I’m not wearing any now for example.

 

But I digress.

 

Local Performing Cast

The base of the entertainment pyramid is the local Street Performing Cast. These are the villagers: beggars, nobles, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers that bring the “shire” or “hamlet” to life.  You’ll get all sorts of people falling into this category. Some folks do it as an acting exercise; some do it as an excuse to party in the summer. Some folk’s motivation is to dress up in their finest, heavy velvet and be a part of the king’s entourage. Other folks do it because they love the fair and will do anything to be a part of it. The pay is often non-existent. My first gig as a street performer was for the princely sum of six free tickets to share with my friends.

Like any good addiction, often the first time is free my friend.  Usually it is the least demanding of all the entertainment jobs; though you may get scheduled to perform at a specific sector of the “village” at certain times and some faires even require their street performers to take a shift as ticket takers at the front gate. Largely you are free to roam and free to entertain patrons when and where you please. It is your job to make a spectacle of yourself!

 

§  Upsides: Often a low responsibility position. Scheduling can be flexible. It can be fun, easy, and a good introduction to the entertainer’s life. With the entertainment director’s guidance and approval you can create your own wacky/original/wild character.  Be creative, and shoot for the stars.

§  Downsides: The pay is often a pittance or a token. There are prominent characters at major faires who after decades are paid barely more than will cover their gasoline expenses travelling to the show and lunches. For the most part you cannot “busk” – which is to say “ask for or receive tips”. You’ll most likely pay for your own costuming, which for nobility can be prohibitively expensive. During the hottest part of the year you will loathe that self-same costume.

§  How to get hired: Call the office of your local festival and ask when the auditions for street characters take place. Usually they will have an audition formula; I suspect it will be to describe your character – while in character – and to explain and show how you will interact with patrons and other street performers. You need to think about the needs of the village and the ambiance the Festival is trying to create. You may have a cool sword and swanky leather armor, but the Festival probably doesn’t need a 17th level half-elf fighter-thief. They may ask you to improvisation around a set situation. It couldn’t hurt to be ready for a dramatic or comedic reading. AVOID MONTY PYTHON BITS

Most Festivals will have an apprentice program where they will teach you the basics of improvisation, costuming and dialects. Some will even conduct a six week, on site, live-in workshop (I’m looking at you Sterling!). Mostly they want you to show-up, be reliable and be enthusiastic.  Finally, never forget that it is a job; a job where you may get to do lots of drinking and sleeping around – but that should be after hours and out of sight of the patrons.

 

Professional Touring Street Performers

There are a few, select folks who actually make a living as a Street Performer. You might be the actor they bring in to play the King from year-to-year.  You may be the green-skinned fantasy character with a knack for potty humor that is somehow still child-appropriate. You might be a charismatic and quirky member of royalty with a wonderful shtick. You might be a fairy. You might be a specific fairy. You might be a gorgeous, frightening, glitter-ific fairy with over 350,000 Facebook friends and more power and influence than I will ever have.

 

Stupid fairy.

 

It is a rare person who can put the pieces together to create a persona that is appealing enough to Festival Owners that they feel they cannot be replaced by a cheaper-to-hire local. If you choose this path you’ll need to either be an outstanding actor or actress (for the role of the King or Queen for example) or create a uniqueinterestingclever character that “Wows” the management. I strongly suggest you plan out – in writing – a lot of ways for this character to interact with the patrons as part of your creation process. Not only because patron interactions is what the Management is paying you for; but also so that you can – if it is in your contract – turn these interactions into a shill for tips. Often, even highly popular characters are barely paid a living wage by Festival management and they have to find an engaging way to convince the patrons to part with their dough.

 

§  Upsides: You have the utmost creativity, freedom and earning potential – it is limited only by the strictures of Festival management and what the audience will bear – at least as a street character. Because you are unique (Street Character) and/or fill such a vital role (Royalty) yet are still paid so little; you can have quite a lot of job security. You choose which of the hundreds of Festivals to audition for and which contracts to sign. You also choose how hard and how much you work.

§  Downsides: your daily base pay is most often laughable. If you are royalty you cannot busk, but the Festival management will often take this into consideration and provide housing and other perks; especially if you are wise enough to make sure it is in your contract. Since you’ve read this article there isn’t any excuse for it not to be. The paid, touring, acting roles are scarce and fiercely contested for. The clever street characters with earning potential: Twig the fairyChristophe or Shamus the insultors, various Trolls, music boxes, still mimes et al are pretty-much covered.

§  How to get hired: I suggest again, auditioning at your local festival. It’s a lot easier to experiment with and create a money-making, crowd pleasing character while still having the safety-net of a job, a roof over your head and glorious, glorious indoor plumbing. Build a reputation at your “home show”. Hone your shtick. Garner a following and when you feel the moment is right, take that character on-the-road. Get your local festival’s Entertainment director and management to endorse and recommend you to other festivals (ask nicely). Record videos and have tons of photos taken. Include all of this and the aforementioned recommendations into an audition package and send it off to the entertainment department at the other festivals you want to work. Network. National touring acts have a lot of influence. If a Twig or Doug (Miguel of Don Juan and Miguel fame) asks a Festival to look at your audition – that pulls a lot of weight. Be persistent and be flexible on your monetary demands until you prove yourself. Be able-and-willing to live in a tent and eat a lot of ramen noodles just like in college. But also like college; if you live cheaply, apply yourself and don’t get too distracted by drinking and being a floozy – you can have a pretty nice life down the road.

 

Musicians

When I compiled this column originally, I almost forgot musicians. I must confess that I don’t possess that much information or experience about this type of entertainment. I will tell you that a lot of musicians view their daily rate as more of an honorarium than an actual paycheck. The real money is made in tips and CD sales. Sometimes musicians are treated like red-headed stepchildren. Sometimes they’re treated like mere background or ambiance. Sometimes, rarely, musicians are even treated with respect. I’ve noticed an interesting and “period” instrument: Harp, Hammered Dulcimer or Harpsichord for example, will open more doors than a guitar. Your marketability is definitely dependent upon your skill, charisma and flexibility. You create your own stages and opportunities. I have a friend, a successful harpist who will even play past closing cannon and outside the front gates to make those last minute sales. There are those who mock her shark-like tenacity, not this writer – I applaud her drive.

 

§  Upsides: You get to create and share your art with a generally appreciative crowd. There’s money to be had and friends to be made – and sometimes vice versa! You’ll get to jam with amazing musicians and be part of a strong and supportive community. You can also line-up lucrative gigs off-site; weddings for example. You can (and should) play wherever you find an available space and can generate an attentive audience.

§  Downsides: You’ll struggle to make a living until you produce your first cd and that can be rather costly. You’ll find that you need to release a new cd each year to maintain your sales levels. Sometimes you’ll be treated like Muzak. ™; in that people will talk during your sets and ignore the magic you are rending from wood and metal – rewarding you only with their indifference. Maintaining and transporting instruments can be a pain. Most importantly you have to learn to play with skill and talent. There are some fantastic musicians out here on circuit. If you aren’t up-to-snuff, you’ll end up embarrassing yourself.

§  How to get hired: First, learn to play! The old joke goes “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice”. You might want to follow the same basic path as I described for the Street Character: Local festival audition leading to a few years of local (and safe) gigs. Produce a cd and some decent photos. Network and then submit to other fairs. If you have a cd already (that’s theme appropriate of course – you might not want to submit your death-metal electric guitar solo as an audition piece) you might even be able to skip a few steps in this process.

 

Headline Stage Acts

Finally we arrive at the “Rockstars” of the Renaissance Festivals, the nationally touring stage acts. It is true that all of the Headline Stage Acts are prima donnas. We are all, without exception, a bunch of whiny little girls. Actually that may be an unfair characterization; little girls are usually heartier and less in need of coddling then all of us are. We are given the best arrangements in the campground. We have the shortest and easiest work day. Though some Artisans and Crafters, (and all of the Festival Producers and Owners) make more than us; we are amongst the highest paid participants at the Faire. We break rules and break hearts. The jouster may get more groupies, but they wear sweaty armor, ride stinky horses and get hit in the head a lot.  It is totally unfair that we get treated as well as we do.

 

All of this is true.

 

But it is also true that we fought, and clawed and worked our way to this position. Nobody gave us this cushy job; we had to earn it.  For every “Ded Bob” or “Washing Well Wenches” on circuit there are scores of jugglers, rope walkers, and magicians that have faded from memory. For every “Puke & Snot” or “Tortuga Twins” there are countless “Ficklebiches” or “Pigeon Vision Brothers” that you’ve never heard of.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world… and there is always another dog growling and barking after your bone.

 

You could try to follow MY exact career path. I don’t recommend it but here it is:

§  Attended my home festival for years getting to know the right people.

§  I auditioned for the street performer cast while I was still in the U. S. Navy.

§  My final tour on the submarine I taught myself to juggle

§  Got myself declared crazy, and discharged from the Navy so I could “Run away and join the circus

§  Auditioned with five minutes of material at my home fair that was good enough to secure a real stage slot

§  Wrote a juggling show, took it on the road

§  Worked for tips only in Colorado on-my-way to my first paid away gig at the Bristol Renaissance Festival.

§  At Bristol I was paid for an eight week engagement what a normal act would get for a weekend. I worked in the lane, under a rope walker’s rope.

§  Eventually I hi-jacked another up-and-coming troupe. Melding our powers we created the show we are today.

§  We worked very hard in the winter to support our summer touring habit.

§  24 years later we’re a pretty big fish in this tiny pond.

 

Again, my first “paid” gig was as a street character – essentially unpaid village scenery; but it lead me to the realization that people wanted to watch me – even if I was doing nothing. So I learned to work with that and actually do something. The whole job is harder than it looks and better than you might guess. Occasionally people will complain about how spoiled we Stage Performers are, and I remind them that they can audition too just like we did. Do me a favor though; Don’t. I don’t want or need the competition. It is a tough grueling demanding job with too many rewards to list. Some of us, Me for example, don’t do it because we can. We do it because we MUST.

 

§  Upsides: It is amongst the best paid jobs on the Festival circuit, but if you’re doing it for the money alone you are doomed to fail. In extremely rare cases it can lead to Broadway, Hollywood and beyond… Penn & Teller, The Flying Karamazovs, and Harry Dean Anderson are great examples of famous performers who got their start amongst the wooden stages and hay bale seats. You can get almost as much adoration and adulation as your obviously frail little ego needs. Almost.

§  Downsides: It is fiercely competitive. It is hard work. There is no one responsible for your success or failure but you. If you don’t write, perform and promote yourself extremely well, you will starve, and I’m not even being metaphorical. Until you build a name and a following you will have to scrap and scrabble for every quarter. You’ll be called a beggar. No matter how big and successful you become your mother will always counsel that you should get a “real job”.

§  How to get hired: You’ll follow essentially the same process I have outlined for the other professional entertainers, but much more brutally. Stage times (and even slots in the lanes) are limited and a major act can be a significant percentage of an event’s budget. Most of the jobs are controlled by a small cadre of people, and if you get a bad reputation, or even if they just dislike you or your show – your life can become very difficult. A great name, or a great audition package (or both) is of paramount importance. Finally you have to do the research, make the calls and cut the deals. Done right – it is totally worth it.

 

“Always leave them wanting more” – It’s not only the description of my romantic encounters

 

Let me in closing leave you with two invaluable bits of advice that every performer needs to know – and that I wish someone had told me when I started:

 

First: whatever style of performer you are, whatever your niche, stage or venue is; create your own material. Don’t take short cuts. Don’t use Monty Python bits (I say again). Don’t use lines because “everyone uses them” especially don’t steal from another act you admire. Doubly –especially don’t steal from mine. We litigate with glee and vigor!

 

Secondly: be nice to everyone. Try your best to be humble, and appreciative of your vast good fortune to be where you are. We Tortugas are much nicer now than we used to be – but we are still sometimes paying for our hubris when we were youngsters. You never know when the guy you are unnecessarily rude to now, will be your boss in a few years. The joke goes: “Be nice; the toes you step on – on your way up may belong to the folks whose asses you have to kiss on the way down”. Be gracious, because you can afford to. That’s probably good advice for everyone.

 

That wraps up my column. Again I look forward to your comments below.

For my second outing as guest writer for the amazing Rhonni D’s blog, I thought I’d answer yet another question that I hear frequently in my life as a touring Renaissance Festival professional

 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?

 

Kitchen Employees

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!

 

 

Renaissance Faires differ from other festivals and events in that they promise to transport visitors to a completely different time and place. That’s a mighty big promise. And every participant—volunteer or paid, mead wench or jouster, carpenter or manager, ticket seller or royal piper—is responsible for helping to keep it.

Yet one group in particular, for good or ill, sets the tone for the Faire day: the Street Characters.

I’ve worked the streets (Mom would be so proud…) for 22 years, teaching Improv and directing Street Teams for more than half of them. Most of us rarely swing swords, eat fire or inspire cheers of “God Save the Queen!” Instead, we warm up the Front Gate. We hawk shows. We cheer jousters. We make people laugh. Our Monarch may be our Faire’s face, but we street characters are often the Faire’s voice, hands and feet, creating thousands of unique brand impressions every Faire day. We are ambassadors of joy, conduits of information, makers of memories and pointers to the privies.

And for the most part, we make it all up as we go along. As Street Characters, we work without scripts. So how do we prepare a character that delivers the most possible value to our company and colleagues?

In my experience, we do it best when we focus on one golden rule: Engage the greatest possible number of guests at all times.

That sounds easy, but it requires a lot of preparation and some very specific choices:

BE REAL.
In general, Ren Faire characters are most entertaining when they build from a real, specific place. A village needs a doctor, a Mayor, a blacksmith, a pie-maker, a bootlegger, a beggar, and so on. Picking a real profession for your character enables the audience to understand your character more quickly, which, in turn, allows you to be funnier, faster. And that allows you to engage more audience members. There shouldn’t be a learning curve in a hit-and-run bit. Once you’ve decided what you want to be (Roofer, Puritan, Laundress, Purveyor of Recreational Companionship, etc.), you’ll find it’s easier to focus on why your character is unforgettably compelling. If your faire includes Faeries and you’re invited to play one, the same advice applies: Play as real a Faerie as you can, with specific characteristics, motivations and objectives. (Even Shakespeare’s fairies all had specific jobs.)

Many experienced performers around the country pull off excellent “fantasy” street characters, from gargoyles to fairies to “professional hypochondriacs.” But no one learns to juggle by throwing chainsaws in the air. Beginning performers should get the basics of character improv down first. Create the funniest, most engaging piemaker in the Shire. THEN try your hand as a stand-up alchemist.

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS.
If you juggle, find a reason why your character would juggle. Perhaps you’re playing a blacksmith: juggle horseshoes. If you have a huge laugh, laugh a lot. Pantomime. Spout spontaneous limericks. Yodel. If you do it, and people find it entertaining, create a reason for your character to do it and practice until you’re amazing at it. Suddenly you’re not the village shepherdess. You’re the Yodeling Sheep Wrangler. How cool is that?

MAKE POSITIVE CHOICES.
In everything. Starting with the patrons. One of the first phrases I introduce in workshops is “Honored Guests.” Whether a patron has paid for a ticket or cashed in a coupon, slaved for hours making her own chainmail or slapped on a skort and a pair of Crocs, we, as occupants of our Shire, greet them as Honored Guests. Honoring the guests doesn’t mean fawning over them. It simply means obeying campground rules: leave them feeling better about themselves after they met you than they did before they met you. So once you’ve made contact with the patron, feel free to accuse them of being cold-blooded killers from the Russian Steppes sent by Ivan the Terrible to assassinate the Queen. Just make it fun for them.

And make positive choices for your character. The audience wants to see what you WILL do, not what you WON’T do. “I WILL write a limerick about your relationship with a goat.” “I WILL recruit all of your children to be pirates and save YOU thousands of pounds in higher education costs.” If your character is, for instance, a dairymaid, be the best damned dairymaid in England! Do yourself a favor and avoid playing her as lactose intolerant. Also avoid seasick sailors, teatotalling bartenders, sinful puritans and so on. All of these choices can work, but you’ll risk running out of steam playing the same “I’m this, but that!” paradox for nine hours a day.

KEEP IT SIMPLE.
The audience wants to know, quickly, what you do and why it should be entertaining to them. Facing a busy day of mead drinking, wench ogling and joust cheering, they really don’t have time to digest the undercurrents of familial angst that drive your character’s motivation. They want to pose for your next masterpiece, help you find your leprous bodyparts and learn how effective groveling will improve their love lives.

The most engaging characters keep their backstory to a minimum. Leave the subtext to the Court scenes; Street Characters should be 99% text.

STRETCH YOURSELF.
Remember that, regardless what you’re being paid, you’re a professional. People have paid money to see you do what you do.

Many Ren Faire street performers have gone on to do extraordinary work in film, TV and the stage, domestically and internationally. And some have become legends on the Ren Faire Circuit. They didn’t do it by ripping off YouTube memes or Saturday Night Live bits. They did it by challenging themselves to be as creative and engaging as possible. They wrote their own material, tested it, refined it and forced themselves to get better and better every day.

One of the great benefits of performing at a Ren Faire is the opportunity to test new material on a live audience for up to 10 hours a day. Stand-up comics would kill for that opportunity. If something generates the reaction you want (laughter, surprise, terror…) keep it. If it doesn’t, try something else on the person fifteen feet away. Stay positive. Stay bold. And listen to your audience—they’ll let you know if you’re getting it right.

AUDIENCE FIRST, ALWAYS.
When given a chance to talk to another character or to engage an audience member, always engage the audience first. They’re here to interact; otherwise they’d be at the movies. And any Faire gets a lot more entertainment bang from its acting budget (!) when we “recruit” audiences into the entertainment. Personally, I’d rather see one street beggar teaching five guests how to grovel than five street performers clumping up to do… well, just about anything. A happy, engaged audience is an audience less likely to balk at prices or queues. And more likely to come back and bring friends.

Those are my six tips for creating a Renaissance Faire improv street character. Those of you who have spent some time around improv actors might ask, “What about Yes, and…?” When I teach improv for street characters, the first workshop always focuses on Yes, and… which means, basically, accept the reality presented and add to it. Yes, and… is the first and last commandment of improv. It’s the core competency of improv performers. And dozens of books have already been written on it. I suggest you read them all!

 

One of the first “Industry Truths” I was taught about Renaissance Festivals was this:

There are 3 types of people who travel and work Renaissance Festivals.

  1. People who have a business that works at Renaissance Festivals. (This includes artists who lean toward costume elements, or pewter figurines, or astrolabes; and service providers who have created a business that works within the theme, as well as Entertainers.)
  2. People who live here for the traveling lifestyle, but could work elsewhere if they wanted. They land side-jobs or “week-work” whenever possible. (This includes good managers, henna artists, Renaissance carpenters, facepainters … many of these people are building their own businesses “on the side”, or are apprenticing to a craft or crafts business. Some entertainers are in this group.)
  3. People who can’t keep it together to work more than 2 days per week.

These different groups are all engaged in completely different competitions. Many think they are trying to “level up”. Whether or not they are actually working toward that is debatable. Each track is different. Each competition has different requirements, different goals, and different rewards.

Rotterdam Marathon, photo by Qsimple

I’m a person of the first sort at this point in my career … we own several businesses at multiple permanent Renaissance Festivals. The race I am running is a start-up race. I need to be the next person with a new idea or a new product, and present it to Festival Management in hopes that they agree upon my gamble, and let me in to their event. If they already have saturation in a particular segment of their market, and I really want to do their show, I need to come up with a new product line, or develop a new service that works in their venue. I only have competitors if I am copying ideas. My race is to find and present something the Management hasn’t seen yet, in a way that fits it into their theme. An example would be a pedi-cab business. Thematically it is a challenge, but human-powered rickshaws work, or I could import bamboo bicycles.  I have to come across to Management as a professional, with the funding to back my idea and do a top-notch job. When Henna body art first started trending, I called a festival where I had an existing business; to ask if they had already contracted with someone for the service. I was told that I was the third person that week to call on the subject, but that they were very much looking forward to my presentation. I’m pretty sure I landed that concession simply by being the most professional person who applied.

Training for this race includes attending trade shows and art festivals whenever possible. Food items are quite regional, but some ideas travel well. I also attend business events, and take classes whenever I can. You never know where the next great idea might come from. (I take photos of menus almost everywhere I go.)

I started out in the industry as a person of the second sort, and I’ve always surrounded myself with people of the first and second categories on this list. Truthfully, I just work so many hours during the few calendar months of my work season … I don’t have time to see anyone who isn’t coming to work. If I’ve got time to hang-out, I’m more likely to field a brainstorming session amongst my peers. Many of us only cross schedules for 2 months of the year. This means clever co-conspirators can flesh-out ideas, with the easy non-compete agreement that they will apply to separate shows. Sometimes regions of the country are fleshed out early in a discussion if the idea seems hot enough.

But the race that people in the second category run *does* have competitors. Because these people are paying their bills (and possibly working to build their own businesses) with the funds from an on-circuit employer, they are pitching their skill-set and their reputation against folks who want that same good job.  Their employer has chosen which shows to invest in, so they don’t have complete control of their own yearly schedule, although truly, some don’t care as long as they get to travel. Some folks mix up who they work for at different times of year, in order to choose their schedule themselves.

The smartest people in this race are in school. They are either apprenticing to a craft, or learning the finer points of a business while managing it for someone else and getting paid. It’s how I learned the most important elements of festival food management (and my deep abiding love of MS Excel). I’m currently honing my inventory manager to be able to buy me out in 15 years or so since I don’t have any heirs. I know some artists in the same situation. They have built successful businesses and it’s a shame to close them just because they’ve aged-out of the ability to do the work, so they’ve taken on paid sales help who are also apprentices.

Training for this race involves fine-tuning your skill-set to make yourself too appealing to pass up. The folks I think of first are my head baker (who is amazingly talented), and my friend Heather who has a retail design and management background. She is always employed, while also launching her own multiple businesses.  When The Husband and I were still building shops for the majority of our income, I learned 4 different building codes, and became proficient (enough) with a CAD program to draw for permits in the several different states where we built. There is plenty of work for people who want to work.

Which brings us to the third group of people … I don’t really know very much about this group. I like my work too much to be avoiding it.

The race in which the third group of people are involved (discounting the real possibility of mental illness), is a race against complacence and a victim mentality. Their strongest competitors are themselves and the other crabs in the bucket. We all like to surround ourselves with people who think like we do. It is human nature. But sitting around, talking about why the world doesn’t work for you only brings into being a world that doesn’t work for you.  “There’s no week-work available” is an irresponsible person’s translation for “I lost my chance at week-work to a more reliable worker.” It is relatively inexpensive to live “on circuit”, depending on your comfort level. Consequently, folks who can only keep it together to work a couple of days a week can be “on circuit”. Unfortunately for some, this gives them more time to represent the industry to the local townspeople. This can be embarrassing at best, and detrimental to the festival’s reputation at worst.

The fact that there are professional business people working at Renaissance Festivals appears to be a well-kept secret.

Just because it makes me happy …

One of my favorite photos from the fall show:

We call him Vandal.

 

Vandal works for me during the Texas Renaissance Festival. I snapped this photo one morning while he was ‘bumping’ the mixer, in order to incorporate all of the flour for the Cinnamon Squealers without making a huge mess. I had been trying for weeks to get a photo of these tattoos, but he always seemed to be wearing gloves.

It was obviously cold that morning, because in this photo he’s wearing pajama pants under his customary cargo shorts and chef jacket.

 

Dropping a Wedding Cake

RhonniRocks —  January 21, 2011 — Leave a comment

No matter how slow-motion the event seems … there is never quite enough time to keep it from happening. A turned ankle … and one of us was going down while holding a 12” wedding cake that folks were going to be cutting into in 15 minutes.

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