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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!