Archives For Nomads

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!

 

Hi there

I’m Ronn Bauman. For the past 24 years I’ve been the louder, longer-haired, more sexually ambiguous third of the original Tortuga Twins comedy trio. I know that’s a bit confusing but when I tell you that there’s actually SIX Tortuga Twins now – all sensibility just flutters out the window. Our hostess, the talented and decorative Rhonni – acting in the role as editor and curator of this site – has invited me to step in as a guest author from time to time to share my rather unique perspective and dreadful writing style.  Besides being a member of arguably one of the most successful Renaissance Festival Acts, I’m also a businessman. I own a series of booths and attractions at faires throughout the country. But enough about me – Today, on a very special episode of Blossom I will discuss the Ten Most Common (and ridiculous) questions asked of Renaissance Festival Entertainers.

You’re kidding! … Right?!?                        (ps … this is not a photo of Ronn, you can see him in the Author Bio Box below)

Q: Is this your real job?

A: Regrettably, yes. Gloriously yes and hell yes! Though there are the occasional, part time stage performers –  I was originally going to write “Odd” but we’re all odd if we’re doing this – in most instances if you’re commanding a major stage at one of the big festivals across the country you are a full time professional. This is not only the way we stage performers support ourselves and in many instances our families it is also something we created, we honed, we fought for and promoted. It is a lot harder and a lot more rewarding than you’d ever guess. This is our real job and we LOVE it.

Q: Would like me to take you to our house for a home-cooked meal?

A: You know it’s never a good idea to generalize, so of course I’m going to. There are more-or-less two classes of Festival  Stage Performer– the newer kids are mostly in it for chasing tail and drinking heavily; they’ll be too busy partying to take you up on your kind invitation. Then there are the older and more established acts like my troupe. I go home every night to a comfortable abode and lovely meal prepared by my very-own wife in my very-own home.  Both groups of performers appreciate your offer and realize that we look like homeless waifs; we’re not. Let us all just say “Thanks, we got this”.

Q: What do you do the rest of the week?

A: You know those two groups of entertainers I talked about? Our off-time recreation agenda often breaks down along those same class lines. When we were young, dumb, and full of … youth, we thought our work week was only two days a week and we spent our copious off- times reading, sullying the reputation of young locals, drinking, dancing and watching a LOT of movies. As we matured – or as some would have you believe – slowed down; we started to treat this as more of a career and less of a party. Once you reach that level  you’ll find that you spend a lot of time in writing new material, promoting the act – especially in the age of social media, developing and marketing merchandise and, less frequently drinking, dancing, and sullying the reputation of more mature locals. I am also the owner and manager of several successful renaissance festival businesses on the side – so another portion of my “off-time” is taken up bookkeeping, doing inventory, filing taxes and generally keeping the retail sales and amusements machine running smoothly. Regrettably, with all of this going on many of us we have less time to watch movies or read than we used to.

Q: We hear there’s a really wild after-party. Where is it? Can we come?

A: Oh there are parties. Yes there are. I always like to describe the Funky Formal -thrown annually at each festival – as a cross between a Prom, and the sort of party your parents were always terrified that you’d attend. On any given night – but especially on Fridays and Saturdays – there will be wild things going on in the tents and dark places throughout the festival site. But most of these Caligulan (I just created that adjective!) Bacchanals are put on by the local, amateur performers and not the professional, touring entertainers. Many of us have families and homes and we realize that the key to a successful show is NOT to be drinking till dawn. But Yes, it does happen and No, you probably aren’t invited.

Q: What are you on?

A: Even some of the biggest partiers I know – I’m looking at YOU Ded Bob – know that you cannot pull-off a professional and worthwhile performance while you’re messed up. Or at least – you won’t be able to for long. Some acts – I’m looking at YOU Barely Balanced – might actually DIE if they tried to do their show without being 100% focused mentally and physically. Some acts – I’m looking at you,  comic hack  writing this column – have found that you can get away with, or even build a career around being drunk onstage… but even that is not always what it seems. So short answer here: We’re high on life… and sometimes vodka.

Q: Did you go to school for this?

A: Most folks don’t know that there is an academy in South Dakota where all stage performers study to learn their amazing skills and develop their rapier wit. This secret facility, hidden beneath Roosevelt’s head on Mount Rushmore… No? Not buying it? Some stage performers have had a smattering of matriculation to develop their skills, some are born into and raised to do it, but the majority is self-taught nerds who developed these skills to meet hot people to date… Ironically, this never works.

Q: What do your parents think of your job performing on stage?

A: I’d rather not speak for all entertainers on this one. My mother is proud of me but still, deep down in her heart-of-hearts wants me to cut my hair, go back to my (former) real job in the U.S. Navy, and stop all of this whacky traveling tomfoolery. I suspect most entertainers receive a spectrum from deep pride to deeper shame from their parents.

Q: Is that Fire Real?

A: This is a question often asked of the jugglers and fire eaters who use fire in their performances. No, really. I like to lump these jaw-dropping, amazingly uniformed (or thoughtless) questions into a category I like to call the “Are you F-ing kidding me” file. They happen often and are flabbergasting. One of my personal favorites is being asked by a patron at a faire with huge, stucco-and-timber buildings “Do you guys tear all of this down and rebuild it every year?” *sigh*

Q: Do you all travel together?

A: This question though remarkably common, doesn’t annoy me like some of the others do. My response usually goes like this: “We’re not a circus. We don’t pack up and travel on a big train from town-to-town. We’re independent contractors hired by the festivals we wish to work at. There are folks who we will see at more than one festival, and there are others we will only see once a year. We all tend to have a specific circuit that we repeat each year and we all look forward to our return but I’ll be driving a huge Ford pickup, not riding the rails when I come back”.

And finally

Q: Where is the… ?

A: I get it, we’re approachable. That’s part of the job description. I also get that we’re “wearing the suit”. Why wouldn’t you ask your general information questions of us? It’s like the many times I have asked strangers at Best Buy where the widescreen TVs or the printer ink was – just because they happened to be wearing a blue shirt. But whether it’s: “Where’s the Beer?” Or “Where’s the Joust?”, “Where’s the Bathroom?” or even “Where’s the front gate” The answer is usually clearly marked, pretty obvious, and if not immediately apparent – it can be easily determined by even the most cursory examination of the PROGRAM and MAP we forced into your oblivious fist when you first walked through our gates.  I freely admit that this is (mostly) my hang up… but I’m not going to apologize for pointing to the map or the program and telling you condescendingly “Literacy is hard!”

 

I’d like to include one final stunner that I have never personally been asked but I’ve known several female performers who have had to riposte this brain-numbingly sexist stunner.

Q: What does your husband do so that he can support you playing like this?

A: Oh Dear GOD. I know that this event is supposed to be a reenactment of the Sixteenth Century but please; spare me your medieval thinking.  This chauvinist expectation – voiced as often by women as men – has made it even harder for female performers to earn their way as professional entertainers.  Each and every hard-working female entertainer I have ever met does this for a living just as the boys do. To assume otherwise is degrading. Please stop; you’re embarrassing yourself and us.

That should hold you all off until next time. If you see me in the streets of your local Renaissance Festival please, feel free to stop me, say hello, and even ask me any question you wish – though I’m telling you: if it’s one of the eleven above you do run the slightest risk of me actually snapping and inflicting a modicum of bodily harm. Best of luck!

We very much intend to stay as jargon-free as possible on this site. If you’ve back-linked to this page, it means we couldn’t avoid the use of a word that has come to have a particular meaning in our industry. We fully expect this page to evolve. Hopefully it will never be very long.

 

360s Shops that are not in a booth line. They are visible to the audience from all sides, and consequently do not have a “backstage”
Backstage  Any space where park or festival guests are not allowed. Simply getting out of the line of view of guests does not count. All character actors must remain in character, unless backstage.
Boondocking A Recreational Vehicle or RV term for camping somewhere without utilities, also known as “Primitive Camping”
Busking Performing for voluntary donations, usually in the street.
Garb  Specific to the Renaissance Festival industry, work clothes, considered costume to festival guests, but required of all workers within sight of faire patrons. Rules about costume help shape the guest’s experience of another time.
Grab shack  A food shop or restaurant with no public seating, a snack bar; applies to most if not all food at festivals.
Hat pass A time during or after a performance when gratuities are collected by the performer (or a designee)
Hawker A person who vocally advertises performances, goods, or services to be seen or purchased. May or may not handle money.
On the Road  Refers to living and working a series of shows or festivals. The term is used throughout the outdoor festival industry. (see On-Circuit)
On-circuit  Refers to living and working a series of shows or festivals. The term is used throughout the outdoor festival industry. (see On the Road)
Primitive Camping Camping somewhere without utilities, sometimes referred to as “Boondocking”
School Night Any evening before a day when the event will be open.
Stick Joint  a tent with poles used as a shop. The term comes from circuses and carnivals, but is used to discern between trailers and tents in the food vendor realm of all festivals, and is sometimes used to refer to folks that haven’t made an investment, yet vend in permanent parks.  (See Temporaries)
Temps or Temporaries In a permanent venue, these terms refer to shops that can be carried away by their owners at the end of the event.
Week-work Used primarily at events that are open on weekends only, this refers to the jobs that happen in-between weekends. Kitchen prep, art production, and construction are 3 good examples.

 

 

 

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.