Archives For Renaissance Festivals

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!

 

 

While I believe it differs little from a shopping mall lease agreement, the agreement between Vendors and Renaissance Festival Management involves the Vendor building and maintaining a structure on the Festival’s property, then paying a show fee to vend from that building during the event. (Mall leases involve Lessors paying for their own “build-out”; then paying rent for that space.)

This makes for an interesting dynamic, where the vendors who “own” their buildings share the responsibility of park maintenance where their buildings are concerned. Part of their agreement with the Festival is that they will maintain the building according to park wishes. However, Vendors are expected to take initiative in building maintenance for the betterment of the park.

In the vendor mix are shops referred to as Temporaries, or Temp Booths. These vendors are commonly dissed by shop owners as folks who don’t make real investments in the parks. However, some businesses not only fit better conceptually in a tent, they add a theatrical element to the lanes that is necessary for the park theme. It is difficult to tell the difference between a tent-user who is in a tent because it works best for the theme, and a tent-user who doesn’t want to sink money into someone else’s real estate.

Landscaping by the carnival company at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo 2013

Part of the disquiet that building owners have toward tent users, is related to the shared responsibility of park maintenance. How can Festival Management share the park beautification responsibilities with tent users, so that building owners do not feel unfairly targeted when told to repaint or landscape their booths? We can look to State Fairs for guidance. They are making entertainment spaces out of parking lots and roads, managing to import enough large plants to create lavish break spaces that only last a few weeks. I strongly doubt that the carnival company chooses to buy all of those lush plants on their own. They buy the plants because they want to land the contract with the state fair next year.

There is another way to get value for the building owners. (Let’s call them co-investors.) Temporary booths are most often located as a 360*. In other words, they are not on a booth line, but out in the middle of a lane somewhere. These temporary booths can and should be used as bumpers. Think of a pinball game. Now think of permanent shops as the targets where points are earned. Placement of temporary booths should benefit the folks who are sharing the responsibilities of park maintenance. Park layouts with cul-de-sacs necessitate bumpers, but they have value in other situations as well.  

When a group of neighboring shops communicate that their income or traffic is diminished (or their numbers reflect it to management in the case of shows with a percentage-based fee), relocation of the pinball bumpers can be used to try and redirect traffic to that underserved area. (As an aside, for Vendor Coordinators who might have to deal with push-back from 360* vendors who could get moved around a lot … those Vendors could always choose to invest in the show and have a permanent location.)

Carrying the pinball metaphor further, if everyone is doing their job correctly, Guests (the pinballs) are so entertained that they are bounced from park element to park element without realizing that park design and entertainment are steering their path. Perhaps we can consider the entertainment schedule as the flippers.

What are other pinball machine metaphors we can claim? Give us your suggestions in the comments for this post. We’d love to carry this discussion further.

Profitability Through Play

Al Craig —  April 18, 2013 — 5 Comments

 

The cast of Rawhide.

The other night I was channel surfing and paused briefly on ‘Rawhide’, an old black & white weekly western series.  Wishbone was servin’ up the grub.  Rowdy, Scarlet, Mister Favor, the whole gang was sitting around the campfire, eating beans off of metal plates and soaking up the sunset.  I was there with them, out on the ol’ lone prairie enjoying the various shades of gray of the setting sun when I saw a boom mike hanging over Mister Favor’s head.

   Gone was the sunset, gone were the drovers eating their beans, gone was the story line—all I could see was that boom mike.  It didn’t fit; it stuck out like sneakers on Shakespeare.  It was such a small thing, but it had a such a huge effect—it turned Rowdy Yates into Clint Eastwood, Gil Favor into Eric Flemming, and the ol’ lone prairie into a back lot at CBS…it destroyed the illusion, and instantly brought me back from the wide open spaces to the closed confines of my living room.

 For those of you who are new to the business, a themed festival is theater.   It is not a theater in the traditional sense, but it is a theater, just the same.  It is a 3-D, or ‘Interactive Theater’.  In traditional theater the audience sits in a fixed position passively observing the action which also occurs in a fixed position (The stage or screen).  The two are separated by what is known as “the fourth wall” an invisible, mutually agreed upon plane that will not be penetrated by either side.

  Early experimental theater groups tried removing the fourth wall by having actors enter from the audience, or by delivering lines from the audience, who still sat in a fixed position and passively observed. 

Interactive theater, which is at the cutting edge of experimental theater, invites the audience onto the stage, invites them to participate, and entices them to play like children; to touch, talk, move and explore the stage with their own creativity and rediscover the child within themselves. Think of your own childhood.  If you ever had tea time with teddy bears, or made the winning basket for the NBA championship in your own back yard, you were involved in creative play. 

 If you’ve ever seen a patron with a beer in one hand, a turkey leg in the other, wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, a  Blake Shelton T- shirt, and a just purchased Jester’s hat hollering “HUZZAH!” instead of “HOT DAMN!” then, you have seen the effects of playfulness as well.  At a themed festival the entire site is the stage, and all of those who work within its boundaries are the cast.

 

 “Yeah, Yeah, so what does this have to do with me?, I’m trying to make a living here”  OK, fair enough question….I’ll answer it with another question—If you give a child $10 and turn him loose in a toy store for the day, how much money will he return with?  How about $20?  How about $50 or $100?  A child will always return with empty pockets—and so will an adult if they are wholly involved in creative play.  The economic restraints and controls that we as adults place upon ourselves lose much of their strength when we are focused upon play.  If you are not familiar with this concept, I would be happy to explain it over a few hands of poker at a casino of your choosing.

 Now, back to the back lot at CBS…. as bad as that boom mike was, imagine instead that the drovers are sitting around the campfire, watching the sunset over the herd, eating beans with white plastic sporks off of Styrofoam plates, and drinking out of paper cups that say  “Pepsi”.

 When a Patron stands in front of a Renaissance Booth, manned by a person in costume in their minds they are looking at the stage.  If you have styro cups and plates, if you are eating with a spork, you have destroyed the illusion that you and every other business owner has spent thousands of dollars to create and the public has paid the price of an admission to experience. If the person in costume is eating out of a Styrofoam container it has the same effect as putting truck tires on Charlton Heston’s chariot in the big race scene in ‘Ben-Hur’.  “Yeah, sure Al, but why, after spending all that money, why would they put truck tires on a chariot?”

My point exactly….

 Maintaining the illusion is vital.  Not only is it the ‘Prime Directive”, if you will, of theater, It is also the essential ingredient that nurtures the necessary trust needed for adults to allow themselves to enter into creative play. And the mindset of creative play, as we earlier observed, makes a person more than willing to spend money they wouldn’t normally be more than willing to spend in pursuit of the pleasure of playful creation…..

  The illusion is not created for the cast; it is created for the audience.  It is also created, in part, by the audience through their ability to skillfully suspend their disbelief.

 Suspension of disbelief (another arcane theatrical term) occurs when one lays aside their analytical mind so they might be entertained.  For example, if I was watching Rawhide, and did not suspend my disbelief my internal dialogue would sound something like this “Everything is black white and gray, grass is green in the real world, I see the fire, but I don’t smell the smoke, how can it be dark already, it was noon five minutes ago, where is that music coming from, is there an orchestra in the chuck wagon?” etc. 

 We are all adept at suspending our disbelief.  We can turn it off at the first sign of a commercial, make a sandwich, go to the bathroom, be back in the lazy-boy and turn it back on before the last commercial ends. To you, the flush toilets and Faire food containers are an anachronism; to the patron it’s a trip to the bathroom and kitchen during a commercial.

 Let’s assume for a second that it’s OK to eat out of Styrofoam, it’s such a small thing, it really shouldn’t make that much difference (except to those craftspeople who sell eating & drinking utensils).  How about jewelry, that’s small stuff, why not let everybody start wearing Wal-mart jewelry? That’s no big deal (except to those people who sell jewelry).  And what about costumes, you can find stuff in stores that could pass for costumes.  Same with foot wear, not a big deal (except to costumers and cobblers).

  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all the craftspeople and all the entertainers are outfitted with items that cannot be purchased at the show.   Will sales go up or down?  Will a patron purchase a velvet period hat if the participants are wearing baseball hats? Will a patron buy a pair of hand-crafted footwear if the participants are wearing tennis shoes? 

 When a patron feels safe enough to play, they will first try to look the part. By in large, they pattern themselves after the participants…it’s the only reference point they have.  Even though it might be quick, clean, and easy to eat out of Styrofoam, every time you do so you are inadvertently telling patrons that it’s OK to do so and still be part of ‘the act’.    Is it any wonder that a potter can’t sell a dinner set when his friends around him are eating out of air-injected petro-chemical bowls and shoveling food into their mouths with a schizophrenic utensil made from the rotting flesh of dinosaurs?!?  

 You want sales to go up?  Maintain the illusion.  Put your product on as many participants and in as many shops as you possibly can.  Trade, discount, or  barter. 

 Every participant that has your product is a walking advertisement to every paying playing patron that doesn’t and, if they see it on another playful soul, they will seek you out and, with a smile on their face, give you their money so that they might play….and you might prosper.

 

 So…..is it worth the time, effort, and expense to outfit yourself with appropriate utensils and costumes.  Is it worth the extra washing of dishes and transferring of food from styro/cardboard containers?  How about discounts to participants to get your item out there?  Does any of this make sense??  If so, great!  Feel free to share a story in the comments.  If not, even better!!  Let me know in a comment below what a lackey of the Corporate Overlords needs to hear to make your life simpler.  

 

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!

 

Okay, no business advice this week, other than “Utilize your resources when they are available.”
As nomads in the festival business, each show can have a specific circle of talented neighbors. Here is a great example of just that in action. Our friend Julia, with some help from friends, put together this Fabulous parody video of the Mackelmore song “Thrift Shop”. (PG-13)

It’s the kind of thing that happens when you get a bunch of creative people together.

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!

AKA, The Harsh Conversation I had with a Young Carpenter.

A building I designed for a corset maker.

The dynamics of the Vendor/Builder/Festival Management matrix are complex, and there are many places where the deal can go wrong for one or more of the parties. All three legs must be considered for this table to stand. On the one hand, talented carpenters get to design and build whimsical structures. I’ve met architects who have many more years of study, be insanely jealous that my imaginative designs have actually been built, rather than collecting dust in a pile of drawings. Vendors, be they artists or service providers, need to have Builders who understand the Renaissance Faire aesthetic, comprehend traffic flow patterns necessary for sales, and can build to meet local codes. Festival Management needs for the dealings between the Vendor and the Builder to proceed smoothly, and on a time frame that ensures that the shop will be completed to code, and open, with an approved Vendor in place, when the festival is open to the public.

I think it will just be easier if I list some of the things that can go wrong here.

1) Builder runs out of money. This is often because of a misquote or mistake on the bid, but sometimes a permitting process throws extra expenses into a project. It is the Builder’s responsibility to draft a contract that allows for alterations in the price when governmental agencies are involved. Requiring complete drawings lowers this risk tremendously. With a complete set of drawings, a Builder can count every board necessary in the construction of the building prior to bidding the job. Also, by reviewing the drawings, a knowledgeable person, whether a Vendor or a Building Coordinator, or a Building Inspector, can tell quickly whether or not the Builder knows what he is doing.

2) Vendor runs out of money. This may be due to the above-mentioned governmental agencies involvement, but unfortunately it is often due to poor planning, or an attempt to use any loopholes in the contract with the Builder to pay for the building with revenues generated in the building to be built. (Say that 5 times fast; I dare you.) Builders are quite often banking the business growth of vendors due to their own mistakes in contract design. These loopholes have been exploited by Vendors for decades, and unfortunately, due to the presentation needs of the Festival Management … it is sometimes considered business as usual. Some Builders are writing contracts specifically allowing this practice, because it is considered the industry standard.

3) Water gets into the booth after completion. This can happen either because the Builder does not have a familiarity with the specific roofing materials required at a Renaissance Festival, or more often; it is a grade elevation issue. Grade elevations are usually agreed upon between the builder and the Site Manager. Maximum Exterior dimensions are sometimes set by the Site Manager as well, to control roof run-off from one shop to another. (Builders have to remember to include this work in the bid, often with an explanation, because it is almost always an invisible cost to the Vendor/Buyer.) Some of the biggest arguments I was involved in as Building Coordinator involved water, and the fact that a Builder was in the process of wasting a great deal of a Vendor’s money building something that was not in any way able to stay dry. In one case I lost a friend; in another, I made a friend for life when he realized I was saving him at least $50,000.

4) These building designs are each 100% unique. Getting a solid estimate is impossible without an investment of time and energy into the design process. Builders with solid reputations can usually negotiate a change in costs as it is discovered during construction, but it is very difficult for new Builders to adequately cover the risks of designing original buildings in these venues. Again, extensive drawing requirements can alleviate some of this risk, or at least give a clear discussion point with the often absentee Vendor/Buyer.

5) The Builder is such an artist that he designs more than the Vendor can actually afford, and leapfrogs his cashflow from project to project to fund his own artistic expression requirements. It’s hard to see who loses here, other than the Builder/Artist himself, whose standard of living is probably taking a hit. But the festival building market gets skewed to where Builders who do charge a reasonable wage for their time are priced out of the market; and that poor artistic soul cannot afford the help he needs to finish that last job onsite. Unfortunately neither can he afford the therapy he’ll need when his customers are still not appreciative of his work.

6) The Builder and the Vendor disagree on the balance owed. This is usually when the Builder/Vendor contract is unclear on change-orders. Making alterations in a building once it has started involves time and materials, which customers rarely understand. In most cases, the structure is the first time a Vendor has hired a contractor to build them a structure from scratch, and understandably, they may not have been able to picture the structure in its reality. Moving a door or a window is never cheaper than the original bid, often to the dismay of a customer.

7) The Builder runs out of time. Now, this is a somewhat grey area. Again, the contract should state a delivery date, and 1 hour before the festival opens does not give the Vendor (who in his mind may have just spent more on his business than ever before in his career) adequate time to move his product and displays into the new structure. Some festivals avoid this by having cut-off dates for construction that are months in advance of the event opening, but other climates do not have as many months of suitable weather, and thus festivals in these locations cannot use this safeguard.

8) Festival Management does not approve of the design. Okay, hopefully this issue is dealt with before construction begins, as most festivals have to approve a building design before it can be started. However, it has happened that a builder built something other than the drawing that was turned in for approval. In the situation I speak of, the Builder was a full-time employee of the Vendor for whom he was building, and they thought Festival Management wouldn’t notice if they eliminated the two tower portions of their structure. Fortunately this issue usually manifests as a simple request to repaint a structure, because the color that was described in the drawing was not the color that ended up on the wall or the trim. (I recommend paint color chips with all building applications provided to Festival Management. It saves a lot of grief in the long run.)

9) Builder doesn’t get paid, and there is no opportunity for an actual “Contractor’s Lien”. Okay, this is one of the biggest problems to be faced in this industry. All three players must get their needs met. I don’t know of anyone who has been able to get a business loan for a Renaissance Festival structure. Banks are not too keen on loaning money for a building when no Real Estate is attached. That being said, it is not an excuse to enter a contract with a Builder for a product that the small business cannot afford. By the same token, the Builder’s inability to meet the delivery date cannot be held against him if timed payments were not met. He very well may have needed that payment to buy the next round of materials for the structure. But testosterone-laden threats of “Husqvarna Collection Agency” action on the part of the stiffed Builder will not and cannot ever be supported by Festival Management. Festival Management’s first responsibility is to the event itself. Management has to ensure the paying guest has a complete experience of a finished and perfect park. While some festivals have been known to place a label of “Plague House” on a closed up structure due to incompletion or contested ownership; it is a last-ditch resort. Festival Management also has to balance the needs of the talented Builders, and the Artists who have hired them. If that does not sound like an easy task; it is because it is NOT an easy task.

The best contract I know of in the industry is that of a Designer/Builder who is also a furniture maker that has been accepted into several highly juried art shows. His contract (which Festival Management has to sign as well), states that if the customer does not finish paying for the structure, the Festival gets a new furniture maker as a Vendor, and all payments up until that point are forfeit by the Vendor with whom he originally contracted. If all of the Builders on the Renaissance Faire circuit had crafts that would pass a jury, this would be the solution. With this, everyone in the Builder/Vendor/Management Matrix gets their needs met. Unfortunately, most of the Builders express their art solely in the fanciful structures they design for Vendors.

 

There are surely some other problems, but these are the most common. I’m interested in what the best solutions might be. I know of one Festival General Manager who set up an escrow account through the festival office. Thus the Vendor had to have proven his ability to pay for the entirety before the building commenced, yet the final payment check was not cut to the Builder until all three parties sat together and agreed they were happy. Not every festival will want to be this involved. Some have referred to it as micro-managing, but I can assure you that during the tenure of that General Manager, more than half of these issues were eliminated from the list. He required a Delivery Date early enough that the sit-down meeting would not impact his own time requirements in opening the show, so it was at least two weeks before the opening date.

Some Festivals have a list of approved builders, and while I applaud the attempt to create some regulation in the industry, the reality is often that the Vendor audience for that list makes assumptions about the Builder’s abilities based upon their appearance on the list, when in fact the Builder may have no more skills than those necessary in buying Liability Insurance.

There are things to be said about absentee Vendor customers, and oversight of construction projects, but I will leave that for another article. Requests for a handbook on Festival Building Practices are being seriously considered, as all of my articles on this subject seem to lead to other questions and answers. Instead of answering in extensive phone calls, I’m going to start answering the questions here in this website.

Please, if you know of some “Best Practices” on this issue, mention them or the Festivals that utilize them, in the comments below. (Horror stories are welcome as well, but please do not mention names in those, thanks.)

How to Grow a Festival, Part Two

Rhonni —  February 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

In part one of this conversation, I mentioned that because a festival is an experience, it is the responsibility of the participants at a festival to help create real growth. But what about those shows where the participants are doing everything they can, but the Festival Management drops the ball?

It happens. Someone doesn’t order enough port-o-lets or ATM machines. The parking crew is oblivious to a guest leaving their headlights on and no one is available at the end of their visit to jump the car to get the guest home. Someone forgets to trim the weeds under the benches in front of a stage, or the trash cans overflow. These are basic customer service mistakes, and if they are not addressed, the show cannot grow.

Whovians are everywhere.

 

Maybe the number of port-o-lets and ATMs was “just enough” to still allow guests a pleasant visit. Then the Artists and the Entertainers provided such an amazing experience that the guest experiencing it decides she is definitely coming back. But is she going to bring more people with them if she thinks larger numbers of visitors will impact her own experience? No. She is going to keep it a secret.

It will be her secret club. She may attend every weekend possible, and she may enjoy herself immensely, but she will not work to help grow the venue. Show management has to demonstrate they are able to not only deal with their current numbers of guests with exemplary customer service; but convince everyone that they can show the same professionalism to more visitors when they arrive. The event has to look like it is ready for more.

The statement “These customers don’t mind lines” might work when management is justifying their small number of ATM machines, but a guest willing to stand in a line 20 people deep, may very well *not* be willing to stand in a line 40 people deep. Remember that “Word of Mouth” campaign we said was essential for festival growth? It. Is. Not. Happening.

So now the PR team has more of a challenge in getting their job done. They have to bring out new people (who don’t mind standing in line for an ATM) to make up for attrition; yet they have to accomplish this without the aid of a Word of Mouth campaign. You see, some of the people that came last year did *not* have a great time. The port-o-lets were too dirty, or their car battery was dead, or this festival simply wasn’t a good fit for their personality. The PR guy is working his tail off to keep the boat afloat, while someone in parking or grounds crew is drilling holes in the hull.

As I said, sometimes the Artists and Entertainers are doing a fabulous job, and it is Festival Management standing in the way of festival growth. Unfortunately apathy can be contagious, and the very people who are holding a festival afloat can succumb to the illness. Sometimes, in an act of self-preservation, the most energetic participants will leave that festival for another in the same time slot, leaving the apathetic to sink or swim.

Best case scenario for a show like this is steady attendance. This is only achievable with a hardworking Public Relations team and a collection of enthusiastic participants, who are either happy with their festival at its current size, or praying that someone in Management wakes up soon.

How to Grow a Festival (part one)

Rhonni —  February 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

What is it that makes festivals work? We like to throw the responsibility onto the Promotions and Marketing Departments, but a festival is an experience. Real growth in a festival is the responsibility of everyone involved.

86th Annual Feast of San Gennaro

A couple of business truisms should be considered here:

1. It is easier to sell to existing customers. However … if they don’t have a stellar experience at the festival, they are not coming back.

2. Word of Mouth is your most powerful line of advertisement. Again … the quality of the experience is what folks will be talking about, so a failure in creating an enchanting festival experience for an individual is a failure at enlisting that person’s network into her Word of Mouth campaign. Worse, if she has a negative experience, her entire network might hear about it.

So everyone at the festival is accountable. This is not just an issue of how well the garbage crew maintains the cleanliness of the park. If an artist is unhappy with his fee structure or the balance of the craft mix, he may not be as jovial to a customer who is “just looking right now” as he passes through that shop. If an entertainer thinks his responsibilities to the audience end with his hat pass, audience members may be soured to the rest of their day.

Maid Marion takes a moment to dish with a guest.

Yes, Promotions and Marketing hold the weight of the responsibility in getting new customers to the venue, but everyone else has to make them want to come back. Every festival has its own personality, and some of those new visitors might not be “feeling it” at your event. Maybe they’ll try a Bluegrass Festival next time rather than your Roots Music Event; but they won’t know until they come and experience the venue themselves whether or not it is a good time. There is an opportunity here to close that sale, and give the customer a grand enough experience that he comes back ready be entertained, to buy art and services, and perhaps buy more than one meal in their festival day. If the festival is a rich enough experience, then the new visitor might overlook the parts of the event that don’t work for him, in order to get to the parts that are more his style.

By the same token, participants might find that what they offer for sale works better with some audiences than with others. Shopping for the right event for your product is part of the program for being successful at outdoor events. The ability to make alterations in product lines to match the style and personality of a local clientele is a hallmark of the most successful merchants in the festival and event business.

At every step, every participant is either building or shrinking the future of the festival. As a participant, when you choose to shrink a festival; you are wasting everyone’s time, most especially your own.