Renaissance festival bring ye oldetime merriment

Alek Zayas-Dorchak

Renaissance fairs are attracting more and more attention as an alternative form of entertainment to rock concerts and video games. While not considered as mainstream as events like Austin City Limits, renaissance festival are an increasingly popular type of participatory entertainment. During the six weeks that many festivals such as Scarborough Faire in the summer and the Texas Renaissance Festival in the fall occur, tens of thousands of people don costumes and flock to the these mock medieval villages to enjoy music, games, live plays, open air marketplaces specializing in out-of-the-ordinary goods, and just plain old fashioned fun.   

“Those renaissance things sound alright, but honestly I’d just rather spend my time doing something a little more, I don’t know…modern,” Jacob Chavez, senior, said. “It just doesn’t look like a lot of fun.”

Renaissance festival, also called “Ren fairs” or “Ren fests,” were started in 1963 when North Hollywood schoolteacher Phyllis Paterson and her husband enacted a “Renaissance Pleasure Fair” as an outgrowth of social studies school projects. This very first renaissance festival was held in Agoura, California and lasted for one weekend, drawing approximately 8,000 people. As of 2004, barely more than four decades later, larger acts such as the Maryland Renaissance Festival annually attract more than 13,000 people a day over the period of an entire month, for total participation levels upwards of a quarter of a million participants. Such massive festivals may host as many as 230 performers and be spread out over a plot of 120 acres; 35 acres for the village and 85 acres for parking.

“I first got into working at renaissance fairs as a hobby, really, and that’s pretty much how I see them, as something to be enjoyed by anyone.” Rachel Francois, one of the workers at the Texas Renaissance Festival, said. She previously worked as a teacher in LISD for several years until quitting her job to pursue a career in real estate and currently participates in Renaissance festival for leisure. 

“As far as historical accuracy, it’s really very subjective,” Francois said. “You’re not going to get something that’s really all that true to the Renaissance Period unless you go to one run by the SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism and those are usually on the West Coast. But other than that, it’s like any other festival, it’s something meant for enjoyment by lots of people.”

“Zilch the Tory-Steller,” that is, “story-teller,” has been working renaissance festivals for over thirty years. An expert in spoonerisms (the switching of the first letter of words in a sentence to effectively alter the meaning), he has gained a small cult following based on his comedic interpretations of well-known stories and plays and stories. The live performer’s hilarious rendition of Jomeo and Ruliet had an audience of two hundred people laughing uproariously for half an hour straight, incorporating ingenious word play, music, and audience participation into his comedic routines.

“I’ve always been involved in theater and other forms of entertainment, especially improvisational comedy,” Terry Foy, better known by his stage name of Zilch, said. “I just love to make people laugh. I also have my Bachelor’s of Arts in Theater from St. Cloud State University back in Minnesota, and so once I started hearing about Renaissance festival and all that, I figured it was like the best of both worlds. To be among thousands of people reenacting the spirit of the medieval world, and to entertain, I just love it.”

Ren fests appear to differ between North America and elsewhere. In England and many other countries in continental Europe, for example, renaissance fairs are conducted in more of a “living museum” tradition, where actual historical sites from the Medieval and Renaissance periods are peopled with performers and actors who give the history of the locations, and act as anachronistic examples of the style of dress and mannerisms from those time periods. In the United States, renaissance festivals are regarded as more a medieval-themed amusement park.   

“Of course, these things couldn’t be farther from actual history,” Foy said with a laugh. “But then again, I guess you can see where I put my priorities!”