I myself was never that sort of rennie. But it’s true that for over a decade, I had an on-and-off job as emcee and entertainment coordinator for a Medieval feast catering company run by a friend of mine. It’s also true that I’ve made many trips in recent years across the border into Wisconsin to visit the Bristol Renaissance Faire. And for one memorable season, I was the Assistant Entertainment Director for the Michigan Renaissance Festival. That’s the gig I want to talk about today.
It was the 1980s. I was in my 20s and working a lot in the entertainment field, whether as a stage actor, commercial/film/voice-over actor, singing telegram messenger… or any of the varied odd jobs that professional actors find themselves agreeing to do (example: I once spent an afternoon wandering the floor at a trade show in Cobo Hall dressed as a 12-foot-tall Pillsbury Doughboy).
One day in the spring of 1986, I received a phone call from my friend Dana (no last names here; some of you know them). He was the Entertainment Director for the Michigan Renaissance Festival and he needed an assistant… and might I be interested? Why yes, I might be. So a pitch session was set up, to take place at Pasquale’s Italian Restaurant on Woodward Avenue. My friend Maggie, also on the festival staff, came along.
The lunch did not progress like any recruiting session I’d ever imagined. Dana and Maggie seemed to be taking turns telling me horror stories about the place; about how awfully management could treat people; about how flaky and unreliable certain people could be; about how much work was involved for not a lot of money. An uninformed eavesdropper might have reasonably concluded that they were trying to talk me out of taking the job.
After a while, I felt compelled to point this out to them, and I asked them why they were conducting the “pitch” in this manner. They told me that they wanted me to come in with open eyes; to be ready for all of the nonsense and craziness.
As we were finishing our desserts (Dana and Maggie picked up the check, by the way), I told them this: “You’ve said a lot of awful, scary things, but there’s one overriding fact in all of this. It’s that the two of you continue to come back and work for the festival year after year. To me, that speaks more loudly than all of your scary stories.”
So I took the job. And were they right about all the awful things, difficult people, and hard work? Oh yes they were. Months later, after the festival had closed for the year, they related a little tradition in which I happily took part. It went like this: On the last day of working in the office, after we’d left the building for the last time, we stood in the parking lot and swore that we would never, ever work for this company again. It was a satisfying moment. But then, the following spring… well no, I didn’t go back there. Don’t get me wrong; I would have, but I had other commitments that precluded any such possibility. If I remember correctly, though, Dana and Maggie went back there. Their eyes were open.
There are many stories I could share from those months, particularly concerning incidents and people on festival days. Many of these stories, though, have no place in a public journal such as this, where my nieces and nephews might see them and reconsider their image of Uncle Chuck. A few anecdotes might even leave me legally liable, since I’m not sure about all of the parameters of the statute of limitations. So I’ll settle for this one, which illustrates the strange dichotomy one lives with while running a Ren faire:
We needed someone to run our archery and hatchet throwing games. After asking around, I got a good recommendation on a fellow named Ted [last name redacted]. I was told that Ted ran archery games at faires all around the country, and he brought his own staff with him. He sounded like just what we were looking for. Ah, but where to find Ted? No one seemed to know.
So from my modern, air conditioned office in downtown Birmingham, Michigan, I began cold-calling faires that were in progress at that time. I finally got a hit when I called the Scarborough Faire in Waxahachie, Texas.
“Yeah, Ted’s running games for us,” drawled the voice on the other end.
“Could I get a message to him?”
“Well, he’s living back in the woods behind the site, but there’s a tree we post messages on and he checks it every couple of days.”
“Okay great. Could I give you my name and phone number and have you post a message for Ted asking him to please call me collect?”
“Sure, no problem.”
So that’s what we did. A day or two later, my phone rang with a collect call and I found myself talking to Ted. We quickly struck a deal and a few months later, he and his people hitchhiked up to Michigan and began working for us. He ran his games very well; he was very professional… but you had to accept the fact that this was how some of the rennies ran their lives. Some of them were as off-the-grid in their lifestyles as anyone I’ve ever known.
I haven’t worked for a Ren faire since my year at the MRF. I haven’t ruled it out, though. For all of the craziness (or maybe because of the craziness), it can be a joyous lifestyle, and some of the folks you meet there are as genuine and delightful as anyone you’d care to know.