By Michael Bailey
Renaissance faires have been around for more than 50 years, yet the general public knows little about them beyond their surface trappings.
“Whenever I talk up the show to potential patrons, they get this very distinct expression on their faces,” said Brian Harvard, co-owner and general manager of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire, which is currently preparing for its fall show. “They’re curious but also a bit uncertain. A renaissance faire really is unlike any other form of theater, and people aren’t always sure what to make of it.”
In his 18 years of running the faire, Harvard has become quite familiar with the reasons people cite for not giving the show a chance. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what the show is and what to expect — and even what the show expects out of its audience.”
Perhaps the most common assumption people make about the show, according to Harvard, is whether they need to come in costume. “They think it’s mandatory, like the faire is a costume party and they can’t get in without one,” he said. “We love seeing patrons get into the spirit of things and come in costume, but it absolutely isn’t a requirement.”
Harvard said would-be patrons also tend to assume that the faire is “kid’s stuff” and doesn’t have anything to offer older faire-goers. “When we say the faire is family-friendly, we do mean family-friendly, and that means there’s plenty for the grown-ups to enjoy. I tell people, ‘Think of your favorite Pixar movie, and remember all the jokes that sailed right over your kid’s head and hit you in the face.’ That’s what we strive for at our show.”
Conversely, Harvard knows that some parents are hesitant to take their children because of the reputation renaissance faires have as havens for bawdy humor and off-color jokes. “I’ll be honest, there are a lot of faires that absolutely do embrace that stereotype and go out of their way to be risqué. We aren’t that kind of faire,” he said. “Most of our entertainment is suitable for all ages, and on the occasion we do present more mature material, we mark it prominently on the schedule so parents can make informed choices.”
Another common misconception is that renaissance faires are purely educational — more a living history museum in the vein of Plimoth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg than an outdoor theatrical event.
“We have more in common with theater than some folks think. We’re here first and foremost to entertain people,” Harvard said. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have educational elements. I’d put our German living history encampment, Das Geld Fähnlein, up against any other historical reenactment group in the country.”
Once through the gates, many audience members instantly fall in love with the faire and want to become part of it, but they never make that transition from patron to performer.
“People assume that our cast is composed entirely of trained, professional actors or people with an extensive knowledge of medieval and renaissance history, but that’s not the case at all.” Harvard said. “So many of our cast members over the years began as patrons with nothing more to offer than energy, enthusiasm, and a desire to entertain — and for us, those are the most important qualifications.”
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