Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ask Dashing Downward

In my first installment of "Ask Dashing Downward" a reader asked me:

"How do you balance some amount of historical accuracy with audience interest as regards the proportion of entertainers at an event representing different class levels?"

In attempting to remain true to the flavor of life in another time, while keeping the audience's interests in mind, We are always performing a balancing act. It is also a reality that, especially at the all-volunteer west coast events, we are limited to the number of actors who are willing to come and spend their time and money to populate the lanes of our events. In order for it to be worth it to them, they need to enjoy themselves, so it is best that they be allowed to portray characters that please them, and with which they personally resonate.

This usually results in a population that doesn't necessarily represent the spectrum or proportion of people who might have attended the theoretical event. Due to the highly individualistic nature of "creative" people, in order to stand out, or be "special", or "different", or "glamorous", they adopt anomalous characters, which is a pity, because it offers the audience a skewed idea of life in the target place and time; when everybody wants to play the exception, the mean gets lost.

I see nothing incompatible between an audience's pleasure and a realistic representation of a population. If we have done our homework, are thoroughly grounded in the time and place, and are enthusiastic and engaging, a tenant farmer, a goodwife, or a merchant can be remarkably entertaining, without stepping outside the bounds of the target place and time.

At the event I direct, I have established a more or less "English Only" policy, and restricted the cast to characters who would most likely be found at a Michaelmas festival in Warwickshire, England in the late 1570s. Naturally this excludes many performers who usually play Germans, Italians, Spanish, Scots, Irish, Bushmen of the Kalahari, Ninjas, and Roman legionnaires. While I have made exceptions, I believe the policy contributes to the thematic integrity of the show, which is certainly in the audience's best interests.

When I first began working for that event, I was so insistent on my vision that I wanted to exclude the idea of Queen Elizabeth and her court being present. After all, the probability of them visiting such a common, lowbrow happening would have been absolutely nil, and the historic record contains no references to such a thing happening. But our producers felt it was vital to have that element, as that is what the public has come to expect from a "Renaissance Faire." More balancing act.

There was one group, which normally portrays Scottish border rievers who wanted to appear at my event, but their group's concept didn't fit into the theme I had established. I wanted to accommodate them and find a win/win scenario for all of us. I guessed that part of their motivation was in wearing "The Black Hat", so I asked that they consider portraying a gang of organized thieves, something that was certainly present at an Elizabethan festival, and they set to the task. They met my expectations beautifully, and they enjoyed it enough to make it worth their while. I had simply offered them a different black hat to wear.

Education and communication are the key to getting the performers on board with the program, and some work on the part of the event's Entertainment Director. Unfortunately, very few events have somebody acting in that capacity. Yes, there are "guild coordinators" and people who hire stage acts, but they're more logistically than creatively oriented. But for an event which is essentially a theatrical environment, I think that such an officer is absolutely necessary in order enforce the theme, and create and enforce theatrical and historical standards.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Acting vs. Reenacting

In historically-based, interactive theatrical events, I have observed a division between two camps of performers; the "actors" versus the "reenactors".

The divide is not so very broad; both believe in presenting a slice of life for the benefit of the attending audience, yet the means of arriving at that destination, and the product to be offered to the audience are very different.

Myself, being primarily an actor, value a lively, dynamic, and interactive performance, that engages, entertains, and informs the audience. I use my theatrical skills to bring the guest into the proposed time period and location. The drama of life is played out before, and with them, demonstrating both the differences, and the similarities between our world and theirs. Dramatic interest and tension is created by establishing encounters that contain a sense of importance or urgency. An environment, such as an annual celebration, is created which allows for extraordinary circumstances to occur. Admittedly, in many cases, "actors" may sacrifice historical fidelity in the name of entertainment, connecting with the audience, or a good laugh.

There is a belief among "reenactors" that this is not a true, or pure representation of history…and admittedly it is not. It is a heightened, idealized version of it intended to lure the audience into learning a bit about the target period.

My own observations of "reenactment" groups frequently leave me puzzled. They generally consist of historical military or crafts groups who pride themselves on absolute aesthetic authenticity, but are not generally theatrically motivated. They rely on visual display to illustrate a piece of history. They are happy to answer questions regarding their equipment or activities, but give little thought to expressing a character, or reaching out to the audience to make them feel like part of the environment. I have heard from one audience member that seeing one reenactors' environment was like observing The Akashic Records.

In many ways, both sides of the divide have a great deal to learn from one another.

The "actors" should remember that they are in a historically-based environment and that they need not depart from the historical reality to attract and hold an audience (Will Shakespeare's been doing it for centuries). "Reenactors" should remember that the audience has come for an experience that they can't get sitting at home watching television or reading a book.

Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. We require both in equal measure.


Then there's another part of the division.

When I complete a performance, whether in a county regional park or in a theatre, I am happy to remove my costume, go home, take a hot shower and flop into a warm bed. I leave my historical persona at the venue, and the past where it the past.

A reenactor seems to have a desire to not merely represent a period, but live it. I will happily leave it to the reenactor to eschew the comforts and conveniences of the modern era to indulge in his fantasy.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ask Dashing Downward

Now that I find myself completely uninspired, and not sure where to take this thing, I'm going to rely on you, gentle reader, to help jumpstart things a bit.

Go ahead....ask me anything.

Theatrical advice?

Historical question?

Suggestions on how to train?

I'll even field questions about your complex personal issues. Not that I'm qualified to help you, but maybe I have an idea or two.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Renaissance Faire Guild

The Old World guilds were the trade unions of their time. Each guild presided over the training, membership and regulation of its trade. To make a living in any trade, it was necessary to be apprenticed to a master in that trade for a number of years, become a journeyman and eventually a master. Each guild was small community of peers who (fiercely) looked out for the interests of the trade and for the well-being of the members. 

The concept of the Renaissance Faire guild was formed at the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire in the late 1970s as a means of organizing and training 1000-plus costumed participants in categories based on their character classes and professions, led by directors who became known as "Guildmasters". The system was based loosely on the old world system and the guilds were usually named after a patron saint (real or comical) related to its theme or profession. The guilds were not meant to be an onstage conceit, but simply a way to conveniently organize performers.

In many cases, these guilds were alloted areas within the faire to arrange a themed environment as a matrix for their performances and a home base for their performers. They're often referred to as "environmental areas", "guild sites", "encampments" or "guild yards".

As time went on, some of these groups became independent entities which performed at the many other small faires which appeared in emulation of the original. Producers found that it was convenient to hire these independent guilds as a way to populate the streets of their events without going to the trouble of organizing and training a cast of their own. The producers could rely on these guilds to be well-educated and well-trained in their tasks, and they usually came with their own equipment and settings to furnish their own guild yards, which contributed to the overall look and feel of the faire.

The duty of the guilds is to guarantee that

• Members are well educated about the history and sociology of the time.
• Members portray characters appropriate to the time and place.
• Members' costumes adhere to the official guidelines.
• Members are trained in theatrical techniques applicable to an improvisational interactive environment.

Each guild should consider carefully the following questions:

What does the group represent? What aspect of life or segment of the population in Elizabethan England does it portray? How is that demonstrated to the audience?

If the group has an environmental area, what does it represent? Is it a place of business? Is it a camp site? If it's a camp site, why are the members of the group camped at a faire on the town common instead of sleeping at home or at a local inn? How is that demonstrated to an audience?

Does the group actually represent a trade guild ie: mercers, smiths, etc.? How is that expressed to the audience?

If the group represents non-English people, what brings them to this particular place, this faire in the heart of England?

How does the guild interact with the public? What will the guild attempt to teach the public through its interactions with them?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Oops, I did it again....

In a moment of weakness, I went back to join Ren Faire History Snobs. I'm not entirely sure it was a good idea. I'm trying to be pleasant and productive, but the nature of the thing may just bring out the bastard in me, and I may decide it's just not healthy.

I'm monitoring the situation.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ren Faire Costuming Do's and Do Nots

An excerpt from "Costuming for the Lower and Middle Classes, Elizabethan England 1570-1580" composed by myself and Claudia Laughter, for use as our general costume standards at Much Ado About Sebastopol. It is our hope that these standards will be widely adopted in the community.

These standards have been deliberately kept brief and simple so they are not seen as intimidating or overly burdensome to less skilled costumers. We believe that all Elizabethan-themed events would be much improved if special attention were paid to these following items.


Costumes are Character-Driven:
They should reflect the stations, incomes, occupations and personalities of the characters wearing them. Cut, color, fit, fabric choice and accessories can all tell a visual story that will intrigue the audience and draw them in. Is there some kind of “hook” or quirk that might say something unique about your character?

Clothes Reflect Income:
Find out how much somebody of your profession made and calibrate your costume to that. A person making twenty shillings per year cannot afford opulent jacquards, fancy Italian rapiers, or precious jewelry. On the other hand, we’d like to get away from the image of common laborers looking like ragged beggars. While the lower orders might not have fine fabrics and expensive dyes, their clothes fit, are clean and neatly mended, and they’re proud of the way they look. They’re not laboring on the farm or in the fields, but are attending the social event of the season and should be wearing their “Sunday best.”

Men wear a shirt and a doublet at all times. Only if they’re hard at work they might strip down to a shirt or roll up their sleeves. Women, avoid excessive cleavage. Unmarried women might show more, but married women covered up with high-cut bodices or kerchiefs and partlets. The bust should not spill out over the top of your bodice unless your character is a prostitute.

Coifs and Headcloths for Women:
While women did wear hats, most commonly they wore elaborately tucked and folded headcloths or linen caps called coifs. A hat might be worn on top. Going without any kind of head covering was unacceptable.

We’d like to encourage everyone to wear sleeves at all times except where health and safety dictate their removal. For the most part, Elizabethan’s sleeves were attached and not removable. Sometimes the fashionable had additional sets of sleeves they could change - but they’d always be seen wearing them in public. When hard at work in the fields, men might wear only a shirt, or a jerkin and shirt, and perhaps roll up their sleeves. If you choose to make your sleeves detachable, make sure that the attachments cannot be seen.

Men, in spite of 21st century fashion that dictates that you wear your pants down around or below your hips, Elizabethan trousers are worn up around your natural waist. The front should hit you above your navel, or an inch below your ribcage. Your belt should not ride any lower than that either.

Ruffs are the quintessential Elizabethan fashion statement and were worn by more than the nobility. In period sources, they’re visible on people high to low. They may be either separate garments or attached to the shirts and shifts and are made of fine white linen (and no other colors). They may feature blackwork embroidery for wealthier people. Ruffs are essentially a gathered starched linen ruffle which is ironed into regular setts (usually figure eights).  For a tutorial on making ruffs, see “How to Construct an Authentic Ruff” at

Proper Hats:
Flat caps, woven straw hats, shaped felt hats, knit caps, biggins are all acceptable. Flat caps should have fairly narrow brims - two inches at most. Avoid hats that are so wide that the brim distorts and flops about.

Avoid wide-brimmed cavalier and tricorne “pirate” hats. Neither of these styles is popular in our time and “telegraph” later periods. Unless you’re upper class, avoid the showy plumage often associated with these hats - try more common feathers such as cock, pheasant, or goose feathers, which should be less than 7” long.

Proper Footwear:
Many a fine costume is spoiled by a shoe that looks too modern or too medieval. We understand that some people require special shoes due to podiatric trouble, but any effort made to look as period as possible is appreciated.

Men’s boots should fit closely to the leg, come up over the knee, and be supported by garters of some kind. Boots are generally worn only by people who are riding, though there are a few images of rustic fellows wearing somewhat rougher, cruder boots.

Coats and Jerkins:
Elizabethans wore a whole lot of garments. Coats, surcotes, cloaks, robes and jerkins over doublets make a very period statement.

Hand Sewing:
While it is not expected that your garments be completely hand sewn, it is asked that all visible finishing seams be done this way. Much of our work is done up close, and details like this help maintain the illusion. If it can be hidden, then machine sewing is recommended for durability. Avoid top-stitching. Machine embroidery is rarely acceptable.

No Metal Grommets:
Do not use metal grommets in your clothing. If you do, they will need to be completely covered by stitching around them, obscuring them with thread. It is just as simple to create hand stitched eyelet holes in your clothing.

Over time some particularly egregious abuses of historical costuming have developed among Renaissance faire enthusiasts and they have no place among the cast at any event that claims to be a representation of history. Some faires may accept these without comment, but the following are items and styles which are to be avoided:

Animal tails
Bondage gear
Any garment made of upholstery tapestry
Body art such as henna designs, tattoos, facial and “primitive” piercings
Hair colors not found in nature
Mohawks and other obviously modern haircuts
Modern “slogan” and logo pins
More than one or two “favors”
The triangular flap used instead of a codpiece
Bag hats on men – it’s a non-period women’s style

About “Pyrate” Costuming:
In recent years, the pirate theme has grown very popular at Renaissance-themed events among both the patrons and the participants. While the oceans of the 16th century were certainly infested with corsairs and cutthroats, they did not resemble the classic Hollywood pirate of the 18th century. Seafaring men looked very different from landsmen as a glance at these images will demonstrate.

Those wishing to portray amoral crewmembers for hire should ask themselves why their characters are attending a country faire in a landlocked region. If the intent is to portray a bravo “badass,” there are plenty of other options available. Out of work soldiers and masterless men were notorious layabouts, rioters and thieves, and they may be more suitable for the environment.

A Proviso:
We’d also like to remind everyone that, just because you purchased something at a faire or on a website that says “Authentyk Tudor Garbe,” it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. If one is careful, one may find some items that do work, but those are more the exception rather than the rule. There’s really no substitute for constructing the garment you need based on solid research.