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 http://www.stgeorgenorth.org/resources

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.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


So much to learn, so much to know. However will I stuff it all into my cranium?

Relax. Some people have already sifted through stacks of books for you, and have distilled from them bite-sized, easy to digest nuggets of knowledge for you to nibble on.

Visit the Resources page of the Northern Chapter of The Guild of St. George, Inc.

Astound your friends with your sudden eloquence on a variety of 16th century subject matter!

Monday, May 7, 2012


A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that there had been some trouble which caused me to resign from the Ren Faire History Snobs Facebook group.

Not only that, but several incidents have happened in the last few weeks to cause me to reassess my entire attitude, my public face, and the manner in which I participate in the faire community.

The group, and the group on Tribe.net before it, were often contentious. We enjoyed a bit of heated debate now and then. While we all wanted a better representation of historical reality at faires, sometimes we'd disagree over exactly where the line should be drawn between fact and theatre. Or maybe we'd clash over notions people had received through their experience at faire, which conflicted with what our independent research had shown us.

Sometimes we were highly critical of less enthusiastic faire participants who we felt had their priorities wrong. People outside the group often thought we were way too critical, and that our sniping amounted to unnecessary bullying, and in some cases that was true. As a moderator, I preferred that people refrain from focusing on and ridiculing individual or naming names. I occasionally had to admonish the group to "hate the sin, not the sinner". 

But something shifted recently in the group. It seemed that the unity we shared had begun to fragment, and a kind of polarization developed. One one hand there were people who, while they didn't care for the commercialization and dumbing-down of their faires, they didn't care to challenge themselves, and clung to outdated notions and faire traditions. On the other hand were uncompromising precisionists, especially in the field of costuming, for whom anything except absolute adherence to period materials and construction techniques is unthinkable. I call them "stitch-counters".

These groups rubbed each other the wrong way, and simple discussion over the appropriate shape and manner of wearing a straw hat became a battleground that extended far beyond the initial topic. As the people on both ends of the spectrum got more dug in to their positions, the shouting increased, people stopped listening, and things started getting personal. 

Due to my more moderate views, I ended up arguing with people on all sides of the conflict and I got pretty fed up with the whole thing. It had got to the point where the group was no longer a thing of pleasure, but a source of stress, and I dreaded logging in. I felt we had strayed from our purpose, and in a fit of pique I exited the group.

Soon thereafter, I got involved in a discussion on somebody else's wall about nasty attitudes and bullying by self-proclaimed experts in the faire and costuming communities. While many of the responses there reflected the annoying point of view that participation in a faire was supposed to be about something other than theatre or history, some of the responses there gave me pause to reflect on the impression made by immoderate speech, how much an unkind word can hurt, and how far the damage done may travel. I realized that due to my advocacy of historicity, I had been lumped-in with the overzealous, but socially-challenged precisionists in those communities, who take delight in nit-picking and tearing people down.

The next weekend, I traveled to RPFS to attend a reunion of court participants, and I was truly excited to have the opportunity to spend some time with old friends and mentors, some of whom I may never get to see again. While I was happy to attend the reunion, let's say I was less than impressed with what my beloved event had become. The contrast between the memories my friends evoked, and what I was seeing was jarring. Most of the faces there were new, and they really had no frame of reference for what it had been, or could be, and most likely didn't care anyway. This was their reality, and they did their best under their circumstances. There were yet some brave pockets of resistance, but I left at the end of the weekend feeling sad and defeated.

I had come face to face with the slickest of the commercial beasts that was methodically sucking the soul out of the faire concept, and considered whether or not I was fighting a losing battle, and that all my rage and frustration was for nothing, and might even be unhealthy for me. Between my disappointment at RPF, my abandonment of the Snobs, and the forces of laziness and complacency I observed in my friend's conversation, I wondered if my participation was even worth my while anymore. I wondered if my point of view had become obsolete, and that I was captaining a sinking ship.

After much reflection, I decided I needed an attitude adjustment. As the Champion of Historicity, many people in the community admire my courage and conviction, and look to me for leadership. My exit from the group had caused many of them to contact me personally and encourage me to return. They said the movement really required my passion, experience, and eloquence. They brought me around to soldiering on, but I realized that coming from a place of rage, frustration, and derision didn't help me or my cause in any way - that as the basis for my actions, it would poison them and be reflected back at me in the form of fear, hostility, and resistance. I realized that my efforts should come from a place of love and enthusiasm. I'm already an intimidating figure. I don't get it, but I'm told that my demeanor, reputation, and talents inspire fear in people, so it takes some work for me to reach them through all that. It doesn't help if it is compounded by an air of negativity, and a reputation for snark.

So, I've made a decision to dispose of the negative, and focus on the positive, and do what I can to aid the willing and those who need guidance, without looking down on them, or giving them cause to retreat in fear or embarrassment. I will cease to allow the unwilling to draw too much of my attention, nor tarnish my view of the show. There are areas in which I can effect change, and places I cannot, and I must learn to discern one from the other. I'm not sure if I will return to the snobs group, but I will continue my battle here, and wherever (and only wherever) my opinion is welcome or requested.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

2012 Renaissance Symposium

This coming weekend, May 5th and 6th, Renaissance Productions (Valhalla, San Jose, Ardenwood, Folsom Faires) is presenting the 2012 Renaissance Symposium at Folsom City Lions Park in Folsom.

Your truly and Mrs. Porter will be teaching two separate classes:

Improvisation for the Interactive Environment
Part lecture, part activity. This class covers the principles of improvisational theatre, adapted for the interactive, historically-based faire environment. Concentration on establishing a premise, supporting and building on it, listening, timing, staging, and involving the audience.

Characterization: Building a character for an interactive environment
The class will explore ways to make simple, clear choices about our characters that communicate easily and instantly to our audience. We’ll concentrate on how we look, what we do, and what we say, and how they all reveal our character’s basic drives.

Why in a park this year? In these rather challenging economic times, it has proven difficult to find event venues that are affordable for many faire participants, so this time is has been scaled down from a more convention-like event, to a couple of days in a shady and familiar park (where Folsom faire is held). It's extremely affordable (twenty bucks!) and offers everyone a chance to meet and hobnob with their fellow performers outside the bustle of a faire performance.

Hope so see all RenProd participants there!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Ren Faire History Snobs

RFHS card, Number 0000j
Way back in the depths of time was an online social network known as tribe.net. People from all sorts of offbeat communities gathered and communicated there: burners, faire folk, etc.

I joined several faire-based discussion groups, and participated regularly. I started getting involved in conversations  in which I ranted about the cheapening, dumbing-down, and commercialization that had been creeping into the faires. Some people were in agreement with me, but others had a very strong reaction against my opinions. Folks got very defensive, and in some cases downright abusive to me. It seemed that daring to criticize the events was the moral equivalent of eating babies for breakfast.

There were countless excuses for why people didn't think they should be bothered with a more faithful representation of history, but what it all seemed to boil down to was that for many participants, the faire was never about that. It was always something else: a chance to be with their friends and families, a place to dress up funny and live out fantasies, a place to engage in countercultural activity. Illustrating the world of the sixteenth century was way down on their list of priorities.

“It's just faire - it doesn't matter”

“Who are YOU to say what it should be for ME?”

“We can never truly recreate the 16th century accurately, so we shouldn't really try.”

“They had open sewers in the streets, is that what you want?”

“Reading is too much to expect.”

“We're volunteers - we don't have to do anything.”

I'll admit that my reactions to the resistance were often heated and not entirely dignified, but I felt strongly about my views. I continued to get shouted down, and told in no uncertain terms that I should just shut up and let everybody experience the faires in their own way. Besides, I wasn't the boss, so whatever the company decided (however beastly) was the way it was supposed to be. For calling out the lazy and disinterested, I was accused of being elitist and snobby.

I decided I didn't need to argue with those people any more. I formed my own group, ironically titled “Ren Faire History Snobs”, and began to invite like-minded people there, where we could vent our spleens about the horrors being inflicted on the faires in a place where we didn't have to defend our ideas. It soon took off like wildfire. It turned out there were a whole lot of participants (and ex-participants) who felt the same way.

And so, the group went on growing. What was initially a place to vent (and vent we did, heartily) eventually became a place to conspire about what we could all do in our own spheres to improve the shows, or brainstorm about the one we would do ourselves if we had the resources. Many members were historical experts in their own fields, and had plenty of information to share with the rest of the history enthusiasts. While on other faire-based forums people talked about how cool their night life was, or what a great time they had getting hammered the previous weekend, we were having discussions of substance on how to bring our knowledge to the streets of the faires, and on the finer points of interactive theatre. People new to the faire experience turned to us for knowledge because they wanted to “do it right”. One industrious member even issued snob cards, so we could all be card-carrying snobs.

But, all good things must come to an end. Tribe, due to functionality issues, went on a long, slow decline, and people left it in droves for newer, more reliable alternatives like Ning and Facebook. Maggie Secara, author of “The Compendium of Common Knowledge”, started a snobs group on Facebook, which took some time to catch on, but with some improvements to their group formats, it took off and became much like the old days of Tribe.

I have been using the group as my primary way of furthering my goals, getting my word out in the community. Unfortunately, events have conspired in such a way that have caused me to abandon it. This blog will now be my outlet.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bigmouth Strikes Again

I have opinions. Sometimes people don't like hearing them.

I regret any harm done, but not the opinion.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sew Frustrated

Decided it was time to get in gear and finally start on the hat I've been wanting. I've been collecting the necessary materials over the last couple of weeks, and been girding my loins for an assault on them. Tonight I made an onslaught on the project.

My goal is to create the dinky little toque that Dudley wears in all his portraits. He tended to favor smaller hats with very small, shaped brims.

Robert Dudley by Nicholas Hilliard

I chose for instructions this page: http://www.sempstress.org/2009/the-jiffy-pop-hat/#more-2525

I found the description of how to create a wired brim useful and somewhat easy for my inexperienced head to wrap itself around.

I was doing pretty well, even though I had to start over on the brim. I hadn't left adequate seam allowance around the outside to accommodate the rolled seam around the edge. My second try was much better, as I left way more than I needed. However, pinching and rolling that seam turned out to be a serious pain in the ass. Semptress warns us of this, but, she says, you could use seam binding or ribbon on the edge....if you want to be completely anachronistic. So, I made the effort.

After much confoundedness trying to make that seam work out, I am going to save myself the trouble, and I'm buying some grosgrain to wrap around the edge of my hat. Semptress can bite me.

Friday, March 30, 2012

What's Faire?

Very often, producers and participants of these themed events we call Renaissance Faires lose sight of what the event actually represents. The following is what I wrote as a definition for the event I direct in Sebastopol. It's a statement of intent which all participants are required to read, understand, and use as a basis for their activities:

In old England, towns were given royal charters to hold faire on certain holidays such as Saint's Days. These were festive occasions at which much business was done and much merriment was made. They were the social and commercial highlight of the year when people were able to obtain goods they might not otherwise have had available to them and gather together to celebrate in fellowship. The local alehouses shut their doors and moved their operations to the faire, and some laws were relaxed for the duration.

A Renaissance Faire is a depiction of just such an event; a holiday fair held near a village or on its common. The intent is to create an immersive "time travel" experience which not only entertains the attending patrons, but informs and enlightens them about the world of the 16th century.

 The streets are alive with the sights, sounds, entertainment, seasonal rituals and most importantly, the people who would be present at a holiday fair; the citizens of the local community from all walks of life, free of their laborious daily routines, celebrating this extraordinary occasion; traders from afar coming to sell their wares or make business deals with the local merchants; young lovers flirting and chasing one another through the lanes; diplomats and dignitaries following the train of the Queen hoping to secure an audience with her. Handcrafted items offered for sale to the public and hearty period food enhance the experience.

As much as possible the patrons are included as part of the show - as yet another traveler who's come to enjoy the pleasures of the fair. What we offer is something lacking in modern life; the opportunity to do more than passively receive entertainment through an electric box; at the fair the audience is able interact with its entertainment - to engage in make-believe in a lively, dynamic and safe environment wherein they have an effect on the outcome of any encounter. They laugh and play and lose themselves in the illusion without realizing they're actually being taught some history in the process.

Joris Hoefnagel, Fete at Bermondsey c1569

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Easy Street

I have just finished reading Ann Elizabeth Shapera's "Easy Street: A Guide for Players in Improvised Interactive Environmental Performance, Walkaround Entertainment, and First-Person Historical Interpretation" Some of you may know Ms. Shapera by another identity; Jane the Phoole of the Renaissance Faire in Bristol. You ought to know her - she's extraordinarily famous.

I had been watching and admiring her work from afar, and was excited to find that she'd come up with a "how-to" work of her own. It did not disappoint.

It's written in a breezy, humorous style, and what can sometimes be rather heavy concepts are approached with a light touch, calculated not to intimidate those who are new to the activity. The advice is practical, and the knowledge was gained not through intensive training in the theatre, but through experience on the ground, face to face with fairegoers.

My favorite work on the subject of interactive characterization and performance, Gary Izzo's "The Art of Play", has long been out of print, and usually goes for well over $100.00 used. Shapera's book covers some of the same material in her characterization chapters, but distills and simplifies it considerably. In this, it has an advantage over the former work.

While no one book will have all the anwsers, or answers that work for every actor, I highly recommend it to anybody and everybody involved in interactive theatre, each of whom will come away with something valuable that they may use in their performances.

And so it begins

The 2012 faire season is upon us. The Guild of St. George, Inc., Northern Chapter, has just had its first rehearsal meeting and season kickoff party in Concord. I'm happy to say it was extraordinarily well-attended, and that I detect a great deal of enthusiasm among the ranks.

Last season was extremely busy. We were in such high demand, and had so many performances, in addition to all of our bi-monthly rehearsals, that we pretty much exhausted our people's spare time and energy. I was continually frustrated that our rehearsals were generally not as well-attended as I would like, and so were some of the performances.

Therefore, in order to inflict less of a burden on the cast, this year we decided not to book any performances until Valhalla Faire in South Lake Tahoe in early June, and have only a few "brush-up" rehearsals between then and Folsom at the end of the season. We have "front-loaded" the majority of our meetings, holding them in the months prior to our performances so that we will be a well-prepared ensemble. However, we are enforcing our rehearsal minimum, and have instituted a "gate list fee" for people who have not met their minimum requirements.

We've also become serious about collecting guild dues, not only because we need the ready cash on hand, but because we believe that people might take the whole thing more seriously if they had a little buy-in.

It is our hope that these measures will increase attendance at both rehearsals, and performances.

You may notice that I use somewhat "theatrical" language when I refer to the group's activities. This is intentional. Many people in the faire culture forget what a Renaissance Faire is: an elaborate theatrical performance, an interactive play, an immersive environment. For many, it is something else: a chance to be with their adopted families, to let their hair down, to participate in what they see as an exciting counter-culture, to trawl for potential romantic partners, to show-off their costuming prowess.

It is all of those things and more, but they are all the happy by-products of our primary mission, which is to transport our audience to another place and time. Therefore, I avoid "faire-lingo" in favor of the language of the stage. We wear "costumes" rather than "garb", we are "onstage" or "backstage", we have "characters" rather than "personas", we have an "audience" rather than "patrons" or "guests". I think of the Guild as a "troupe" or "company", rather than a "guild", and we "rehearse" rather than "meet". The difference may seem trivial, but I think it keeps in people's minds what our intent is, or ought to be.

Because we are, after all, a theatrical production, attendance by the entire cast at rehearsals is vital. Your ordinary, volunteer-based community theatre production, which plays maybe five performances usually rehearses for two or three months prior, often two or three times a week. Failure to attend is virtually unthinkable, as everyone needs to know their lines, blocking, cues, reactions, and be comfortable working with their fellow cast members.

Yet in the faire world, where some pretty hard-acquired theatrical skills are required to put on a decent show, the amount of training and rehearsal that actors get is pretty minimal, and sadly, it shows. That's why our troupe is one that makes a difference.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Catching Up

Apologies to you, Gentle Reader. I haven't been keeping up with this effort the way I promised, and will attempt to make amends.

At least I have a valid excuse. Not all of my hobbies are related to theatre. My dear Mrs. Porter, for the better part of the last couple of decades, has been the Vendor Coordinator and Hotel Liaison for PantheaCon; one of the largest gatherings of those espousing alternative, Earth-based religions in the country. I serve as her second, and I assist her in many of the preparations for the event. I've been heavily preoccupied with that. From the Thursday before Presidents' Day weekend, until the Tuesday after it, we are holed-up in the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose with 2000 pagans, wiccans, and heathens of every description. The rigors of herding that many free-spirited cats can be pretty exhausting.

The Con went off very well, and despite a few hitches, of which most attendees were not aware, and some politics involving gender issues in the community, a splendid time was had by all but the whiniest people, who are most likely incapable of being satisfied with anything.

Load-out at PantheaCon

But with that behind me, I now turn my attention to the coming faire season. Last weekend I attended a meeting with a few St. George principals and the entertainment heads of Renaissance Productions, for whom we perform at several events. We worked out ideas for some overall themes for the shows, and how better to communicate those to the entire cast. We also discussed ways to help educate our fellow performance troupes in the art of interactive theatre, and how to encourage them to participate more fully in creating the immersive historical environment.

All in all it was a positive and productive experience, and the rapport that was developed there bodes well for an exciting and fulfilling season ahead.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Please allow me to introduce myself - Part the third

After several years out of the faire scene, I found that I actually could live without it. But, following a divorce in 2000, I found myself with little else to do and found my feet carrying me back to my old habits.

The Patterson family had regrouped and started a small faire, the Heart of the Forest Faire, in the mountains above Santa Barbara, and I joined some of my previous cast mates there who had formed a troupe of Elizabethan thieves. The event was a breath of fresh air for me. So many of the people who had given up on RPF had come out for this show. There was a commonality of purpose, and a love of living history that harkened back to the times I remembered with such fondness. I was hooked again.

Master Christian - Court parasite
Heart of the Forest, Santa Barbara
With my enthusiasm reawakened, I began to visit RPF again as a guest performer. The event had moved to a property in Vacaville, as the venerated site in Black Point Forest was being developed. I was prepared for the move to effect the ambiance of the show, but I was taken aback at the change that had taken place during my leave of absence, and not for the better. The anti-historical commercialization, and muddying of the theme had continued its steady march. Those who still embraced history were dissatisfied, but continued to participate out of habit, or because there really wasn't much of an alternative.

My old troupe, St. George, had grown somewhat subdued. Continual creative and logistical conflicts with management, and internal political issues had left them demoralized. By the end of the season, troubles between the Southern California chapter of the guild and faire management had come to a head. The Board of Directors of St. George (which had become an independent, non-profit educational organization) responded by severing the guild's relationship with the faire.

This left the guild's participants in a quandary. While they certainly didn't care for the management, its methods, or its vision for the faire, they didn't really see that there was any place for the guild to go. Many chose to remain in the form of a new group, The Queen's Court, led by Debbie Young. I wanted to see that the group continued to be well-trained and educated, so I proposed to take up the mantle of artistic director with my (unbeknownst to me) future wife, Mrs. Porter as my esteemed co-director.

Therese and I formed an illustrious partnership, training the guild, and teaching pre-faire workshops in physical characterization to the rest of the faire participants. This partnership extended into the resurrected Dickens Christmas Faire, for which we taught workshops, and directed a group of interactive characters from Dickens works. We continued to teach, train, and perform for RPF at Vacaville, and then when they were forced to move again, at Casa de Fruta near Gilroy. Our working relationship eventually turned into a courtship.

Getting my sea-legs for Dudley
Realization by SN Jacobson
The company, however, felt that the Northern faire didn't really pull its weight financially, and finally decided to pull the plug on it, leaving our group without a venue. During the previous couple of years, the Patterson's Heart of the Forest faire had taken root in a location in Novato where the Guild of St. George had been performing. I rejoined the guild there, and soon found myself accepting the role of The Earl of Leicester from the inimitable Robert Young, who had held it for many years, and soon thereafter, the role of Guildmaster.

Ultimately, HOTF was forced to close its gates, leaving St. George once again homeless. We have since been appearing at smaller, one or two weekend events, the participants of which often have rather loose and whimsical ideas about the depiction of history completely at odds with our educational mission. But rather than settle for that, we have worked wherever possible to educate the participants and raise the barre for them wherever we perform, demonstrating that an accurate picture of history can be both informative and entertaining.

RPF = the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire, in existence since the early sixties, with a Spring show in Southern California, and a Fall show in Northern California.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Please allow me to introduce myself - Part the second

I came into the faire at a time when the Living History Centre, the Non-Profit which produced it, was really beginning to push its educational mission, with a troupe that took that mission very seriously. As more research on the period was available to more participants, the faire started to move from its previous more freeform and whimsical interpretation of history to a more unified and better informed one. Costuming standards were tightened, and what was expected of the participants who peopled the environment was heightened.

Certainly there were concessions made to what our public had come to expect out of the event; Ample cleavage, bawdy humour, belly dancing, etc. were part of the fun, and nobody wanted to mess with that. Obvious advertisements for corporate sponsors were visible, but generally keeping within the bounds of the visual theme. But wherever possible, the presentation of "living history" was stressed, and improved over the next decade or so.

But, like so many creative ventures, the company suffered continual serious financial issues, and ultimately needed to sell to another company that presented similar events in the East. By this time many curiously similar events had sprung up all across the country, but most did not share the educational focus, or creative vision that RPF espoused. They tended to be for-profit, and what mattered most was the bottom line. History took a back seat to whatever would bring more people through the gates.

The new company began to take control, and changes started being made to the show with an eye to improving the bottom line. I'm pretty sure most of us were able to recognize the necessity of the event being able to sustain itself, but the feeling of the educational mission began to fall away and become irrelevant. The company was not accustomed to having groups of interactive street players who helped shape the immersive reality that was the key to the event's success. I think they failed to understand what motivated us, and quickly began alienating large numbers of us. An article featuring one of their executives talking about what suckers the participants were, and how WE'D gladly pay THEM for the privilege of participation struck a very sour chord, and defined the new paradigm very nicely.

It's not that we weren't already being exploited to a point, being uncompensated volunteers, but we felt that both we and the Living History Center were all on the same page with a common goal, and that we were sharing a labour of love. We were regarded as an essential element to the success of the show. That was compensation enough. But now we were expendable. Many of the devoted old-timers began to fall away, along with their knowledge and devotion, while others seemed to buy in to the new "corporate" culture and abandon our ideals. Some of the creative decisions being made didn't make any sense to us.

In the late 90s, I decided that participation just wasn't worth my while any more; that the love, time, money, energy, and personal sacrifice I was putting into it wasn't truly valued or appreciated. I thought perhaps I might just be burnt out on performing with the court, and that I required a change of scene, so I spent a season acting in a stage show, a half-hour cut of "Twelfth Night". While it was a fantastic experience, it couldn't rescue the faire for me, so I walked away, believing that I was never to return, another casualty of the new company's attitudes and methods.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Please allow me to introduce myself - Part the first

I started performing at the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire as a young teenager in 1979. I had already been involved in theatre even at that young age, but tagging along with my older brother to portray a member of Elizabeth I's court in an immersive, interactive environment was a revelation to me.

The group, which later became known as The Guild of St. George, was dedicated to a faithful representation of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and sought through its performance to educate the public about the fascinating world and people of the court.

Our cast members met twice a week in Berkeley for a few months prior to the event. Those meetings would consist of educational lectures about aspects of life in the period, and intensive theatrical training sessions wherein we discussed and explored the backgrounds of our characters and their relationships to one another, and how the complexities of politics, precedence, and patronage figured into them. We'd be trained and drilled thoroughly in the the techniques of improvisation and interactive theatre, and how to bring our knowledge and research into our interactions with one another and our guests.

I was utterly hooked. I was already equipped with many of the skills required, as I didn't see it as much different from playing "make-believe" with my siblings on a summer afternoon, when we'd adopt characters, define our environment, and improvise our adventures. This merely took it a step farther to having an audience. Not one passively seated "out there" beyond the light and proscenium, but up-close and personal. It was a real challenge, especially as you never knew how they'd react, and their reactions determined yours.

Then there was the pleasure of creating the magic that was the Queen's progress. Each day, Her Majesty was brought forth to greet her people in a parade, with great pomp and circumstance, and in a scripted stage performance wherein the local people greeted and entertained her. She'd meet Francis Drake, a perturbed Spanish Ambassador, witness morris dancing and a rustic masque, a courtly dance, and top it all off with a message of love for her people. It was the climax of the day for much of our audience, and being part of binding them with the spell was truly exhilarating (if bloody strenuous in the California sun). This would be followed by a few small appearances where she'd witness some country pastimes, and spend some time with her courtiers.

I then joined the cast of the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Pickwick Comic Annual in San Francisco (again, tagging along). It was more of the same dynamic, immersive environment, with the added twist of creating a sort of exaggerated view of Dickens London at holiday time. It was the same challenge, but somehow more intense, as the atmosphere was much closer and busier. WIthin a couple of years I was portraying Nicholas Nickleby.

I began to perform at the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire as well, and or a very long time, much of my life revolved around the performing in the South in the Spring and in the North in the Fall. After my apprenticeship playing servant characters, I was offered a role as Lord Burghley's son, Robert, which I portrayed for over a decade, until I went onto a hiatus in the late 90's due to a kind of burnout, and a feeling that I was being callously exploited by the new owners of the faire.

As a gentleman to the Earl of Derby
Left to right: Maggie Secara, Rydell Downward, Unnamed, Bruce Roberts, Gail Calicott, Dante Field

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Everybody else is doing it...

Greetings gentle reader,

This is a blog in search of a purpose.

Inspired by several friends' online efforts, I decided to have a go at the fine art of the blog. But what would be my theme?

While meditating upon that question, I wondered if I had anything to offer the world that wasn't already being covered thoroughly elsewhere, and better. I wondered if I'd simply be wasting bandwidth. I wondered if it wouldn't be a phenomenal bout of electronic Onanism. Ultimately I decided that it didn't really matter, and that I should simply begin.

I have several creative irons in the fire, primarily combining my loves of theatre, history, and costume. I decided that perhaps my experiences with them might be of some interest, if not use, to somebody.

Yet, I am a dreadfully lazy man in many ways, and I wondered if I could remain focused on such a task as this. Therefore, I am committing to posting at very least once per week. I feel this is a reasonable, attainable goal. I hope that it's enough to keep you, my gentle reader, satisfied.