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.