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.