"So You Want to Be a Renaissance Faire Performer?"
by Dan Kapelovitz
Have you ever longed to travel from town to town in order to interact with
Renaissance-period fanatics with turkey-leg juice dripping down their faces,
all while dressed in 16th Century attire?
Then read on.
The most important goal of any Renaissance Faire performer is to be able to
make Faire-goers suspend their disbelief and convince them that they are
actually time-traveling to the Renaissance period.
As a Renaissance Faire actor, you must avoid anachronisms at all costs.
Don't cruise around on Rollerblades while listening to an iPod and yapping
on a cell phone. These are all major no-no's. In fact, don't even talk about
Rollerblades, iPods and cell phones. You will immediately be exposed as a
Not only did people in Renaissance times not talk about modern-day
inventions, they also talked funny. The first thing you need to do is learn
is how to speak just as funny as people did during the glorious reign of
Queen Elizabeth. (If you ever wondered why people speak so weird in plays
written by William Shakespeare, it's because he wrote his plays during this
"funny-talk" period of human history.)
Instead of saying, "Whazzup, bee-yatch?" you should say something along the
lines of, "How art thou, milady?" Advanced performers learn not to confuse
the words "thou" and "thee." "Thou" is used as a subject in a sentence
("Thou art a syphilitic harlot"); whereas "thee" is used when it is the
object of a sentence ("I shall vomit all over thee"). Then there's "thy" and
"thine." Both words are possessive forms of "thou." The difference between
"thy" and "thine" is similar to the difference between "a" and "an." Thine
is used when it comes before a word that begins with a vowel sound, such as,
"I shall spit on thine eyeballs." Otherwise use "thy" ("I shall fornicate
with thy maiden").
Of course, the average Faire attendee will be even less-versed in
Renaissance-period grammar than you; so mixing up "thine's" and "thy's" will
probably go unnoticed. But if you're expecting to make a full-time living
doing this, thou best knowest thy "ye's" and "thee's." (Also keep in mind
that all these fancy-pants words are only used, counter-intuitively, in the
informal mode of the language; otherwise you use "you." Except, of course,
in the plural sense of the word, in which case you use "ye," whether it's
formal or informal, as in the well-known "O come, all ye faithful.")
Got it? Good.
And don't forget to call females "wenches." While, in today's society,
"wench" has somewhat negative, whore-ish connotations, back then, "wench"
just meant "young woman."
There are many other words you can learn. The web site
www.RenaissanceActor.com is a great resource for the up-and-coming
Renaissance Faire thespian. The site suggests that beginners have in their
repertoire a word or phrase to say whenever they are stumped, such as
"Forsooth!" (which means "really"), and an exit phrase so they can high-tail
it out of there if they can't stand the heat. The site suggests, "God's
teeth, there be my master! If he were to catch me dallying upon the village
green, he would surely stripe my backside with his belt!"
Not only did people talk funny back then, they dressed funny as well.
Remember, costume is key.
When choosing an outfit, you must first decide what kind of character you
are going to portray. Are you going to be a nobleman? Or are you going to be
a member of the middle class, such as a merchant? Perhaps you prefer to play
a lowly peasant. The choice is yours, but dress accordingly.
If you have your heart set on wearing a cod piece, a nobleman is your best
bet. Also keep in mind, in the Renaissance period, underwear was not as
common as it is in the modern world.
Again, www.RenaissanceActor.com has many excellent pointers, and also refers
visitors to the book "Elizabethan Costuming" by Janet Winter.
Now that you look and sound the part, it might not be bad to find yourself a
gimmick. If you hope to make a living from hanging out at Renaissance
Faires, the best thing to do is learn some actual skills. Anyone with half a
brain can find a costume and memorize a few Elizabethan phrases, but it
takes hard work and determination to set yourself above the crowd.
Meet Trey Cromwell, the Professional Showoff. He's a true Renaissance Man;
he's a juggler, a torch swallower, a contortionist and an escape artist, all
Trey had been going to Renaissance Faires since he was a child. Eventually,
he became a performer, but he wanted more.
"I was really limiting myself with what I could do and act," remembers
Cromwell. "So I decided to learn all of these new skills, and I've been
doing it ever since."
Technically, Trey's character would be known in Renaissance times as a
"jongleur," which is a French word for "player."
"We were basically traveling variety artists," explains Trey. "People like
me would go town to town and set up right in the town square, especially on
festival or fair days, and we would do our show for as long as the crowd
supported it. That's how they would make their living; passing the hat,
sometimes for money, sometimes to eat."
Trey is basically a modern-day jongleur. He travels all over the country
performing at Faires, passing his hat for tips (as well as receiving his
weekend rate). He's gone from North Carolina to California and many places
in between, often following the Renaissance Faire circuit. He eventually
moved out to California, because its fair climate makes it the home of the
largest number of Renaissance Faires in the country.
Cromwell formerly used the character name "Dren, the Professional Showoff,"
but said it got too confusing for the audience. Now, he just uses his real
name (he kept "the Professional Showoff" part). "My stage character is not
so different than how I am in real life," says Cromwell.
Part of Cromwell's act includes escaping from a straight jacket, an item
which didn't actually exist during Renaissance times. Isn't Trey breaking
one of the Renaissance Faire's strictest taboos? "The real period stuff
would be chains, shackles and ropes," Trey admits, "but so far, nobody's
gotten too upset over the fact that I use a straight jacket." (Perhaps this
leeway is another perk for those who actually have some sort of talent.)
Trey's act is not all fun and games; it can get dangerous. "I'll be doing
the fire-eating part of the show, and the wind will kick up and the fire
will catch my lip. People will come up and ask me if I really got burned or
was just faking to make it look that way."
Even with the burnt lips, Trey loves the festivals. "Renaissance Faires are
one of the greatest pieces of theater we have because it's environmental
theater," says Cromwell. "It's happening all around you. It's not like a
conventional theater show where you get entertained for two hours. This is
happening everywhere all at once. It's controlled chaos really."
If someone wants to become involved in the Renaissance Faire scene, Trey
suggests surfing the Internet. "Most Faires have web sites, and every Faire
that I've seen, when they start auditioning actors, they'll put a notice up
for a casting call. There's jobs for everybody. There are actors. There are
information booth people. You can do whatever you want.
"I think I have the best job in the world. I get to do what I love and I get
to see the people I know while I'm doing it. You can't ask for more than
With all of the mead drinking and bawdy humor, things can get pretty wild
behind the scenes and after hours at the actor's camp site, but Trey says,
"I'm just there to do my job and have a good time."
After all, he is a professional.
(This article first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Men's Edge Magazine)
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