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If you have a strong need to be in control, do merchant sales at the renaissance faire. You carry around your own environment, you can turn people away, and when you don’t want to stand and be charming, it’s not necessary. (It depends on where you rank sales against comfort, of course.) If things go sideways, generally it’s understood and you may leave.

This is not the case with performing acts, cast, volunteers and staff. When the going gets tough, you must smile and endure.

The situation I’d like to write about today is being part of a performance group.

Some of the advantages include having a set of clear rules (usually) someone else has to make the big decisions, generally you are provided equipment and there is a Standard Operating Procedure.  Often equipment is provided as well as costuming. You have a built-in set of social contacts, you inherit the advantage of being part of an ensemble and you have peer support. When going into a performance venue, generally the leader will have the general expectations in writing, the workload is shared and someone is there to help out with your general well-being. The leader should provide water, instruction, sufficient training for the task and possibly some benefits (a place to store equipment, lodging, pay or food)

With Phoenix we’ve had a decade to Do It All The Hard Way. We’ve been called “corporate,” “safety Nazis,” “Academics” and some very bad names not repeated here. But the fact is, we’re still here, still being paid so something must be going correctly. We have our set of rules publicly posted and read them every year on the first practice as well whenever we have new members join.  When it goes well, it goes very well, and even when it goes less than stellar, everyone understands and at the end of the day everyone gave their best shot, we pack up and it’s all good.

How a Day goes:
It actually start weeks before when we book the performance. What has happened before this is that the publicity person (me) has scoured boards, listings, followed up on leads and has put in applications. The next step is the cofounder setting up the contract, alerting the troupe, sending out calls for performers and setting dates in the calendar. This all lives on top of social media, equipment storage, the built reputation, paid insurance and long-standing practice.

Still in this early phase, practice begins tailored to the event-it can involve anything from sheep hats to accelerants. Fire and sword practice are ongoing (weather permitting for fire) the performers who want to do the particular show have a set routine, other members may choose to do historical work or research, or just experiment. Up to the day of the event it is expected that the members will get dressed, have their equipment, be prepared, have transportation. And if they do not have it, the leaders make sure it IS the case.

Day of the event, performers arrive, the leaders directly interface with the event organizer, we are given our schedule and “spot” (if we have brought the tent)  At that point the members set up the tent, store equipment,  do a spot-check for accessories, sunscreen, general well-being and we practice/rest until our first show. That day we alternate with giving pointers, interacting with others, practicing, eating resting, performing. Often this happens like this for two days. In the end we do a “debrief” and bring that information back to practice the next week. Repeat. (This is very general, if you want something more detailed, ask me)

Phoenix Swords exists because several members were initially part of another group and that went badly. Here I’ll cite some examples of warning signs that perhaps individually are not bad but cumulatively will not be an idea performing situation.

Strong leaders are good, oppressive leaders are frightening. To know the difference, a strong leader may be a bear about safety, procedures and how it is to be done-but will entertain ideas, be willing to take questions and explain and show good leadership by example. Good leaders are not threatened by talented performers and they will be willing to make sacrifices so that others can be all they can be. A bad leader doesn’t want questions, will lead by force (physical or emotional) and generally will kick out others without warning. These show-runners will not be willing to explain why  and often dealing with them will leave a pit in one’s stomach. They take the best of what comes to a group and don’t share. I’m not saying working  for this person is not instructional, but it is not pleasant.

Another warning sign is not having A Plan.  If everyone does not know what is going on, then this sets the stage for chaos that will feed upon itself and make any small mishap worse. When arriving at a site, everyone should know when to show up for shows, how they’ll be fed and what acts will be done. One of the statements that makes my own gut clench is
“We’ll wing it.”  This is not to say we haven’t had to do this with last-minute changes , bad weather, changed expectations, etc..but it is one thing for someone to “wing it” who has alternate plans in pace, can use a variety of tools and has been attending practice regularly and has a skillset to draw from. It is something else when no one is quite sure what “Plan B” is and what else is in place.

Everyone is great at what they do and never screws up/wants to show you wounds. There is a middle ground for this.  Sure, performers should have confidence, that’s why they are on stage. But I regard performers who tell me how loved and wonderful they are the same way as those who tell me they are smart-if you have to tell me rather than just show me, perhaps you are not all that (intelligent.) Performers who tell me how many, many times they have been hurt just make me afraid-it means they are doing something wrong. When we go out on stage with swords, we are doing a dance.  If it was supposed to be that hard-core and dangerous, hopefully there would be a fence and safety equipment. Not saying that performance is like falling into bed, it isn’t. Stepping out on stage is invoking the cruel attentions of Murphy and his ilk. But I would rather fall on stage and know my spotters/safety/peers will be out in moments, covering for me and keeping things calm.

Drama, it’s a word you’ll see used quite a bit in this blog. Some of the crowd’s favorite performers with our group were “A Hot Mess” behind the scenes. But frankly if the personal lives of the members are more center stage than the act itself, it is a time bomb waiting to happen. And it punishes your good, solid performers plus, hurts the energy levels on stage. I’d rather give out that energy in a good performance and audience love-fests than keeping the manslaughter charges on fellow performers from occurring. Plus, the audience doesn’t care. You are there to serve them and no, they don’t think it’s “cute” or cutting edge to see that level of lacking self-control out on stage.  For anyone who encounters this, I would just like to say that groups like ours gladly take refugees from these groups because they have a large appreciation for what we *don’t* allow in our own.

Sometimes it’s just a bad fit, simply a matter of expectations on both sides not being met. I have a friend who worked with a well-known joust group  and ended up with a professional reenacting group. We have a member who is primarily a reenactor but has a performance itch that he scratches with us. We have others who only want to do one type of performance and work locally. We’ve had one really talented guy who worked with us for only one show because we realized on both sides that it just wasn’t what either of us wanted-no hard feelings.  Working in a performance group is not grade school-there should not be peer pressure, name calling, and general mean-spiritedness. And we don’t force members who don’t have compatible intangibles (kismet, viewpoint, etc.) to work together, they often do because we have a common goal and we are grown-ups. As I’ll say again and again, as soon as one picks up a sword, there is no room for anything but partnering to make a good end result. (You may substitute any equipment for “sword”)

To finish up and link with the last blog entry, entering into the world of festivals, one should have a pretty good sense of self to start. Then, try to find the best compatibility for that need to be at the faire. Sometimes it won’t be on the first try, and sometimes it will take a while to figure that out. I’ve worn the performer, merchant, volunteer, troupe leader, organizer AND patron hats. Some will fit better than others.  But the more clear you are with yourself and others, the faster you will find your niche.

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