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We are a bit spoiled, we cater to renaissance faires and in that respect there is expectation built into how our audience receives us. BUT if you want to appeal to a wider audience sometimes sacrifices must be made in order to be nimble enough for mass consumption or you just have to be in such narrow band that you are a take-it-or-leave it kind of act. The first one that comes to mind is the Badpiper-he is a kilted guy who plays a flaming bagpipe. Is it Celtic? Is it musical busking? Is it flame performance? Yes it is all of the above and you can hire that for any event that comes to mind except for perhaps a paper and accelerants convention.

But in order to make your act easily consumable, sometimes it is watered down in some areas and combined with new ingredients. I like to go and see other acts bigger than ours that *kind of* do the same thing we do but NOT at faires. It’s going to be a strange list and I see two ends of it-one is a performer-based and the other is performance based.

When we first started, I accidentally elbowed my way onto a table with George Emlen while there for a Revels pub sing. He asked me

“Would you like to know the secret of how we put together shows?” and I nodded, brain and ears on full record.
“We find a group of talented people and we structure the shows around them. And now you know.”
And now that I have heard that, when we go to the Christmas Revels in Boston, I take note of the central hub players and see how the performance spirals out from the paragons. I’ve also noted this seems to be the case with Cirque de Soliel –there is a definite formula of  5-6 highly-skilled specialists with a show structured to support their strengths. It is less obvious with some shows than others. The better ones have a fairly cohesive storyline and others we’ve come away saying
“Well those were some great tumblers and silk performers but what was the rest of that?” We try not to do those ‘what was that?’ shows but sometimes that’s what you have to work with when performers fall ill, you are short-handed or if there is a major change in venue, staff or circumstance.  When we do our larger shows (twelve or more) we often have to subcontract from a variety of sources-and if that person is a musician, they get a certain support. If the main mouthpiece is a comedian, that’s another type of show. And if we have only a stable of sword fighters, well, then, guess about the focus of THAT show. But the silver lining is that even if you saw our show last venue, it will not be the same show you saw last year or even the show before on the same day! We have events where we do three different types of shows over the course of a day and our fans are often made when they decide to check us out for more than one performance!

Other groups have a more corporate attitude about how to handle a “faire” or “Medieval experience” by relying on common tropes and the audience doing more of the legwork by bringing expectations and sports-team level participation. The selection I’ll talk about are Medieval Manor, Bunratty castle, Medieval Times, and the Tournament of Kings.

I’ll admit although the staff at Medieval Manor was funny, I am not a person who enjoys  uncomfortable/mocking humor. I attended an example of “I can do it better” type show in RI and enjoyed that one much more. The gist is that you are in a bawdy tavern and being fed. Adding food and booze and somewhat “off the cuff” behavior (eating with hands, being loud, dirty jokes, drunkenness expected) there are competitions and I think this show lets people release a few inhibitions without worrying about repercussions. Most renfaires do that but they don’t have the same advertising budget, location and time limit. The costumes are not remotely accurate but the advantage is that it relies on audience participation and that is helped with liquid lubrication (le booze) The flip side is that people have to staff this event and I’m not sure I’d be up for dealing with some of the behaviors. It’s a sort of renaissancey Dick’s Last Resort. I guess if you have to work in food service, at least you can let loose on the patrons. I would say the strength of this is that they make the audience part of the gag and have a pseudo-medieval banquet experience. (At least from cultural perceptions)

I loved something similar at Bunratty castle in Ireland. That banquet was all the booze you can drink and held in an actual castle. It was Fecking awesome and I won’t even have to tell you why after the first two reasons. The patrons were part of it in a kinder, gentler way and they love to mock Australians.

Tournament of Kings in Las Vegas was everything I thought it would be and still a good show. That is, it was the most sparkly, tassled, bejeweled Merlin I have ever seen in my years on earth.  This show does tiered seating, rooting for knights, a joust, sword fights and meals delivered to the guests.  Although there were joust-style setups, the focus was much more on characters. A friend of mine once said that your renaissance faire character needs to be summed up in three easy words the audience can remember. In this case it was Country of origin, good guy, special costume-all all was frosting. And they did lighting and pyrotechnics.

Quick aside: As a person who has worked concerts and played with fire-these folks have a very slick production.  I *really* want to find out where they had their custom flame-shooting staff made-not that I could afford it.

Anyway, this is made for the family and they did a great job rousing the crowd. And their Merlin was also a good actor who clearly liked people. When he tried to involve the little boy next to me, and it failed,(not his fault, I think the kid was a little input overloaded) he made a joke and rolled on… We expected schmaltz but actually got a good show. (Okay, it’s Vegas, no one was looking for historical accuracy or educational elements)

Medieval Times-This is a show that is jousty Mcjousterson, with some sword fights and the focus is *definitely* on the horses. Once again, the tiered seating and the team-style audience participation.  Specialty costumes and the ubiquitous “three adjective” rules in effect.  They lower netting around the main stage/corral because they use titanium swords that spark beautifully but also are fairly brittle. We saw more than one sword shatter at the show so the netting was not a bad idea.  I was somewhat surprised to see the same folks who carried banners down in the corral were the same ones who served my chicken. Some notes I’ll make here that are not so cheery for some, about most of these shows I’ve mentioned are that usually it’s primarily female waitstaff not performers, it’s almost always chicken,  and you are expected to eat with your hands.

Once, as a troupe we entertained the idea of doing show feast-style show but that requires so many specialists that frankly, we weren’t interested in the hassle. The shows I’ve listed here run a gamut of how our popular culture sees “medieval-style” and “renaissance” entertainment-generally they are going to be entertained not as part of an education trip and I think these do that very well.  Do I feel the audience is being cheated? No, they have terrific performers or some specialty and they are clearly good at what they do because they are still in business.  Do I think it’s unfortunate that it’s a bit off for history input-yes, but that is not the primary function and it would serve me better as an entertainer to observe their successes and try to translate that into making our own act better for a wider audience.

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