Archives for posts with tag: Renaissance Faires

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There are/will be plenty of circumstances in which you just can’t express your true feelings at the faire and you will have to smile, make nice and be grateful that time is a linear river and even if you are currently  at a bad bend, gliding past the brown, finless trout  in the creek, that it will be over soon. Here are some times we’ve had to pucker up and kiss that porcine.

From my partner on being polite:
There are shows, organizers and other acts that I just won’t work with. As far as I know, they won’t work with me either. But, that usually isn’t a problem. However, I do not blame the folks who work for the people with whom I am angry. And, that leads to some interesting conversations.

While we were doing our show Sunday a member of one of those groups  came up to us. He told us that he thought what we were doing was very cool and he thought we should perform at the same faires his group was doing. He mentioned one faire that is on my “hell must freeze over, crumble to dust and blow away first” list.
“Sorry, we’ve got something that conflicts with that,” I told him.
“That’s too bad!” he said. “They’re really short on acts this year and could really use you.”
“That’s too bad. But, I’ll be in Chicago.”
Then, asked about another one that is just on my “if they pay full price, sure” list.
“Doing a show in New Jersey then,” I told him.
Then he asked about the show that refused to pay us two years ago and hired someone else last year.
Told him we were busy then too.
He assured me my group would be missed and then moved along home.
“You were very polite to him,” my wife said.
It’s not his fault. He probably doesn’t even know what they said about us”

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We’ve had people who, despite what we interpreted as a DIRE difference of opinion, call us to work for them again. (which always makes one of my eyebrows shoot into my hairline) but if they want to hire us again, that’s fine. We just lever what we colloquially call “The @$$hole Tax” and although we’ve had people express surprise at this, they will generally accept this. We think this is because we are pretty good-natured and if you manage to annoy us, you’ve probably REALLY annoyed other acts who are not as mercenary as we are. We’ve had paycheck standoffs and with one organizer it seems that was the key to respect. Others wouldn’t work for him but we did because  1) we always had a contract 2) wouldn’t back down 3) he paid us on time, every time.

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Someday I’ll talk more in-depth about what I consider the worst performance job ever (and members vary on what that was) But in a short story-the person who hired us, lied to us about show duration and to her boss about how long we’d perform. Another person tried to block our paycheck and actively get us fired on-site. Finally, they left us to perform all day, on a soccer field with no shade and we should have been suspicious that they mentioned they hadn’t been able to hire three more local troupes. There were other factors but that is the only job where we had to actively keep troupe members from committing assault and when my husband and I sat down in the car, closed the doors and simultaneously said “F*ckers”

First, deep breath. Better coming in than going out.
1) is anyone hurt physically? Okay then you won’t have to file charges and deal with that can of worms.
2) Are there apologies to be made? If by  you, make them. If by them, chances are you will never get one. But you are definitely not going to be able to force that. If you can’t choke that down-walk away and do a “tag” with another troupe member.  I am very grateful for the number of times that we have been able to do this for one another. You know it’s past that when we kick a third person up to grab the paycheck and chat. Our excuse is usually “herding cats and packing up.”
3) Is it over and you can go home? Savor this moment. You may have been hostage to someone else’s whims for a time for a check but that time is over.  It’s an important boundary to have. As I’ve said to troupe members after a long-distance trip
“I love you guys, but I don’t want to see you for a week.” And it’s key to disengage and give yourself time to absorb the experience.

Sometimes these bad experiences continue long past where polite society would recommend they be SHUT DOWN.  Although you don’t have control over crazy circumstance you can control how you respond to these things. And I highly recommend that you envision pulling that stick out, twisting to a sharp, red point and applying that to whatever piggy has just dragged you through the mucking and smile. Because it kills them when you smile, and you get to both walk away away, much improved.

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This past Sunday I was chatting with other troupe members and one reminded me that he had been with the troupe for ten years and my jaw dropped. Soon after I asked, “So does that mean we should have a “survivors award” for anyone over five years? “  I can’t speak to what keeps people doing this year after year, I can only share what it is that keeps me coming back.

First, I’m half owner of the business  and my partner and I joke that sometimes it’s like a game of chicken as to who will give it up first. Or that we are victims of the Sunk Cost Fallacy but the truth of it is that we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it. Fortunately for us, and the troupe we have interlocking personalities  that allow us to be pretty successful at getting and keeping things going-and that we are gifted with members who genuinely care that it gets done and looks good.

Show up!. Although winter isn’t my favorite, I slog in and do my bit. I have three goals at practice 1) move 2) plan 3) improve. That’s it and none of that happens if I don’t show up. In fact, I have found when I take time off, I feel off, it  shows up in my physical and mental abilities. I recently took a Sunday off and my glutes noticeably hurt from sitting too long. So even on non-practice Sundays, I will find errands to get me up and going. (To be clear, you should be active at more than practice and if you aren’t, no one wants to hear the whining)

The little details-I desperately need to update the website, check the expiration on our med kit items and make sure costuming is repaired, unstained and replaced. Some of these tasks are clearly sexier than others.  I like to do this with others because then it becomes more fun, less dull and we can make ibuprofen jokes (If you work at faires, you make these as well.)  My “treat” for doing this  a new costume piece or something for…the tent.  Slowly but surely we have been getting accessories for the troupe. After our last tent was unceremoniously smashed against the side of a building by a Gulf Coast wind I finally bit the bullet and paid for a fairly historical tent.  And some nice chairs, and we added a side panel, and are costing out a recycled rug and…well it is only limited by our imagination, our budget and the size of our traveling vehicle.

As Gloria Gaynor famously sang “I love the nightlife, I love to boogie” but I would paraphrase to say I like the stage. I can eat up compliments as well as the next guy.  I must prefer kudos for my work than for my costume or ability to take fruit to the head (long story) And you do have to be prepared to take some damage  and time o do what we do in order to receive the applause.

Each fire act takes a year to come to the stage, each performance fight a minimum of six weeks (that’s after it is created) and the historical stuff often longer. Once had a subcontractor (sort of) come by and ask if we ever did anything new in our shows. And after several troupe members had duct-taped my cranium in place so my head didn’t explode, I calmly explained that we *always* add something new, every single performance. It can be as simple as tweaked lines or substituting a crab puppet for a dagger (true story, even we don’t know about if beforehand sometimes) It can be premiering a weapons form that no one else in North America is doing because we took the time to pay for a translation and then interpret. It can be a new kids act that can only be seen at one show once a year. We definitely have a niche and change up within that format-but we DO change it up and not just for the audience’s benefit.

Longevity lives in the heart. If anyone came up to me and showed me that they do what we do, better and with more gusto, with a brief  consult with my partner we would gladly turn over the reins  and just be troupe members (it’s even in our rules)  But our members have freely admitted that it is a long, tough job to be the boss and it’s more fun to show up, do the job and then slip away back to home.

I can’t say what your motivator is; my partner says it is to be a “nostalgia generator” (I’ll make him do a guest post on that)  another says it is the sense of purpose while enjoying the faire. Another that it is all about the little kids and getting to say those things you’d normally be fired for uttering. Whatever it is, it’s that little fire inside and if you can keep that stoked long-term, you might get to be an old hand at it.

 

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Today we’re going to discuss dilettantes,  I do my best not to point fingers because I am as guilty as the next person. I attended school for art and no, I am currently not being paid to do art. I did a stint for two years as a freelancer and then said “You know, I need health insurance and a roof over my head.” And so I have moved from a participant to a supporter and admirer. This is true of many things in my life. I can’t give you a hard line of what separates the professional from the dedicated enthusiast because that line is as wide and muddy as the Amazon. But even a river that size has sides,  and if you are standing on the bank, you’ve made a choice. To be extra clear, don’t claim to be a thing if you are not.

Most of the professionals I know have endured some serious hardships to be where they are. And since we’ve been around over a decade, we’ve seen plenty of folks swimming beside us who have come past us, given us a ‘high-five’ and then gone to the bank and pulled themselves up. We’ve firmly settled on a rock somewhere near dead center and one of these passing performers kindly referred to us as “dedicated part-time professionals.” So from our mossy, wet stone, I share these observations.

Investment in tools and equipment
Whenever I start something I often invoke my inner miser-I will save up and buy the best I can of “one thing” First this was a pair of boots, then a costume. This making sure that I have spent so much that NOT using it makes me feel hideously guilty and I have to justify the cost. This isn’t the method for everyone. With our group you are welcome to use loaner swords and costumes for about a year, then, the other members will start giving dirty looks because by that time, you should have your own sword and unique costuming. I’m told this is a generous amount of time. Other groups do it differently-they own your equipment but if you don’t produce, no equipment for you and OUT! But frankly, if you claim to be a juggler, pirate, lion tamer, what have you and haven’t bought a single item to support this claim-no one will believe that you have commitment.

Patience
Recently a western martial arts group posted a cartoon that made me chuckle. It showed someone watching a film, taking one class in martial arts, being disappointed and going back to playing video games.  As I commented on the thread, we see this pretty often.  This last weekend we did a workshop using dowels and at the end we let the participants handle the weapons and one commented “This is heavy!” (It was a rapier, if you were curious) We are about incremental changes over time-and that is why we will take anyone with the heart to try-some of our best people come from humble beginnings. A friend with Das Geld Fähnlein  and I have a similar attitude about members which we call the “pasta theory.”  The idea is to toss them in hot water, then throw them at something and see if they stick (thus, ready for consumption/finished)  Our requirement is six weeks of practice for one show a year. If you can’t make that level of commitment, I can’t be bothered to learn your surname.

Focus and Goals
Focus can a be a problem with performers. My partner laughs every time when I react to people with a bad attention span. Studies have proven that people cannot multitask  and so we work to make practice a place where we can self and group evaluate, where the only point is to learn/improve skills and think about what the future holds. We ask our members every year what they want to be able to do next year. Some people treat our segments and plays like merit badges-collect and move on to the next one. Sadly, it doesn’t work this way.  If someone doesn’t have a  basic understanding of why cuts or phrases are done a certain way, it’s like trying to eat a sandwich without any bread-messy and it looks unappetizing. We also do our best to discourage drama, because when someone wastes time at practice –they aren’t just wasting their time, they are wasting EVERYONE’S time.  It’s small ship, we all need to row together and know where we are going.

Routine
This is so important-as a friend says “The first part is showing up.” No one is 100% every day but even the days when it is a lower percentage, it can be a learning opportunity.  I still go to practice when I’m under the weather (but not contagious)  because sometimes there are questions, or just moving slowly still is moving. Everything adds to our routine-stairs rather than elevator, water rather than soda, slow movements through sword strikes and being in the head space that the next moments in time are focused on learning, listening, observing and doing.  Every small step gets ups closer to the end goal.

Practice
I’ve written a whole post on this so if you want to know my feelings on the subject just click on the link. Summary: Important.

And you will encounter people who think they can do what you do (A cracked podcast about this phenomena) But don’t be discouraged, you know that in a week, a year, two years, you’ll be better and better and they won’t be there at all.

Won’t lie, the rather self-deluded dabblers make me upset when they feel the need to share opinions with me. Even professionals will do this but you need to file these things away in your own time and importance. I like to use them as spikes in my ascent to being better and better. I remember one individual saying to me “well if (member of defunct well-known comedy sword duo) was here and saw you do that, she’d ream you a new one.” To which I replied
“I guess we can all be happy she’s not, then.”
And that pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject

 

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As someone who works at a Renaissance faire, the term “revisionist history”  takes on a whole new level of absurdity that one either accepts with a whole heart or causes head-splodey madness .

 

One of  my personal pet peeves is people who take working at the faire WAY too seriously or in an amazingly open-minded atmosphere, settle on some facts and never revisit whether or not they may be true.  Few things go straight up my –ah-nose more than a “faire” purist. Do I understand wanting something to be perfect, historically represented and with some validity? Yes! Do I accept that faires are not a pure reenactment event and are provided for entertainment. Yes, I am afraid I have to accept that as well.  Hand-dyed muslin meeting horse dukey is an excellent analogy for why, if you are fact-searching for history, the festival may not be the first place to start.

 

Accuracy; I like to think of faires as being “inspired by” or “based on real events.” If you have ever watched a movie with these disclaimers it is an unsaid rule that although what you receive may be BASED on something that happened, it has been changed, tweaked and rewritten to make it more entertaining.  History IS fascinating and far dirtier, sexy and violent than most high-school history teachers are allowed to pass down to the children in most public schools. I hated High School history but when we (troupe founders and members)started looking at historical translations, diaries and manuals, the past became much more fun and interesting.   Although the Victorians would have us believe that medieval and renaissance history was only occurring in Europe with light-skinned people, that is a complete falsehood. In fact, they took it upon themselves to rename perfectly serviceable items that are now known in the popular vernacular as accurate. And I could go another paragraph but this is a blog not a monograph so let’s move on and summarize. So when I hear someone at the festival give a name to an item, swear it is accurate, and then when I question the validity of said source material and it causes anger and loud voices, a learning opportunity is lost. There should be growth on both ends –from the presenter and from the person visiting the festival.  People should be open to questions and periodically check to see if something new has come out from historians. 

 

Clothing; like the hand-dyed muslin, if it can’t be thrown into a washing machine at the local laundromat, it’s probably not a the best choice for a performer who wears this day in and day out. Most expensive items are not worn directly against the skin so they can be brushed, sprayed and keep their shape. Accuracy would be lovely but the hard facts of doing community theater or working an event are that the performer needs items that *evoke* the past while taking advantage of modern materials. Do I know and love people who have saffron-soaked linen and hand-stained it to wear at the festival? I do although I also told them they were nuts, face-to-face.  I have great admiration for those with this passion, who COMMIT to accuracy and detail. Most of them are lovely, many of them decide this a license to be nasty bullies. There are even Guilds at the faires dedicated to this level  but honestly,  it’s a lifestyle choice and like other lifestyle choices, it should teach respect, not barriers.  If someone is that concerned about someone else  being a “farb”  then I recommend the SCA or reenactment events, not faires.

 

Intention; what is the purpose of being at the festival-you are there to entertain and as a secondary, inform. If someone is there to drink beer, eat turkey legs and look at codpieces and bodices, then let the visitor do so and then you can sneak in some humor and history.  I don’t judge folks coming through the gate, they are my paycheck. (Okay, I judge a little) And the truism we see all the time-just because something is awesome to you, doesn’t mean it is awesome to others-so you need to actually care about what your audience thinks. I understand, I’ve stood there saying to other troupe members
“But how can swords and fire not be fun and amazing?” wearing sad puppy face. But it doesn’t matter, people come for their own reasons and it is your job to accommodate them.  This means if your audience is staring at you with a glazed expression, you need to find a way to connect. It means you might have to give up the much-vaunted, clutched to chest like pearls…

 

Basic Faire Accent. If you can do this clearly and concisely and could read the yellow pages and be riveting-go for it. Some of us blessed with less charisma settle for enunciating and speaking clearly and do not mock the paying audience. This also goes for using buzzwords local to your workplace. Nothing alerts me to someone committing actorbation and elitism faster than using bizarre phrases that isolate from our paying audience and volunteers.  It doesn’t make you cooler than the other kids, it just perpetuates an inability to empathize and create a sense of true connection with other human beings.  Do we use buzzwords? Yes. They are closer to the ones used by department stores to indicate lost children. For us it is broken props, the need to go pee or costume malfunctions-all of which I’m pretty sure the paying public doesn’t even want to hear about or be in “in the know.” But if you are a purist, I expect your Shakespeare to sound like this (video)

 

People attend Renaissance Faires and festivals to joke around, have a good time and have piece of history. Sometimes that history has to be wrapped in a corn dog to make it palatable and easy to hold in the hand.  Anyone who feels that this is health food is kidding themselves and they need to sneak a little tasty and accurate center into the festival –maybe to help others develop a palate for more sophisticated food. Or just love the festival for what it is, an entertainment event, that is “inspired by” history. With some loving touches added by people who adore history.

 

 (and yes, these are true stories)

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1)      Directions can be optional. For our group we try to leave early and use a mix of local help, google maps and GPS. Note that I don’t say one of these things is better than the other but as least there is cross-referencing going on and you *might* get there with no issue. It can be a bit of a strain on the earliest arrivals. One fair we arrived before the signs went up and the location was a large, unplowed field next to a church.  The church had not updated its address on the website so car two actually reached there first.  Another example was a faire that took place so far out of town that the locals had never even heard of the location. But car one chugged along the red clay roads, hoping that there were no shotguns involved, and included in the final directions were
“and turn left at the dead armadillo.”  Sure they laughed, but it did get everyone to the site.

2)      Sometimes the people running the event have less of an idea of what is going on that you do, in many cases it is not their fault. It’s just what happens.  In earlier entries I mention having an ability to find one’s center in these crisis moments. It’s important that no matter the language, activity or event, one breathes deeply and makes a new plan. (see Sun Tzu)  we carry a tent and in your case, your Zen temple may be your car or that space behind some hay bales.  Our SOP is to find a respected authority (you can tell, people come up screaming and running with flailing arms like a muppet and ask them questions) and pick a spot and confirm your showtimes. If conflicting information arises, redirect them to ‘authority’  Arriving early can sometimes be a boon as you are a ‘solved problem’ and no one wants to take the time to dislodge you (sort of like a friendly lamprey!)  Some of the items we’ve seen-no schedule, so we told the organizer when and where we’d set up. Or that some mysterious entity came by in the dead of night and rearranged vendor and performer site tags to suit themselves. (We didn’t have popcorn but took in the show anyway!) And receiving a totally inappropriate area for performance (You guys do a fire show and swords? I guess in the hallway is a bad spot, huh?) And let the person who helps you take credit for the good idea even if you came up with it. Safety, harmony and happiness are key.

3)      Occasionally there are no basic amenities. Always carry water and food with you. I don’t recommend dehydration but sometimes it’s not a bad thing when there is nowhere to water the wildlife. And garbage bags, med kit, safety pins, tools and duct tape. I wish folks who get hurt would stop first at the first-aid. Sadly, they usually stop at the tent with the sword people.

4)      Contracts are your friends, read them, know them, carry a copy with you. Same with MSDS sheets, insurance policies and emergency contacts for your members. We keep ours in the medical kit. It would be lovely if no one ever needed to double-check these but if you need them, it’s a life saver.

5)      Checklists, you laugh but it keeps life sane

6)      Dirty laundry and extra clothing-some individuals are under the impression that it’s okay to reuse costuming without washing and airing. They are wrong.  The cleaner you are, the better off you are. This includes hygiene, brushing off dirt, doing a spot-check on clothes. And yes, you should wash them as soon as you get home-it doesn’t start to smell better the longer you wait.

7)      There may be animals, including insects. Or pigs, or horses, or cats. If you have allergies carry benadryl or an epi-pen(or both.) This is true of strange foods as well. If you are a lactose-intolerant celiac with animal allergies, I hope you have a great health plan and the fair may well be a miserable place for you. And yes, animals poop.

8)      Be aware.  Wind picking up? May want to pull down your pop-up-and dodge the other tent rolling your way. Horse loose? Stay out of the way of the person with the rope calling its name. Small child crawling onto your stage?  Faire security can’t be everywhere, sometimes you have to be your own guardian angel.

9)      Some people will try not to pay you.  Try to never leave a site without getting paid. Don’t care if it is your grandma paying you in cookies, do your best not to let this happen.

10)   Have fun and let your freak flag fly, it’s why you are here.  It is also why others are here. You will experience things at the faires that you may want to write about later.  In our troupe we have what we call “2-beer stories.” These are tales that only come out after someone has bought me two beers and we are in an adult setting. They aren’t always about me but I’m told well worth the cost of admission. You need to keep an open mind and roll with the punches. You will learn quite a bit, even if you didn’t want to know certain things. If it is all too much-remember your Zen temple.

I tell you these things not to discourage, but to make aware the new performers, and even then, this really will only be an “oh yeaaah….” Somewhere in the back of your mind when it occurs. I mean this with all my heart; wash your costumes, there are few things nastier than renfaire garb put away dirty and left to ferment.

 

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I wrote a blog about how performers view patrons and I feel I have to follow up with a “How we sometimes view other performers.” Often, we don’t because we are out  busting a hump to make our own performance happen. If you make the “notice” list I’m talking about here, well, it was nice seeing ya!

I am going to use a real-life example because they illustrated this so perfectly. One year at a small but lucrative faire, there was a group that came in for low-to-nothing cost. We had been doing the faire for about two years at that point when a group I will simply call “the Prima Donnas” or PD for short (Pain in the Derrieres, if you prefer) did something like we do but not really-it was noisy and involved physical skill. The first way they caught our attention was to complain about stage placement. You see this was a large field and we were given one of the long ends as our site. We’d set up the tent, made up a ring and posted a blackboard with our stage times. The other large groups would work out from the OTHER end. This group had arrived late to the fest and so, a lot of ground had been claimed. But we understood and said we’d be happy to share our ring when the time came. But you see they did not communicate within their own group so the following happened: confusion on where they were performing, when (which led to some indignity when they tried to use our stage on our scheduled times) and how much space their show took up. Still, we are easy-going, figured out a solution and moved on.

Following up,  they decided to have a public confrontation with one of our subcontractors about the manner in which he attracted crowd as his loud method was “too similar to our show.” Okay then. If our noise-maker is competing with your show, we are delighted to stop. I personally felt it said more about the quality of their show than we should know but, there you are. And this was topped off with that most heinous of sins…trying to steal our crowd during a show.

Folks, if you ever want to make the hate list of another act, you should either distract an audience during someone’s show or interrupt the acts’ tip time. That act may well do something dire to you while all the other performers cheer and offer suggestions. Bring the marshmallows, Martha, because there will be a bonfire.

So PD had not endeared themselves to us or to any of the other performers. And just when I thought they could not add another tickbox to Things You Don’t Do…

Another bit of background about this faire site, it was functionally a cul-de-sac. After our first year of being trapped for an hour in the parking area, we had learned to park outside the site in another lot and just hand-carry what we needed overland and get out of there. Other acts, staff, etc. found themselves trapped by one vehicle packing up and the attempts to leave could take hours. Had we really been charitable we could have warned them (they had light equipment) but after spending the day with them, we figured it wasn’t worth taking up any more of their precious time and air. So as we passed them, carrying our bags and satchels of swords and tent bits they whined about walking to their vehicle and complained about how their nice faire garb had become all muddy. Huh, mud at a faire ground, who would have thought it?

And we overheard one of them ask his companion why we weren’t helping and his friend told him that [equipment] wasn’t that heavy and maybe they’d asked enough already. One of my troupe-mates leaned over to me, under the bag on his shoulder and observed
“Don’t think we’ll be seeing them next year.”
And he was right, we never saw that group anywhere, ever again.

Be reassured folks, that we have seen *members of that group* involved in other events, so no, they were not lost and never seen again. Or had anything dire done to them.

But let’s summarize:

  • Don’t assume  you are the only act at a faire (or at least don’t act like it)
  • Don’t be a jerk to your fellow acts, we are in this together so try to swallow your bile and wear a smile, at least for a few hours.
  • Do be sure to know where YOU need to be and what YOU are doing because other than the organizer or performer representative, you’re asking too much of anyone else. 
  • Never, ever compete with someone’s act and audience at their stage. There is a Leprechaun in FL who has a bounty on his head, (only kind of kidding.)
  • Do be prepared and informed, or at least appear to be. Ask questions if you don’t know.

And finally, it’s an outdoor event. If you are not prepared to deal with the elements, you’re in the wrong business.

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The word “investment” has four separate definitions in Mirriam-Webster. In other locations it is listed under cultural, financial and sociological categories, This is in keeping with what performing is for most individuals-it would be nice to compartmentalize how to approach it, but it is nigh-impossible. No one I have ever met felt that becoming a renaissance faire performer was without cost and often acknowledge that if many knew the end result, would leap in so gleefully, feet first. Not that there is another way, mind you.

For stage there are unions and legal standards. Not so for many faires-they are impromptu affairs that are often made by committee. I was a person who fell into the “Let’s do a show!” trap and try not to let the performers who work with me fall into that too deeply. Here are some thoughts for long-term performers to ask themselves.

How much of my time? The answer is quite a bit. No act forms fully realized from inside someone’s head and it will not only need to be swaddled, nurtured and practiced-but subject to critique by friends, peers and complete strangers. You’ll notice that a lot of acts have small, friendly venues where they try out new material. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes or The Evil Overlord checklist #12, there is nothing like a sharp-eyed kid to shred your wonderful idea and force a complete rework. That’s right, I used the word WORK. And just like your day job it will need to be supported by reliable transportation, time planning, physical and mental labor. I have been unpleasantly surprised at the number of people who want to join our troupe without considering this. We never throw someone onstage with no time invested in training. The amount of time invested will impact success. But time invested with no feedback, or review is wasted time. So if you think you’re going onstage impromptu, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Effort. I was once given a truism that allowed me to survive some terrible jobs. “You are paid for your time, not for your soul.” Sadly this doesn’t apply to performance. Your employer is, in fact, paying you to pour out your soul onstage-and you’d better do a good job of it. This means the training mentioned, it means lugging your tools, food, first aid, possibly shelter and costuming. It’s easy to do a good show in the sunshine, fresh in the spring to a willing audience. It is far harder to do that show in the rain, cold, overheated, with cranky patrons and less-than-optimal factors. Whether you are in a warm, shaded glade or sweating buckets on a soccer field or asphalt-it has to be the same quality. Like the one-armed bandit, some days you will get the jackpot, some days it’s just repetitive motion and you come away poorer for the experience. The trick is to  go out and do it again as though every day was a winner-and incrementally, you are a winner but that’s a pay-off you may not see for months or years. I like to quote Joe DiMaggio
There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, I owe him my best.
(Source: The Sporting News April 4, 1951)

Friends and community, as with any toes into new waters, you may encounter minnows, you may encounter piranhas. Some folks in the community would like to take far too much advantage of newcomers in return for very little. But some peers in the community are  great and deserve kudos for all they bring to shows and the environment. But if one sees the same faces again and again and will lend a helping hand, this has proved to be one of our favorite “investments” in what we do. Within Phoenix Swords we have especially close bonds because these are the people we rely upon to be our spotters, partners and to use dangerous objects with implicit trust. And we pay back too, with tent help, moving and any heads-up about site changes.

Last but certainly not least-money.  All sorts of groups-reenactors, LARPers, community theater, social clubs-all of these and more are suffering as the economy is suffering. As of 2008 quite a few events simply stopped happening. Because we have been through this sort of crunch before, we have spare costumes, weapons and will cut costs internally in other ways.  Performers even with the backing of a group have to have money for gas, cleaning, food, repair and re-supply. It’s not impossible to do this on a limited budget but there does have to be a budget, even if just volunteering.

In summary, there are costs to being a performer, not all which are apparent at the outset but need to be taken into consideration.  This the title “Investment” hopefully with has served as a way to jump-start thinking about the tangential parts of having fun on stage.

ImageI am sure that as soon as one human stood up and made a joke, another human was banging rocks together and pointing at his own hoo-hoo, thus hecklers have always been with us.  There are countless venues who have written volumes on this subject but I’d like to take on how it can be handled at the Renaissance Faire. To start, this venue is generally one of the most friendly and intimate and often unless drinking is involved, it stays fairly polite.  As for our group, we live on East Coast where we get lots and lots of practice at insults, think skinned tolerance and too much human interaction. And if you wonder what the first three hobbies were, this is the only one I was willing to write about here.

Recently one of my personal  performing heroes, Dave Chappelle, was heckled locally and it all went sideways. This made me sad because he gave me the strength to persevere earlier in his career telling his story about bombing at the Apollo Theater.   I figured if someone with that much talent could take it, I had no excuses. But his odd response to these hecklers inspired this blog.

Still when one is onstage, it’s hard not to take it as a personal attack and in some ways it is-but if you are a performer it’s important to remember that there is no way a random person in the audience is aware of who you are as a person and that the attack is really more about  what is going on in the head of the attacker. And it some cases they have no idea that this is actually what they are doing.

Drunk Guy, this one is easy. Generally this can be ignored and someone can quickly run off and grab security. Chances are if this man/woman is a menace to you, it’s been a trail of social mess.

The “Helper.” this person has been to your shows and knows your lines and is spoiling every comedic moment you’ve worked years to perfect. This person probably sees it as “participation.” But to my knowledge, Rocky Horror or Repo the Genetic Opera are not playing at any local renfaires so this person is Open Season. I’m not saying call-and-response is discouraged, quite the opposite!  A long tradition for Panto, Punch and Judy, blogs and Church! But without solicitation this person is killing the timing. We often respond by going off-script. For some groups this is awful but with ours, whom we have to practically use cattle prods to keep on-line, it’s setting loose the hounds. And if you have friends who work in retail, food service or a government agency, I suggest you mine them for the comedy gold they could provide you in dealing with the public. They will gladly give you all of the inner dialogue they never shared with customers. This should be put down quickly and firmly. An excellent example: (Skip to 2:05 if you are impatient)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uai7M4RpoLU

The person who has decided to hate you
You have no control over this, all you can do is move on and roll with the punches. Sadly, unless this person is actively causing problems to the audience you need to ignore or incorporate this individual. I’ve been forced to do both. It can really be a shock to experience. One friend who sub-contracts with us and has been doing faires for almost 20 years had a child decide that he hated, hated, hated his character for a faire.  Enough that the child in question stood up in a set of bleachers, and screamed
“I HATE YOU DON ANTONIO!!”
And I’ll admit, we all sort of blinked for a few moments, stunned. After all, we all want to break down the fourth wall but this was with a sledge hammer. Andt it was energizing too, that we had evoked so much strong emotion and now everyone would know Don Antonio, that jerk. Work with it as best you can and if it becomes more than an occasional annoyance, once again it may be a security issue.

Other-people come in a bewildering array of faces, places and choices. someone might be attempting to audition for your role. Someone who thinks they are more righteous, better, more entertaining  than you. Someone who just has no ^&*#ing social skills.  You have no way to know, you will never know.

Remember:

  • You were paid to be here. If someone interrupts your show they have cast the first volley and now you can make your feelings plain, shoot them down and move on.
  • If they are persistent you can sometimes base your show on them, in the way they never planned, as the butt of your jokes.
  • If you are done, be done with them and just ignore them. If they sufficiently annoy your audience (who has paid to see you) things will occur. You probably don’t have to be involved.
  • Security is a last resort and chances are you are better off finishing your bit and THEN getting security. (or having a buddy)

And I’m happy to cede the subject to people who do it better than I do. I’m there for the swords and fire so here are some experts in the field (NOT Safe for work or small people)

How comedians deal with hecklers (video collection)

Christophe the Insultor, a man who does it professionally

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As some of you know, Phoenix Swords does a fire show in addition to the swords. Over a decade ago, there were not as many performance and prop groups out there. Or at least not very mainstream. Thanks to Cirque De Soleil and Burning Man and every movie that needs a fire breather for “Ambiance,” knowledge about fire, fire performance and fire safety is far more available these days. In any case if you ask to do fire acts my first response is “don’t.” My second is “well, at least do it safely.” This blog is not about resources or training, it’s about what it means to decide to play with fire.

One of our initial fire performers with Phoenix used to do our fire introduction with new members who wanted to do fire. We found it was instructive to have a performer who had actually  set himself  aflame to warn how bad it could be. At my request, he wrote it down (the full story is available publicly if you know where to look) This occurred when he was part of another group, his own words;

WARNING  DESCRIPTION OF BEING ON FIRE FOLLOWS:

My breath of fire ends and I feel the painful vacuum of a thoroughly exhausted repertory system. Sadly I also feel a quarter mouth full of fuel. I turn away from the torch to spit the fuel and reach for the glass of water behind me…. An experienced fire spitter might have had a second thought about wind direction right then, if I had had a moment I might have. Right then My body rejected its combustible guest coughing and spiting the wad of fuel and saliva all over my self. The fumes of fuel wafting past my face as thin as they are, are sufficient to catch the torch in the other hand ‘which was at least four feet from the cough’ with the speed of stupidity the flames race along a tract of fumes back to their source. If only that source had not been my face.

All our lives we are taught that should you ever catch fire stop drop and role. As useful as that sound I is the least practical piece of propaganda ever written. The shock value of catching your head on fire super seeds learned responses activating the instinctual mind In this instance overwhelming it when the only thing you can see is fire the only thing to do is close your eyes and wait for the end. Another funny thing happens, the rational mind is still running not going anywhere but running and unencumbered by the decision making process it goes into high gear thousands of thoughts happen at once and you are aware of them all, As though knowledge of your coming demise encouraged them to get as much out before the building collapses.

In the real world a few practiced conditioned responses are engaged by my shocked mind. I hold the wet rag over my mouth and nose to prevent fire from getting in. Good idea right, would have been if I had rinsed the rag after each spit. Instead I am holding a fuel soaked rag against my face. Some part of my mind gets that but can’t veto the original thought of cover your mouth. I also drop the torch, which would seem like logic if I weren’t stumbling around like an idiot kicking over the jar of fuel.

So here I am [FnF] the human match dancing in a puddle of fire before a macabre audience of awe struck ax wielding barbarians. And I think “what an embarrassing way to die.” At about that instant I am tackled from the right by a drunken pirate captain and from the left by a velvet clad jester. Behind me an Asian battle princess throws a bucket she expects to be full of water, to find out it contains a wet towel. The Guys wrap my head in their puffy sleeves extinguishing me……

So after my brush with death. The crowd of curious onlookers gathers around to check out the carnage. These are the people who slow down at a traffic accident to see if there is a body; useless to the victim and a nuisance at best to any one actively trying to help. I am in too much pain to ward them away as they examine the blisters that have formed around the edges of my nostrils, and along my ears, and the mosaic or red and white flesh in between. My friends find wet rags and soda cans which are sadly the only source of cold we have available. My brother- the jester who put me out, piles me into the car and speeds off to the hospital which is in this case a long ways off. Half way there my soda has reached urine like temperatures. The pain comes with waves of nausea, and by the psychological inertia of trauma I can’t take away the rag and can on my face.

If you’ve read that, know that he survived with only second-degree burns, has a small scar on his cheek and occasionally still does fire acts, and even breathing. But this is the first part of anyone who wants to work with fire has to hear. After that, we make them  take this test.  This lets us open up a dialogue about what is really involved with safe fire use.

The second way to suss out if someone is suited to fire performance is to have them go through the act of working with fire. I have seen people who thought they were fully prepared and ready,  scream  and throw  tools down (a good, healthy reaction actually) On the flip side I have seen someone who said “no way” step in and be one of the best instinctive spotters we have. (def: Spotter, person who maintains safety and puts out lit performers, objects and stages during a performance, your vernacular may vary. We just say “safety.”) There is no way to tell until under careful, controlled circumstances  how anyone’s “Monkey Brain” will respond.  We use the term “Monkey Brain” quite a bit, not in a derogatory way but to indicate that sane, median people generally don’t gravitate to things that can hurt them, their inner primate has alarm bells built into it.  I’ve had this discussion with my cousin the police officer and when he laughed about how I was mentally broken, I had to point out that when someone calls about shots fired or violence he answers
“I’ll be right there!” So really it’s about your personal measurement of risk.

Here’s a question everyone should ask-not IF I will burn myself but WHEN I burn myself, what will I do? Because no matter how good you are, fire, environment and fuels are variable. For those of you familiar with industry standards,  1% failure rate is not an acceptable risk. And if there was NEVER failure, cars wouldn’t break down, planes wouldn’t crash…you get the idea. Working safely with fire is minimizing risk, but ultimately YOU are responsible for YOU and with whom you work. I’ll go into procedures in another blog entry but there is never a “just this once we won’t…” exceptions being small tricks in which three safety members would be less safe and more Three Stooges.

Read that far? Good, let’s assume that you’ve practiced, you’re comfortable and ready to go. Are you ready for an audience? It’s much like a multi-tiered puzzle box-new level of complexity.  Will your audience respect the rules?  Are you carrying fuels safely from place to place, are they secure? And environments change quickly.  We have one stage that we use that is  sometimes quite windy but I appreciate it because it has a clear audience demarcation and is made of concrete. At this point you have exceeded what you can think about as a performer. In Phoenix, the performer is not asked to assess this. Their job is to get on stage, stay safe and focused and get off stage.  The safety people are our backbone, they  are what makes it possible to go onstage and be great.

So what has happened to me as a performer? My own experience is multiple burns and a great safety team.

When the percentages went against me:

  • Unknown hole in my fire pants, underwear lit and I had to have my butt put out. (meteors)
  • Grabbing a hot fire sword forgetting I was wearing a fingerless glove.
  • Having a knee give out and I toppled backwards, fell, my tool bounced back, hit my eye, bounced out. I suffered only some singed eyebrows  and a shiner. (meteors)
  • Not tilting far enough back during fire eating, seared nose hair-very odiferous.

And the final part: getting burnt, accepting it is a part of what to expect, getting up and finishing the act, continuing to do fire without regrets. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many people have NOT made it past this last step.

But some of you are saying
“Fire is so sexy! How have you made it so unsexy!”
Fire is sexy, and scary and can do harm to more than just you. And if you flirt with danger, sometimes danger is a bad date and you should be careful. I’m not saying that if this is your calling, forget it . I understand the siren song is strong and if you are good at it, well it puts you in a smaller segment of the population.  But I am saying go at it with a clear mind, specific intention and a REALLY good safety-because at least one smart person should be around when you push down all those clever instincts and do the unthinkable.

Who else has something to say on the subject?
Home of Poi

North American Fire Arts Association

Boston Spinners

Worcester Spin Jam

Note: We do take people and teach them fire use BUT we also require a year of commitment because we have no interest in training our competition. 🙂

As always, feel free to contact me.

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Abstract: If I knew then what I know now, I might well have piled the money and rolled atop it with no clothing and felt better about myself. But I didn’t and we have a performance troupe 😉

Still reading? Okay Pros and Cons, then some points.

Pros: It is empowering to run a group of people who take your vision and turn it into something amazing on stage. It’s great to be able to delegate tasks to others, set the tone, have control of what is and isn’t accepted practice. It’s super-grade euphoria to have patrons and organizers tell you that your group rocks and to have fans.

Cons: You have to pay out of pocket to support this idea, you still have to do most of the most rotten jobs and if anything goes sideways you have to stand up, eat the crap pie and take responsibility. You have people who tell you how awful your group is and heckle you and there is no big money payoff at the end. Your own group can turn on you faster than the townsfolk of Transylvania.

So how do groups get started? Usually  because some delusional people decide
“I can do that!” or “I can do that better!” I will admit to the latter. Performance groups are like plants, there is natural growth,  they have shoots or seeds and these spring up in fertile ground. Or in our case “hitchhiker” seeds, like cocklebur, which stick to everything and have to be dislodged, but generally in a new location.

The only experience we had with managing this sort of thing came from our (day job) workplaces where there was an organization chart, a goal, a team statement of intent and a plan. What we  ended up with was Herding Cats Perhaps the smarter readers realize that performers make terrible office workers because they chafe at rules and restrictions and many popular performers mentally vacation. That is, they leave the planet for a personal world that does not intersect with the one the rest of us inhabit.  The best ideas we received on how to manage a performance group often came from public school teachers and this is excellent advice: Start hard-nosed and then you can relax the rules but the reverse is disaster.  You may laugh but the dynamics are similar. Also in an office you have financial leverage,  bonuses and the backing of an organization. As the owner of a group doing renfaires, none of these things is generally possible.

Things to remember as a group head/owner:
You set the example,  you should know how to do the lowest to highest jobs. It doesn’t mean you’ll do them well, but you have to be able to pinch-hit in a crisis. One of the first sacrifices you may have to make is pull your stage time to do support work.
You need to keep everyone in working form-this means understanding that others have lives, that people can become sick or have car troubles and that sometimes even if THEY think they are up for the job, you will have to pull them and make a an unpopular decision.

Although it’s nice to think it’s your way or the highway, you in fact, have to pick your battles.  Too much “my way” and not enough “leeway” can result in no performers. I am not saying give up personal ethics or let bad behavior get swept under the rug-because you pay now or pay double later if it is not handled. But if one of your top performer says  they need a small favor, or a day off, then by all means, that is time to assess and step back. They have certainly done enough for you.

Being the leader doesn’t mean you are THE BEST at anything but keeping your group running.  You can’t DO everything. If someone has a skill then let them do it, it’s to your benefit. When they find holes in how you do things you should thank them and fix the issue.

The dirty jobs. Sometimes you have to say no or let people go. It stinks. Sometimes you have to be the fall guy for an unhappy organizer or take the heat because your performer did a dumb thing and THEN you have to explain to the performer WHY it was a dumb thing and why they are experiencing a reprimand. And you have to do it with facts only, even if secretly in your heart YOU might have made the same mistake or felt the same way. And you WILL make mistakes and you will get called on it by your members.

For us, running a group came out of a bad experience. We were in a group run in a strange way that didn’t work out. Seeing that model, we chose “Benevolent Dictatorship.”  And that doesn’t win popularity contests either-we have some members that by keeping them, we caused others to quit in a fit of pique. That didn’t bother us for a second because the ones who quit have gone on to obscurity-forgetting that there was a lot of back work that kept them in the public eye. And my favorite quote
“You are nothing without me!!!!!!”
*crickets*

So being in a group is great but if you flounce out, gone are all the benefits. Ask any goose that flies outside of the flock about wind resistance.   Our group is a straight-up meritocracy and we’ve been told we commit favoritism.  Guilty as charged, if you have a performer that does 99 percent of the jobs, a boatload of work and is a joy to work with, they get perks.

So if you are prepared to financially take on mistakes, be criticized about decisions, endure being in some tough environmental, mental and physical conditions, by all means, run a group, It’s rewarding if you are a driven, highly creative person with a strong vision and constitution.