Archives for posts with tag: renfaire performers

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We’ve had some fairly frustrating conversations with marketers and website consultants about “growing our business” and it’s fairly clear they have *no idea* what it really is we do as a troupe who does sword shows and fire shows. We’ve been around for 13 years as of September and although that’s probably 80% “sheer cussedness,”  we’ve always had a clear vision of who we are and what we want to do.

How do you define success? Well if we based it solely on money we’d have some larger economic issues. We knew when we started we did not want performing as a full-time job-we have personal and profession success elsewhere. But we do feel it is important to have money enough to support the endeavor and have found that most employers will often not respect the free act (which has its own hazards) and there are costs with maintaining insurance, practice space, storage space,  equipment and training. So getting the balance of money with job satisfaction and effort is an ever-changing juggling act.

All things to all people is not workable
If we had taken the advice of others we’d be the star-wars-pirate-steampunk-fantasy game sword fighting, fire juggling, acrobatics and vendor act. And yes, wouldn’t that be unwieldly? It’s not that we haven’t flirted, investigated or dabbled in other things-it’s just that it didn’t speak to the expertise we already had. We did peek a bit into Steampunk but the outlay in new materials, costuming and development would have cut into getting sword teachers, replacing equipment we already possessed and needed to replace/fix.  We have added and subtracted things over the years-puppet shows, kids skits, large-scale complex acts (Historical Deathmatch as an example.) And as for Star Wars-there are so many specialists now, that there’s no need for us to maintain that piece. What we will always keep is the historical sword research,  demonstrations and the comedy sword fights. And Fire show-even though there are fire specialty groups, we have a well-oiled machine, and it keeps a nice balance and break from just swords.

How do we stand out from other groups?
In our state we have 22 sword groups and with that level of saturation it can be hard to keep busy. We differentiate ourselves with historical research,  developing new demonstrations, bringing in sword trainers and doing bi-yearly assessments with the people who trained US. We have noticed that everyone suffers from what we call “photocopy syndrome”  That is, if you have a document, copied from a document, from a document, the quality degrades. (Think cloning for you scientists out there, screen record for you video pirates) Every time you take a step from the original it gets rougher and less clear. So it’s good to step back, get a view from someone outside the organization and get things back into balance. We have insurance and we practice almost every week.  As for the two founders, we DO practice every week. We may be older and slower but we know that like sharks-keep moving to stay alive.  And  not everyone does what we do or is interested in performance.  As we like to say,  our group is universally reviled by history buffs, stage performers, fire acts and WMA enthusiasts.

Our shows are strongly informed by our talent pool and requirements
We always put forth our best foot but sometimes we are hired for larger jobs and not everyone can do every thing. Sometimes our best fight partners for a particular sequence are not available and we may put another “fight module” in place. It’s seamless to the person hiring us but all our performers have strengths and weaknesses and we prefer to lead with our strengths. And if we have a large job that needs dancers, musicians or fire specialists then we will sub-contract that expertise rather than exhaust our usual players. I will often sacrifice stage time so that I can fill in as a stage manager, or do less fire act to be a spotter. There are no small roles when it comes to a performance. Our job as leaders is to uplift, enable, praise and raise.  And occasionally kiss boo-boos. The best show is one with an excellent support staff so the stage hams can get out there and do what they do best without distractions.

Our performances are strongly seasonal.
We do travel quite a bit but here in New England we have about four decent months to get out and do what needs to be done. Faires here are spring and fall heavy and the events try to do their best not to overlap one another’s weekends.  We have two HUGE faires and a bouquet of smaller events that bloom during that time. It makes me wince and pull faces to say “no” to a job, but we’ve experienced the days of splitting the troupe to do concurrent jobs and I think it hurts performance and morale to do it.  And I won’t lie, doing a job in Florida in March is a very nice break from some of these Massachusetts winters.  The harder part is keeping discipline to keep working and developing when most would rather stay in, cocoon and eat comfort food.

After all  this time, I am happy to give a hat tip to folks who are starting new acts. We know how hard it  is starting out in faires. And within our parameters we are happy to tinker, change up and work with our folks to give them tools, training and space to be great.  We try to refine what we do for good performance not to be the latest and greatest-but then we have a limited history span and in our case, it’s an advantage! So if we are not donning space suits or goggles, now you know why!

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Although I blog primarily about doing renaissance faires, We’d be foolish to turn down opportunities to do other venues –so we don’t! Everything is a learning opportunity.

Our most recent show was at the Springfield Libraries (part of a series)  and the focus was on our historical shows.  It reminded me about our audience types-this not about how we feel about the audience but how they feel about US.

Our breakdown for audience type:

Class 4 – Actively hostile. Someday I may share these stories, but not this day. If you are familiar with this scene from the Blues Brothers, you get the idea.

Class 3-The audience is wandering by in a non-standard venue. It is *difficult* to get this audience to care about what we are doing. This might be a town festival  or farmer’s market. No one came to see sword fighters and we are competing with things like a butter cow, ponies or puppies. (Deadly distractions to this audience)

Class 2 We are an act that fits into a theme or venue. We have been asked to perform by an organization that has an interest in what we do. This could be a renaissance faire, a local event vaguely based on chivalry, movie opening,  or someone’s theme party.

Class 1 The audience is specifically there to see what we do. This is either a venue designed to show off swords or fire,  museum,  a sword expo,  a reenactment event, a historical celebration, or a show where one has fans.

Now back to the starting paragraph, the library was a mix of these and frankly, people with weapons standing at your local library are a bit intimidating. And we had to think fast to makes connections with our varied audience.

Here some ways in which we did that:

Pop Culture: we are often teased for attending or watching kids movies but this pays off-we can make references to Star Wars, popular cartoons, fantasy movies, Manga, comics and more.  Sometimes you have to step into something different to reach across to other people.

Literature and art : Fortunately we are readers-maybe not all the same thing – but enough that we cover a lot of ground.  Because of a recent trip to the art museum, we were on the ball with a discussion about Caravaggio and his brawling habits, about Dumas and how interesting his actual life had been, and never underestimate reading graphic novels!

Hands-on; Although no one is allowed to swing around a sword, they can “bag” our defeated fighter (see our show, it will become clear) and we do a segment we refer to as Gallegher-esque. We let kids of all ages feel the weight of what we use and explain how we use it.

Listen: We invite questions because the best way to engage sometimes is to be quiet and let people tell you what they need and want.

Are there audiences we have not managed to engage? Yes, and everyone gets one of these.  I wish I could say we didn’t take it personally, but we absolutely do. Sometimes the next audience gets it like a double-rainbow fire hose to the face because we are determined to work past it. This is not an ideal reaction but  one can only moderate once you’ve calibrated the settings for your audience-from the ‘I hear you breathing’ to ‘the WOO! people’

It’s important to remember that any environmental factor that effects you, also effects your audience. Days after 9/11 we had fellow entertainers throwing themselves onto the ground in front of patrons because people were so heartsick and needed a laugh. If it’s hot and miserable for you, you aren’t going to hold an audience. It’s a living creation and agreement-you and those watching you. And really that’s what performing is, basically tuning yourself until you are all in synch. Unlike a musician, you can’t really do that extensively before a show, it is on the fly and you hope to hit the right chords as it is a different tune every time.  But if you do, it’s a work of art and everyone goes home humming.

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I was having a discussion his weekend with a friend who vends and attends renaissance faires and appreciate her insight. Because of some of the places I’ve worked, my interest is often more about the inner workings than the end product. So I appreciate her outside view when mine is so heavily subjective that I miss basic points about being part of a festival. We discussed a number of things;

Using popular media to introduce concepts of history to people-I know many, many reenactors  and scholars who want to run screaming whenever media uses an anachronistic, horrible and completely wrong premise as “information.” Let’s face it, history is like your BFF, you want the best for them, you love them and it kills you when people start terrible rumors-but remember not everyone knows them like you do, you need to do a low-key introduction. Don’t build them up too much or there will be unreasonable expectations. Just let the good stuff flow-take a flawed premise and gently correct it and make the truth even MORE interesting.  Nothing turns people off than a red-faced snooty history lover rebuking them for not using “correct terminology.” And frankly, some of these “purists” had best review their own facts, because more than once, I’ve had to pull out a reproduction, facsimile or illustration to cite that yes, I was not feeding anyone a falsehood.   Lord of the Rings? Éowyn, the shield maiden, that made an introduction to I.33 that much easier. Game of Thrones? You bet I’m going to watch that and know what their production used so that I can –oh-so subtly introduce the cool things my troupe does and maybe recruit some new members. And Brave? (and to some degree Braveheart) I am happy to be part of that Celtic Pride parade and we’ve purchased some bronze swords to use at shows. I would never look the popular movie gift horse in the mouth. Just as my friend and troupe member, Andy,  loved it when Gladiator was released and The Vikings have helped our friend Bill Short and his organization.  So I’m a big believer that as much as we may cringe at the way historical items are introduced, it’s really up to us to follow-up and make it meaningful.

Remember Faires are made-up and the points don’t matter. One of my earliest experiences working a faire was both wonderful and awful.  Working my first faire I saw a woman dressed as a wench do something violent to someone and I went to an organizer to report it. What actually happened was that the person to whom I reported  it made the experience so confusing and awful that I instantly regretted my decision to be helpful. I was interrogated about which wench number, which Wench Guild, did I tell anyone else and that I shouldn’t go making accusations. What was probably going on was the woman in question was concerned about her co-hobbyist’s reputation(when it simply could have been a patron), what it meant to me was a confusion of buzzwords and crazy-making and that I’d stuck my hand in a hornet’s nest unwittingly. (And not my first, nor I suspect my last encounter of this type)  I’m a big believer that when bad things happen we need to slow down and rely on time honored ways of dealing with crisis-be calm, ask the person to tell us what happened LISTEN and then make an assessment. We shouldn’t assume people know what a Wenches Guild is or “the privy”  or any of a number of in-house faire words mean when dealing with people. If it’s an emergency, break character and no regrets. And be willing to drop a persona of class if it means you have to communicate effectively. I have watched so many faire performers and volunteers cause people to turn away because they were not willing to view the situation through new and unjaded eyes.  And that makes my job twice as hard and makes me reluctant to share details of my business with new people because of the damage done previously. Another layer of this-another time another post- is “faire authenticity.”  I liken this to being a connoisseur of corn dogs. I’m sure there is a sub-society that appreciates the complexity, variety and joy of corndogs, but you don’t generally bump into them every day  and they won’t want to hear you wax rhapsodically about grit texture and case stuffing. And that’s where I’ll leave that.

Handling touching and inappropriate questions.
It would be wonderful if every parent had taught children
“No grabbyhands!”
And I’m guessing that most parents at least tried. But something about the renaissance faire seems to knock that common sense filter right out as people enter the gate. (I have friends who have worked at Disney and ride parks and they tell me this is a common phenomenon) Perhaps it is the excitement of “Swords!” or “Bewbs!” or one too many foods on a stick, I can’t hazard a guess. So sometimes although our first instinct of response is “No! Bad patron!” (and that’s healthy) but I try to use “Stop, let’s do this thing together!” usually with humor and a reassertion what I call “the reality rules”, you know, that this isn’t actually a tournament, and you wouldn’t grab some guy’s sidearm, or someone’s personal parts. I’m not saying we are there to be the rennie police, (that is security’s job) but we are the first line many people encounter and if we can have a conversation rather than a confrontation, we might make some new friends and renfaire affectionados.

Lastly, be authentic, and by that I mean, let your love of what you do shine through.  I know some organizers, vendors, attendees  and performers who think that by using exclusive language and being critical of patrons makes them look “cool.” It’s one thing to do it on a specialized forum it’s another to do it in a public “space.” I can’t tell you how many vendors instantly lost my sales (I was in jeans and a tee at the time) when they preferred to have a  tête–à–tête with a  fellow rennie over asking customers questions or acknowledging them. Equally off-putting is someone realizing that I’m a fellow faire person and suddenly I get “street cred” and then I have value to them. I just want to be treated well like anyone else and I make it a point to remember that whenever I pop on my ass-kicking leather boots (or ghillies if it’s hot)  And as my grandmother oft-quoted “love and kindness are never wasted.”

The Shakespearean insult tee featured above is available here