Working at a Renaissance Festival

ren-fest1Wow, what a weekend. Working festival is exponentially more effort than attending one, but it was all worth it for the smiles and laughter I got from patrons. I’ve had questions about what exactly a renaissance festival is and what my job entails, and that’s what this post is going to be about. If you’re curious, read on.

A renaissance festival is a lot like a fair with games, vendors, entertainment, and food, but it’s all set (loosely) in 16th century England. Most ren fests take place outdoors, the larger ones like GARF are permanent sites with wooden buildings that stay up all year long even though most festivals don’t run longer than 8 weekends in a year.

In keeping with the theme, all staff have to dress in period appropriate outfits. The games are made using technology that was available in the 16th century, there are no rollercoasters to be found here. Entertainers such as myself speak in the King’s English (think Shakespear), and the live music is folk music popular during that era. The clothing shops will have things like doublets, chemises, and bodices. You’ll often find craftsmen who do leatherworking, weaving, and glass blowing. Nearly all ren fests will have jousting as an attraction.

ren-fest2Most ren fests have a strong fantasy element to them too. We have several faries on cast, shops may sell fox tails or headbands with clay horns on them, and you might find artists selling fantasy themed prints.

I’m working the entertainment side of things. At GARF entertainment can be split into three categories, and they seem pretty universal for all the larger festivals. Musicians, stage acts, and street performers. I fall into that last category. Here the musicians play in the pubs or on smaller stages, most of them are local(ish) to the area, some do the festival in North Carolina and this one.

Stage acts have rehearsed shows that last a half hour to an hour, most have more than one show, and they’ll appear on a stage several times a day. Quite a few of these are professional to some extent, they earn their living through working ren fests and they’ll travel the country for half of the year or more performing at different ones.

ren-fest3Street performers are nearly always locals who have a real job and do this for fun 8 weekends out of the year. We all have a character who is either a resident of the village (GARF’s festival takes place in the fictional village of Newcastle, which lies at the southern end of England in the region of Kent), or a member of the royal court visiting the village.

Most renaissance festivals follow this basic premis: there is a festival going on in the village in honor of the visit of the King and/or Queen. Most years at GARF there is a king and queen (Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the year is typically 1534ish). This year it’s the queen only. I’m playing a peasant, a street sweep, along with Julie. We have brooms and cleaning implements, but our job isn’t cleaning the grounds, it’s entertaining people.

The assistant entertainment director told us that being street cast is like being a bi-polar muppet, and it’s a very accurate analogy. We are not real people, we’re Disney caracatures of the roles we play in the village. Everything we do is loud, dramatic, and over the top. We have to be that way to get people’s attention since there are only 40 or so of us and over a thousand visitors to the festival each day. If we’re happy, we’re super duper jumping up and down happy. If we’re sad we’re wailing and inconsolable. The goal is to draw people into the illusion of it being 16th century England, but also to make sure visitors have a good time. Usually what makes a person laugh or smile is making a fool of yourself, so there is quite a lot of that. Julie and I also do a fair bit of singing… at least until the Sherif happens by and chastises our characters for not doing their jobs and sends us back to “work”.

ren-fest5Is this a viable seasonal job opportunity for full-time RVers? As street cast or musicians, not really. The pay is poor, some fests don’t pay their street cast or musicians at all. Some will let you put out a tip jar (the ones that don’t page a wage mostly), GARF is not one of them, but even then I’ve never heard of career street cast folks. If you can come up with a stage act it’s possible, but that usually takes years of practicing as street cast to get a feel for what kinds of things work well in the setting and build a reputation with the various fests that would hire you plus thinking about all the props you’d need to carry with you

Several shop owners make this their full-time job, but then again they’re having to invest capital in their initial inventory, whether that’s money in buying it or time in making it, and then ship it from one site to the next. My neighbors Tom and Amanda who took me out to sushi last week have been full-time RVers for the eight years that they’ve run their leather bound bookshop. They don’t get rich running it, but they enjoy the lifestyle

ren-fest6I decided to do this because of how happy it makes me to do it, not because of the money. It’s been on my Dream List since the first time I went to a ren fest in college, and now I can check it off. Am I likely to audition for a ren fest again? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be for a couple years. I’ll have to either work a lot for a while again to save up the money to be able to coast like I’m doing now, or be earning more money through location independent means that I can do while fest is running.

Yesterday I woke up tired and sore. In the rennie world, Monday is usually seen as a rest day and now I understand why. I feel like I got hit by a car and was recovering from a hangover at the same time. But oh, it was so worth it. One weekend down, seven more to go!

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Becky

At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

36 Comments

  1. Samantha Howie on May 29, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    I am auditioning for the Huntersville, North Carolina Renaissance Festival and have some questions about the audition itself? Did you take prepared material or how does that work? The information given was very vague and I don’t want to appear unprepared due to the fact that this is my first audition. Please try to get back to me!
    Thank you,
    Sammie Howie



    • Becky on May 30, 2016 at 8:03 pm

      The Georgia one was very specific on its website about what was required for the audition itself and I’m surprised that this one you’re trying out for wouldn’t be the same. Is there an e-mail given that you can send inquiries to? They all do vary though as different companies own different ones, and of course the managers are all different.

      All I can say is for GARF, musicians needed to have 60 seconds of two different pieces prepared, actors needed to have a monologue of no more than 60 seconds (preferably in old English – think Shakespeare), and come prepared to do some improv work.

      Break a leg!



  2. Frederick Flagstone on September 15, 2014 at 1:26 am

    Thanks for this great explanation of a ren faire experience.

    I stumbled across searching for “ren faire street sweeper” as I have a very similar experience to yours. This is my first year cast as a street performer (Blackfryar) in the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. And I too am a street sweeper. Frederick Flagstone is my character name (and I made a fb page!)

    Our faire is a bit bigger–35 acres drawing over 10,000 people on a busy day, but the pattern is the same–There is a scenario with a story that plays out on various stages with a professional cast (“Bacchanalians” who are paid but not a whole lot), And then people like “us” who work the streets interacting with patrons and each other causing scenes and drawing crowds. We are given a character on day one of rehearsal and start developing it as we see fit. We learn improv skills which helps us play with each other. And a few of the really stand out performers are invited into a couple of the stage shows.

    The commitment is huge. You do it for the personal gain and enjoyment alone! The position is considered voluntary. Our faire runs 13 weekends, but the rehearsals were even longer than that. That’s SEVEN months without a free Saturday and 13 weeks straight without a day off as most of us have full time jobs and then come to perform all weekend. But then the final weekend finale is a big blubbering cryfest. But it is so worth it!



    • Becky on September 15, 2014 at 10:30 am

      13 weekends, yikes! Yes, we had about 3 months of rehearsals ahead of time, I had no free weekends from February until June when it ended. I wouldn’t have been able to do GARF if I hadn’t gotten paid, I was driving up from Florida for the rehearsals and the gas was killer. It didn’t pay much, but it was much more about the experience than the money.

      Glad you enjoyed your time as street cast too!



  3. JimS on April 24, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    We have one near us in Colorado. Haven’t been in years, but were enjoyable. Been here for decades. Permanent buildings and such as well. When the kids were young, they enjoyed dressing in costume when we went(at least the girls did). Great location, in the trees and the altitude keeps the hot weather in check. My favorite was a comedy duo call Puke and Snot. Bawdy humor at its best! It only runs on weekends. Does GARF run during the week?
    http://coloradorenaissance.com/

    It would be a hoot if you posted a video of the both of you in character.



    • Becky on April 25, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      I’ve never been to ren fest that ran during the week Jim…well, GARF runs one week day a year for Student day, when school kids come out as a sort of field trip. I’ve seen Puke and Snot before, I think they do the Carolina fest? One of them died a couple years ago, the show still runs, just new person playing the character.



      • JimS on April 25, 2014 at 11:11 pm

        Perhaps. I did a little reading after my last post and found they no longer do the CO festival. Something about the altitude and their health. Looks like they’re only doing festivals in Minnesota and Maryland now.



        • Becky on April 29, 2014 at 6:04 pm

          Huh, good to know Jim, thanks.



  4. Pleinguy on April 24, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks for the explanation of RenFests. It sounds like it would be fun to attend. I worked at Disney and SeaWorld, and it was usually fun. But, it was irksome to see others playing while I was working. Still, a good experience though.
    Pleinguy recently posted..Cliff DwellingsMy Profile



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      You should definitely visit one sometime, lots of playing to do. 🙂



  5. PamelaP on April 23, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Ah yes, I fondly remember the days where I’d go home & scrape the dirt off my legs before a bath! The best way to survive is to remember to drink LOTS of water, speak from your diaphragm and take short breaks every couple of hours to regroup. Getting to play with the patrons, especially children, was always the best part for me.

    I have always played Lady Marrywell, King Henry’s favorite cousin, (in a 17 pound royal garb) so while I didn’t have to sweep streets, I pretty much walked & played with patrons, except where I’d get to sit in the King’s box to watch jousting (a lovely break each day) so invest in comfortable (hard to do in period garb I know!) shoes.

    I’m glad you are enjoying yourself!

    Hugs – PamelaP



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:48 pm

      Luckily I don’t actually need to clean the streets, haha. The veterans of our cast have already given us newbies that excellent advice. GARF is one of the warmer fests given the location and time of year, and heat stroke is a serious concern. I already feel bad for the royal cast members in their heavier garb and it hasn’t gotten truly hot yet.

      While I may not get to sit and watch the joust I do get to participate in the pub sing at the end of the day and that is so much fun! So far my $10 mary jane slippers without any cushioning or arch support have worked better than expected, perhaps because I jog barefoot and am use to not having shoes on, but I’ll probably be getting inserts at some point.

      Hope all is going well in Seattle, take care!



  6. Furry Gnome on April 23, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Have lots of fun!



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:36 pm

      I’m on it!



  7. Jodee Gravel on April 23, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    HaZa! Sounds like hard, dusty, physically wonderful, fun, delightful work. Love Ren Faire and it is truly the street cast who make it so enjoyable. Have a great time making people happy – it is the best job there is :-).
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Sharing Becomes Caring, Or Why Black Tank Stories Make Me Give a S#*tMy Profile



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:36 pm

      It sure is Jodee!



  8. Debbie Granger on April 23, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    What fun! Such a beautiful street sweeper!



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:33 pm

      Thanks Debbie, it is a lot of fun!



  9. Anita Thompson on April 23, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Wow! thanks for sharing!

    I have attended several RenFests. Southern MN being the most memorable. I wondered if the casts and characters traveled together or if they were local. I have not been to one since we have been full-time. Like you said, some seemed rehearsed and some seemed spontaneous.

    I am a storyteller. I wondered if I would ft in to that setting. Like you, we would have to work a while to be able to “coast” or earn low wages for 8 weeks.

    I am interested to know more about the attire and costumes. Do you each make your own? Is there a wardrobe area from which you can choose your costume — like theater? Can they be rented?

    Another question, Is is hard to stay in character all day? In a play you are in character for an hour or so . .. but these folks stay in character while they walk, eat, sit, sing. . . for Looooong periods of time. You compared it to a theme park – Disney. I guess they are in character too, but then they take off the costume and are “just normal workers” for most of the day.

    anyway . . .thanks for the glimpse of another world.
    Anita Thompson recently posted..“Cows!” vs. The cattle on 1000 hillsMy Profile



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:32 pm

      Hello Anita,

      One of our cast members is a Gypsy storyteller, she has two shows daily where she tells Romani and related cultural tales in the appropriate accent dressed as a, well, gypsy. She does this at GARF and the Carolina Renaissance Festival up near Charlotte, NC. That being said, this wasn’t her first character when she started doing ren fests, for a while GARF wouldn’t let her do it because previous storyteller characters they’d tried hadn’t had much luck with the audience. It varies so much between festival to festival, the best thing you can do is come up with some material and audition and find out. You may have to “proof” your acting merit by being a more generic character for a season before being allowed to do something more outside the box.

      I probably should have mentioned it in this post but I figured it’d be pretty apparent from previous ones, but if you’re going to be working at a festival the first time there’s a good chance you’ll have to go to rehearsals for weeks before the festival starts, and you won’t be paid for that. I’ve been driving up to ATL since the beginning of Feb for this show, so realistically you’re looking at more than 8 weeks to pull one of these off unless you have an extensive acting resume and impress the directors enough at your audition.

      Yes, you do need to come up with your costume all by yourself, which can add up fast in money and/or time. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a peasant character, they’re cheaper to do. Once you have the costume, the second year the cost isn’t an issue. If you’re getting paid as an independent contractor like I am, you can deduct your costuming and gas costs from your taxes, so you keep more of the money you make. Like I said though, this really isn’t a good way to make money. Save up ahead of time, or get a week job.

      As I said in the post, yes it’s a lot of work staying in character all the time, especially with how loud and animated you need to be. GARF gives you a lunch break and you can take other breaks as needed, and they are needed, haha. When I was comparing it to Disney I wasn’t talking about their theme parks, I was talking about Disney movies. You’re not playing a real peasant/noble/craftsman from the 16th century, you’re playing a highly characterized rendition of one, like a character from a cartoon.

      Glad you liked the post!



  10. Lucia Edmonds on April 23, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Each morning I sit with a cup of coffee and look at my tablet to see anything newly posted or perhaps a bidding I’ve won. Your postings are always first to be read. Loved your latest on renn fests and Love your style of writing. You are my muse in a way, Becky. I’m not out on the road yet but I’m preparing to be as I am diy-ing a camper conversion so I can travel to my hearts content! I’m living vicariously thru your travels, your work experiences and your delightful sense of seemingly spontaneous opportunities. I am much older than you but your grit and sense of “why not?”reminds me of my younger self…free and eager to see each day’s experience. Thanks for your truth, your encouragement to those of us who are ready to try-out the full-time rving life, and your wit. You could do well in journalism if you ever thought about it as a job when the time comes. You have excellent reporting skills and many corps would hire you for that and your ease of traveling would certainly be a plus. Oh, look at me…I sound like a mother! Keep rolling Becky and I’ll keep following and supporting your site. LE, Georgia



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:17 pm

      Aww, thank you Lucia! It always warms my heart to hear about how my writing is helping and inspiring others to try this lifestyle. Kudos to you for converting a RV for yourself, that takes a lot of skill and patience, it’s not something I’d be able to do.

      Best of luck to you getting on the open road, I hope it all goes smoothly. If you have specific questions about full-timing related things do feel free to send me an e-mail, I get to them all eventually.



  11. David Swanson on April 23, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Dont worry Becky, your body will get use to it. By about the 7th weekend. 🙂



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      Isn’t that always how it goes David, hahha.



  12. MarciaGB on April 23, 2014 at 9:37 am

    It sounds like a lot of work and a lot of fun at the same time.



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:10 pm

      Yep, although the work seems less like work when you’re enjoying yourself.



  13. Fireman Steve on April 23, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Hi Becky,
    Sounds like ye are having a merry ole time!



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:09 pm

      Yes!



  14. Curious by Nature on April 22, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    Thanks for the explanation, it does look like quite a bit of fun! How long are your days? I imagine it can be quite hard ton be “on” continuously.



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:08 pm

      GARF opens at 10:30, ends at 6. I need to be there at 9:30 and am usually there until 6:30 or a bit later. And yeah it can be a challenge, luckily we can take several breaks.



  15. Ron on April 22, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    Wow, interesting and a great explanation. Enjoy!!!



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      Oh I will!



  16. Mike Goad on April 22, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    My knowledge of renaissance fairs has been fantasy novels that incorporate a fair or fair life in some form or another. Great explanation!
    Mike Goad recently posted..Destinations, A Wild Ride and Johnny Reb.My Profile



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 7:04 pm

      You’re welcome Mike, glad it helped. 🙂



  17. EmilyO on April 22, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    I love this, so interesting. Have gone but didn’t understand the structure.



    • Becky on April 24, 2014 at 6:59 pm

      Ren fests are one of my favorite things to go to, period. I’ve been to I think 8 different ones in 6 different states now, they’re all neat in their own way.

      And it’s true, as a patron I didn’t understand a lot of the history and the stories behind them, but it’s there if you dig. 🙂



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