Wow, 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.
Most 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.
Street 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”.
Is 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
I 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!