For the fourth time that day, Moonie the Magnificent pulls an audience member onto the stage. The rest of the audience, seated on hay bales, howl with laughter as Moonie puts his newly conscripted assistant through his paces, including clambering onto the assistant’s shoulders to ascend to the slackrope that is strung up in front of a circus tent. Moonie bills himself as “ropewalker, juggler, foolish mortal,” and he is a featured attraction. Now in its 13th year, the North Carolina Renaissance Faire occurs every spring, when a swath of the state fairgrounds in Raleigh is sent back 400 years.
Moonie doesn’t speak onstage; instead he communicates in gestures and whistles. The act takes him from whimsical clown to aggressive crazy in an instant. He has been known to jump into the crowd and bring people who attempted to leave his show back on stage in a headlock. Two days a week, for four shows a day, he will juggle ping-pong balls, hats, knives, flaming torches. Years of practice have given him forearms worthy of Popeye. Every show, the hay bales are packed.
In person, he is calm but his eyes burn. He also acts in theater, television and movies. In the Chicago area, where he lives with his family, he does Chekhov and Shakespeare. On the big screen, he has had small parts in movies such as the remake of The Out-of-Towners. Truth be told, he prefers theater. But the renaissance fair circuit has been very good to him, and he flies in to the fair each weekend.
As long as it came before the Mayflower, it’ll fly at a renfair.Up at the Greycat Designs tent, there’s a brisk business in custom hand-made cloaks, gowns, and doublets. Crowds stalk past in the April sun, people of all ages. Civilians in street clothes pushing baby strollers wander by pirates and wenches. Darcy Nair, a multi-instrumentalist who today is playing the hammered dulcimer, sets up under a nearby tree. Over by one of the shacks dubbed the “Olde World Gallery,” the Nickel Shakespeare Girls are preparing to pounce. Three young women in calico knickers and green kerchiefs, they approach and ask customers to name any of Shakespeare’s plays. They proceed to perform a bit from that play while doing acrobatic stunts. Most patrons ask for Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Know-it-alls ask for King John or Timon of Athens. “Dueling Pucks” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a favorite routine, where two of them race to recite the speech the quickest, all while flying through the air or balanced on their heads. All of this for a nickel, or more: They even accept “paper money, although we don’t know what it’s for.”
The Girls range in age from 16 to 33, united by a love of Shakespeare and physical comedy. Also by the code of the trouper: they perform in rain and wind and mud without complaint. In a downpour one day, when many patrons flee for shelter, they continue their handstands, they continue to recline on the wet ground to reenact, appropriately enough, a scene from The Tempest.
Another act working from the same palette as Moonie is The London Broil. One of their usual stops on the “renfair” circuit is the Carolina Renaissance Festival, one of a few dozen “hard fairs” in the U.S., meaning a fair with permanent structures. (Unlike the North Carolina Renaissance Faire, which is run by a nonprofit, the Carolina Renaissance Festival is part of a family business, Royal Faires Inc., which also runs the Arizona Renaissance Festival. Other large permanent fairs are located in Minnesota, upstate New York, California, and Texas.) Three men who have been friends since high school, the London Broil will answer with the tired joke “Laundry!” when asked what they do the other five days of the week. They can’t stop goofing, can’t get out of character.
For the seven-weekend run of a fair, with four shows a day, the London Broil performs 56 shows in the same place. The London Broil juggle, they play with fire, they balance, they give birth on stage. Upwards of 400 times over a typical year. Every show must feel fresh, as if it’s being ad-libbed for the first time.
It’s not all jugglers and acrobats, of course. The modern version of the renaissance fair started in the 1960s. The festivals started as serious reenactments; anachronism was frowned on. The unadulterated Renaissance isn’t that much fun, though, so early on the organizers mixed in some hippie ideals with business acumen and came up with what are now sometimes called “fantasy festivals.” These feature an odd jumble of performers and merchants, many having little connection with Renaissance Italy or Elizabethan England: belly dancers, Irish traditional musicians, 18th century pirates, monks chomping Scotch eggs. The renfair has ties to many other endeavors: theater, carnival, circus, folk music, county fairs, craft shows, comedy clubs, historical reenactment. The belly dancers and the pirates and the rescued greyhounds share the stage with the folks singing 19th-century Irish drinking songs and the folks painstakingly recreating the court of Henry VIII. As long as it came before the Mayflower, it’ll fly at a renfair.
Behind the scenes, the financial situation is equally jumbled. The denizens of the fair are a web of independent contractors and volunteers. Many of the street performers are in it for the love of it, or are testing the waters locally before they attempt to make a go on the circuit. Some of them are studying theater, or are fresh out of college with their theater degrees, taking the path of least resistance. There are retired college professors who drive all over the country to don armor and teach civilians how to drill in formation with extremely long spears. Many of the musicians and stage performers are solely making money from passing the hat and selling merch; a fraction make an extremely good living that way.
A performer like Moonie with a popular stage show can maintain a “normal” home life elsewhere and fly in to fairs every weekend. Some top performers tour the circuit in $200,000 motor homes. Five two-month fairs make up a typical year for the big acts.
Often it’s not easy to detect who is making good money and who isn’t. A beggar like Scratch, who sits in the mud all day, bashing himself on the head with a pot and blowing a horn with his nose, might be scoring a steady stream of dollar bills, enough to pay for a nice hotel every night, whereas a member of the royal court tricked out as an Elizabethan lady in velvet and pearls might be crashing in her car.
Most renfair workers are not making good money. They manage to subsist by carefully gaming their cost of living. A rose-seller who goes by simply Mary, says, “My cost of living is ridiculously low. I pay fifty bucks for rent for two months.” What that buys is the privilege of pitching her tent on a few square feet of ground in the staff campsite, and use of the communal showers and toilets.
“I’m a treehugging liberal pacifist, yet I play the most corrupt, capitalistic, freebooting, marauding character you can. It’s escapism for me.”What draws people like Mary to choose that lifestyle? Over and over, the performers and the enthusiasts who regularly attend speak of the fair as a “home” populated by their “family.” It is more real to them than their supposedly real lives. The renfair is unique in that nowhere else do people create physical worlds on so large a scale for commercial gain, where the customers are invited to dress up and participate.
Backstage is a zone of camaraderie, where the exchange of something as simple as a hug, or as complicated as donations raised to pay off medical bills, is common. There are dozens of stories of folks pulling together to help each other out in times of crisis. “I broke down in Illinois and needed $500 to fix my engine,” says T. O. McJunkins, a longtime rennie, a leather-clad pirate in a tricorn hat. T.O. is a person of color who claims his Irish ancestry as primary. (Many African-American patrons and performers at the renfair bill themselves as “Moors.”) When he’s not singing at the pub he’s selling boots in one of the shops. As the sun sets and the final cannon sounds, marking the end of the fair day, he stands near the gate to say farewell to friends he will only see once a year. “Money came in from all over the country. People [heard] I was down, and they sent money to Western Union. I had $600 before I could turn around.”
Musicians and singers like T.O. have a tougher gig than the comedy and juggling stage acts or the street performers pretending to be beggars or nobles. A lot of Irish traditional music, a lot of novelty tunes, and some more authentic Renaissance pieces make up the mix, along with some additional detournement of traditional tunes, a la Fairport Convention or even the Pogues.
While the big stage acts can handle hecklers or rude people, the musicians are more at the mercy of the crowds. Susan Hickey and Gregg Csikos go out every day to play sea shanties and other folk songs to crowds of varying sizes. They break out traditional Scottish songs such as the Mingulay Boat Song, and then go into the Steeleye Span version of “All Around My Hat.” Songs of valor, songs of sadness, drinking songs and silly songs. Sometimes the benches are full and their hat fills with tip money, sometimes not. The happy families come and sit down only to talk loudly during a quiet song, or to change their baby’s diaper, or to flip open their cell phones and gab away to their friends. “Meet me in front of the mead booth!”
Working conditions aren’t just tough on stage. In a tent in the campsite, vocal cords and guitar strings take a lot of wear and tear, too. Waking up to a day that begins below freezing can mean laryngitis and a guitar that never stays in tune. In Hickey’s case, her experience working on a sailing ship helped her prepare for this. “I would start on the boat in Maine in March. It goes down into the twenties and the teens. On top of all the cold, it’s damp. Being on a boat, you learn how to stay warm.”
Another danger of fair life for the performers is the food. Working there, and often living on site, the options are rarely healthy, organic, and low-fat. Sometimes there is authentic Austrian strudel, and sometimes the only choice is a hot dog and french fries. Broon, a tall juggler with stripey socks and classic good looks, consumes energy bars and packaged protein drinks throughout the day to stay in shape and keep his metabolism rolling. He’ll do four shows on his own—juggling, card tricks, fire eating—before teaming up with his friend Moonie at the end of the day for an ad-libbed show. His take on fair food: “Anything fried, shoved on a stick, with ‘ye’ put in front of it, that’s renfair food.”
The peculiar economics of the fair produce situations where even the folks freezing or baking in the tents are wearing custom lace-up moccasin boots that can cost over $1,000. They are a sign of status: Real “rennies” have custom boots, the same way that real jugglers can juggle five balls. They’re also practical—durable and comfortable. For being on your feet and in character all day, says Brad Howard, “quality footwear is imperative.”
Wenches’ fundraisers are not that different from a firehouse or church barbecue, except for a preponderance of bodices and kilts, and perhaps a flagon of mead rather than a pitcher of iced tea.Howard doesn’t freeze in the tents, nor does he put up with substandard victuals. He sings for the band Pyrates Royale. They are quite popular, though he hasn’t quit his day job working for a union trust fund office. The band sings sea shanties and songs about the travails of being a pirate, and have been at it for 20 years, long before Disney and Johnny Depp made pirates a cultural sensation. Howard looks the part, burly and shaven-headed in his frock coat, dripping with medallions and other authentic accoutrements. The flintlock pistols tucked into his belt and the cutlass below them appear to be formidable weapons. The irony of playing a bloodthirsty pirate is not lost on him: “I’m a treehugging liberal pacifist, yet I play the most corrupt, capitalistic, freebooting, marauding character you can. It’s escapism for me.” Walking around a fair, he will give many folks the rennie handshake, hands gripping each other’s forearm. “I’ve met some of my dearest, most trusted friends here,” Howard says.
Bandmate Darcy Nair—the aforementioned dulcimer player—splits her time between pirate songs and her own solo compositions, as well as working with other bands. She points out one of the appeals of the rousing pirate band versus some of the more introverted musical acts playing period music: “Reenactors are not necessarily trying to be entertaining. That makes a difference. The big stage acts know how to entertain. A lot of musicians don’t necessarily entertain. They [simply] play music.”
Howard adds: “It’s nice that pirates are profitable, but you do this for love, not money. There are other ways of making money. And you can’t pay someone enough to do it if they don’t love it. People come to a renfair and they’re willing to drop a lot of the standoffishness that they’d normally have. At a circus, you still have some standoffishness. At a renfair there’s a no-holds-barred thing. The audience will open up.”
The folks who aren’t there to work or even volunteer, the ones who simply dress up and attend and love the fair, they still organize into groups. They’ve built up friendships from years of going to the same fairs, and they want to concretize these friendships. Self-styled rogues and wenches, they organize locally in “guilds.”
They are the purchasers of season passes and expensive garb. At a local meeting of the wenches guild, in a nondescript housing development north of Durham, NC, one of the wenches who goes by “Beatriz” notes that it is not uncommon for one of them to have spent “more on boots than on a refrigerator.” Another wench, “MisRed” and her husband keep a Christmas club savings account especially for renfair funds. Guilds talk of “invading” a fair, choosing to drive long distances to attend on the same weekend. While there, they might be engaged in scavenger hunts or what could best be described as organized flirting, activities that are nigh invisible to the average attendee. They exchange roses, sending them to strangers the same way you’d buy someone a drink in a bar. Because many of them know the performers, they also are part of the culture in a way that the average attendee is not. Some have “favor sashes” covered in pins and ribbons, gifts from friends. It’s a precursor to Myspace in that regard, counting friends and relations with physical tokens. When the longtime queen retired from the cast of the Carolina Renaissance Festival, the local rogues guild sent her off with an ambush of roses, kind words, and chaste kisses. Beyond economics, the wenches and rogues have staked their claim to the alternate psychic reality of the fair. They’ve found a ludic space that is as real to them as their day jobs.
For the wenches, especially, these groups act as support networks in times of crisis; they also raise money for charity. Their fundraisers are not that different from a firehouse or church barbecue, except for a preponderance of bodices and kilts, and perhaps a flagon of mead rather than a pitcher of iced tea.
What do the performers think about the fact that they’re working in a world populated by a lot of enthusiasts, who some might call geeks? Broon admits, “There is a geek factor.” But then he amends his assessment: “The people you see here are the same people you see at the grocery store, at the mall. The ones that get really crazy into it, they are like people who get crazy into the White Stripes, rap music or skateboarding or whatever. “
Fair is not all fun and games. Serious things happen there. Patrons get married; Moonie met his wife when he pulled a young lady out of the audience to do a bit with a flower. For someone who threatens to set himself on fire four or five times a day, his responsibilities are very different from the folks living in tents. “I’ve got a mortgage and cars and all that, health insurance and kids and responsibilities,” he says. As the sun sets on the North Carolina Renaissance Faire, Moonie and Broon take the stage together to eat some more fire, sing some more songs, to balance and juggle and to have a good time doing it. The patrons on the hay bales, whether they are clad in kilts and cloaks or in polo shirts and shorts, hang on every word and every flaming torch.
Just another day in an alternate reality. Huzzah.