Brittany Menjivar

At the end of a long Sunday, my friend asked me a question that some might call “deceptively” simple: “What did you do at the Renaissance Faire?”

I was unable to form a straightforward answer. Instead, my mind jumped back and forth between a variety of remembered sensations: the distinctly autumnal smell of doughnuts; the sound of a folk rocker of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”; the feel of an axe in my hand; the sight of a troll towering at least eight feet tall.

“I had a wild time,” I responded.

I had just returned from the Connecticut Renaissance Faire. Dust covered my shoes. A newly purchased “Gothic cross” on a black cord sat in a baggie on my desk. Folk music blared from my laptop. I was in the zone.

And yet, I also was reflective. I had learned a lot in the past few hours: about the need for fantasy; about the need for reality. About community and spirituality and hardship and danger. About what it truly means to be one of the “Rennies” (Renaissance festival workers) and to inhabit the world they have created.

“New England’s Old England”

I would’ve gone to the Ren faire even if I hadn’t been on assignment. I’m always looking for interesting off-campus adventures, and what could be more off-campus than a field in the middle of Connecticut where patrons can step into the middle of the 16th century?

Besides, this wasn’t my first rodeo. As a Maryland resident, I’m spoiled when it comes to Ren faires. The Maryland Renaissance Festival is the second largest Renaissance faire in the United States, spanning 27 acres. Step through its gates and you’re instantly transported from the fields of Anne Arundel County to Revel Grove, a village brought to life with artfully designed buildings, costumed performers and even a museum of mythical specimens for the fantasy lovers. I liked it when my parents brought me at age three, in the midst of my fairy phase; I loved it when I returned as a high school theater kid. Now, I try to go each year, if possible.

What do I see in it? For me, it’s not so much about the Renaissance era itself: I would just as happily attend an Edwardian fair or a Great Gatsby themed party. In my eyes, the appeal lies in the exercise of imagination. I like Renaissance faires for the same reason I like comic cons and Halloween haunts and writing, acting, and film. I simply can’t pass up the opportunity to step into a different world and experience fantastical fun the way I did in elementary school. That’s how I found myself taking the Shoreline East train last Sunday with my friend Alice along for the ride, both of us ready to go back in time.

Like many Ren fests, the Connecticut Renaissance Faire takes place over the course of several themed weekends. Always fond of a good shanty, I made sure to visit on Pirate Weekend. Clad in boots, baggy pants and hoop earrings, I sauntered up to the Lebanon Fairgrounds, where I was greeted by an array of multicolored tents, as well as people in pirate attire. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of fun.

On its website, the Connecticut Renaissance Faire describes itself as an “enchanted recreation of a 16th-century English harvest festival combining outdoor theater, a themed craft marketplace, and circus-style entertainment.” Like the carnivals of old, it has the whimsy of a place that could be here today and gone tomorrow. The map by the entrance advertises a host of archaic amusements. Some of them are the kinds of attractions you might spy at a county fair or pumpkin patch: “donkey rides,” “test of strength,” “festival foods.” Others are highly specific: “Aerialist Stage,” “The Joust Arena,” “Wizard’s Walk,” “Hitting & Stabbing Emporium.”

The “living history” nature of any Renaissance festival raises an intriguing question: How old is this whole shebang, really? Obviously, there’s a centuries-wide gap between the actual Renaissance era and… well, “the renaissance of the Renaissance.” When exactly did the American public — for, oddly enough, it’s usually Americans who organize these types of events — decide that it missed the good old days enough to bring back knights and mead and jesters, with some buccaneers and fairies and wizards thrown in for good measure?

The story starts in the 1960s. In her article “The History of the Renaissance Festival,” Clare McBride provides a short summary of the event’s origins: “In 1963, Los Angeles schoolteacher Phyllis Patterson was unimpressed with the lack of arts education provided to her students. Along with her husband Ron, she decided to start providing after-school art and theater workshops in their backyard. The workshops proved so popular that, on May 11th and May 12th, the Pattersons expanded them into a weekend fundraiser called “The Renaissance Pleasure Faire & May Market” for a local radio station KPFK.” Fueled by a post-World-War-II early music revival and the ethos of the creative, free-thinking counterculture, the festival soon became an annual event.

Then, the rest of America caught on.

The Connecticut Renaissance Faire was founded in 1999 at the Kings Inn Hotel in Putnam, CT,  making this year its 20th season. It’s known as “New England’s Old England,” the website claims, and every year, it “[attracts] over 30,000 guests… seeking to experience a simpler time of long ago.”

As I strode past a man in a dragon suit and a set of stocks on that sunny day, I wondered: will they find what they’re looking for? Will I?

“Playing Dress-Up”

One thing about the faire was instantly clear: people took it seriously. My “swashbuckler-casual” aesthetic paled in comparison to the outfits of patrons who looked like they had stepped directly out of Pirates of the Caribbean — or, alternatively, Queen Elizabeth’s Court, or, alternatively, a Panic! at the Disco music video.

One of our first stops was the tent of Crimson Chain Leatherworks — one of the many companies helping imaginative fairegoers create these elaborate historical looks. Angela French, a vendor wearing the shop’s garb, gave me my first glimpse into what it’s like to work in the Ren fest world. “I grew up attending Ren faires pretty much my whole life down in Florida,” she said. Her friends encouraged her to try out for the cast of a Florida festival, so she did. Then, she got to know some vendors, who are typically not in-house as opposed to cast members, and switched over to selling merchandise—a traveling position. When she’s working a faire, she and the rest of the employees will typically stay in a hostel or camp at the site. “My full time job is basically everything you see here. We pack up and haul around the country, set up at Renaissance faires, conventions, pirate shows.”

I also learned another vital fact in that conversation: Ren faire workers are colloquially known as “Rennies.” And being a “Renny” is a way of life.

After browsing the beautiful vests and bodices that Crimson Chain sold, Alice and I decided that we wanted to try out the look, if only for a few moments. When we asked Chris Dull, another employee, if we could try them on, he said, “Of course! We love playing dress-up.”

The phrase “playing dress-up” made me think back to childhood — which makes sense, as both French and Dull both fell in love with Ren faires as young children. But it wasn’t reductive or dismissive. There was an implicit value they placed in “playing dress-up” that made it acceptable — empowering, even. After all, why should imagination have an age limit?

While Dull was lacing us up, we asked about the design of the costumes. Were they supposed to evoke a specific time period or region? He replied that although Virgil Jones, the company’s owner, “gets a lot of inspiration from historical garments,” he “tweaks them and plays with them, and some of it is just imagination.” Accuracy wasn’t as important as the fantastical faire ethos and the transformative power it held.

“My favorite are the people who come in and they’re not very confident in how they look, and then we do all this, and then they’re looking at the mirror like…” He made a face of surprise, mimicking his customers’ expressions. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I told you you were amazing. You just had to see.’”

When I visited the booth of Mythical Journeys Live Action Roleplay, I received some more insight into the benefits of make believe. LARP, as its participants call it, involves dressing up as fictional characters and acting out storylines involving them. Meg DiNunno, Mythical Journeys’ director, called it “a lot of running around in the woods with foam weapons.” Her organization’s LARP games take place at a 4-H camp in Pomfret, Connecticut.

One woman at the booth, who is very involved in the LARP community (which sometimes overlaps with the Ren fest community due to shared interest in fantasy and imagination), mentioned that she is a homicide prosecutor by day. She opted not to give her name for this article, to preserve the distinction between the two worlds. “The last thing we want is for the real world to follow anybody into the game,” said DiNunno.

DiNunno noted that people’s characters in the game often differ from how they are in real life. They can be more confident than they typically are, or even more shy. It’s all about experimentation.

“[You] see what it feels like to have a slightly different personality and then go back to the real world. We tell people all the time, the real world comes first. The game comes second. But in this specific game, it’s a really good group of people. They take care of each other.” And thus, it serves as a safe space for escapism.

Of course, for some people, Ren fests are just good, carefree fun. This is how Kye Paradise and Kally Wayne, a mother and her adult daughter duo, felt about the Connecticut Faire. When asked what she loved about faires, Wayne replied, “the mead” with a smile. She and Paradise then expressed their love for dressing up. “I went as a queen this year. A warrior queen,” Wayne said. “Each year, we buy at least one thing to add to our costume.” Her happiness was unmistakable as she described each of her faire outfits in detail.

I felt this same sense of cheer as I watched the larger-than-life “trolls,” puppet-like costumed creatures lovingly crafted by Skeleton Crew Theater, strolling around the faire. They reminded me of the creatures in Labyrinth, the George Lucas/Jim Henson masterpiece that shows young Jennifer Connelly and Goblin King David Bowie interacting with fantastical Muppets. One of Skeleton Crew’s trolls was named Willyum Higgins; the other was Trent Huggins. Each one wore a sign on its back printed with the following: “We are REAL. As real as traffic or politicians. Any claim to the contrary by anyone present will result in a severe thumping.” I had no desire to argue with them.

What’s Sacred?

At the Connecticut Renaissance Faire, passion for creative expression went hand-in-hand with the love for fantasy. This, of course, makes perfect sense, given the emphasis put on imagination.

The faire featured a host of performers that day; Nothing Sacred, a four-piece folk band based in the Northeast, was my favorite. The performers kept up the magic of the festival, calling the audience “good lords and ladies”. Lead vocalist Paul Kennedy even screamed, “A troll!” when Willyum Higgins walked by. In reply, Willyum cried, “Where! …Oh.”

After the performance, we chatted with Kennedy about his history with both folk music and faires. Kennedy started playing the violin when he was five years old. A trip to Colonial Williamsburg sparked his love for folk music, and eventually, he and his father formed a duo called the Kennedys. Renaissance entertainer Roger Awesome liked what he heard and started them playing on the faire circuit. As Kennedy got to know more folk musicians through the community, Nothing Sacred was formed.

Did Kennedy grow up going to Renaissance faires? “No, I didn’t… I started going in the ’90s,” he said. “I wouldn’t describe myself as a Renny, like a lot of people do, but it’s fun to go.” Indeed, his love for the festival shone through when he recalled the previous night’s performance: “The entire place was stomping on the tables.”

I also encountered another type of artist at the faire: Cara Finch, whose paintings depicted ravens with powerful glares and gleaming goddesses with outstretched arms. Like Kennedy, Finch was not drawn to the faire life due to childhood nostalgia: she discovered Renaissance faires around the age of 25, and later brought her children to them. She started vending three years ago, after a friend told her that her work would do well on the circuit due to its themes.

Finch’s works exploded with color, as if they were straight out of prophetic visions. She told me about the general schemas that guide her when she paints: “nature,” “spirit in nature,” “cultural beliefs,” “music,” “timelessness,” “ancient history.” For example, “Ghost Drums,” which showed a nude woman sitting by a bonfire, was inspired by a “shamanic journey” that Finch herself took on the Mohawk Trail. “St. Hildegard’s Psaltery” portrayed the Catholic saint in the midst of a mystical vision in the woods, surrounded by wolves, raccoons and birds.

“I show my work at galleries all the time and it’s fun, but [I don’t get] the same personal interaction [that I do here],” Finch told me as a patron wandered into the tent to browse. “Here at the Ren faires, I get people asking a lot more questions. They’re interested from a personal perspective rather than just a strictly art perspective… I feel like [they] almost understand the art better, value it more.”

Her assessment made sense: by design, the faire seemed to be a safe haven for the spiritual, in all its expressions. At Finch’s tent, the paintings of the shamanic journey and the saintly vision could hang next to each other and make perfect thematic and visual sense, created with the same resplendent strokes, the same careful hand. A few tents away, where jewelry company Dragon Nest Designs was vending, crucifixes and even a charm depicting St. Michael slaying the devil could be seen in the vicinity of Egyptian ankhs and the Venus of Willendorf  — Egyptian and ancient European mythological symbols, respectively.

No one ever thinks of Renaissance festivals as religious affairs, least of all the festivals themselves. Yet spirituality was celebrated at the faire in subtle ways. The Christian imagery present could be a result of optics, at least in part — crosses would have been a decorative staple in the devout Renaissance era. The older mythological symbols might be associated with the concept of “magic” that goes hand in hand with imagery of wizards and fairies. There seemed to be more to it, though. Perhaps it was the open-mindedness of the atmosphere, where living one’s truth was encouraged. Perhaps there were certain thematic parallels between fairies and angels. Or maybe it was the idea of worlds unseen — of the promise of the familiar but unknown.

“All the Old Stuff”

Near the end of the day, I spotted two boys in pirate costumes taking a breather on a bench. Appearing to be around middle school aged, they were young enough to stand out, but old enough to roam around on their own, and old enough that I was (pleasantly) surprised to see they didn’t consider themselves too cool to dress up.

When I asked if I could interview them, the older one, Dmitri, did all the talking. He said that he had only started going to Renaissance festivals this year, because he had “just found out about them.” He liked “all the old stuff,” especially “the jousting” and “the action.”

Dmitri’s fascination with spectacle was clearly the byproduct of every child’s desire for excitement. After all, no one gets hurt in jousting: it’s a sport, not a death match. The same can be said for the games at the “Hitting & Stabbing Emporium.” Dagger-throwing and axe-throwing (which I participated in, without much skill) involved aiming projectiles at wooden boards — no violence there. And the “Archery Battle Tag” station, which allowed patrons to “shoot” each other with safe, painless arrows, was no different than Nerf or laser tag.

But there are some people who like “the old stuff” and “the action” for other reasons. Case in point: “Wolf”, a faire attendee Alice and I found ourselves in a seemingly endless conversation with at the end of the day. When Alice, who is an archer, saw his bows and asked him about his interest in archery, he was quick to recount his recent shooting of a turkey in graphic detail.

“It was soaked in blood and squirming around, and I know this is cruel of me to say, but it was hilarious,” he said.

There’s a great joke in the children’s television show Arthur. In the episode “The Return of the King,” Mr. Ratburn’s class attends a “medieval faire,” where Arthur and friends find themselves competing in a Middle-Ages themed trivia competition. When the class know-it-all “The Brain” is asked, “What do the planets revolve around?” he is quick to answer, “The Sun.” A man at the festival swiftly tells him that the correct answer is “the Earth,” because that’s what people believed in the Middle Ages. Wolf’s entire shtick made me think of this episode — he seemed unwilling to move beyond a 16th-century view of society. He complained about how ridiculous his girlfriend was, rambled about how people should be allowed to bring large weapons anywhere they want and condemned almost everything about “today’s world,” from its horror movies to its news reporters.

It was easy to see how a person like Wolf could look at a Renaissance faire, with its idealized visions of the past and shiny fighting knights, and project a more sinister ideology onto it. But it also seemed clear that this ideology came from Wolf himself and not the concept of Renaissance faires in general.

Rennies Forever

Despite our Wolf encounter, the energy we received from the faire was, all in all, overwhelmingly positive. Several of the people I talked to emphasized the community that Renaissance Faires foster.

Kaila Jacks, another leather vendor, was eager to tell us about all the fellowship she had seen behind the scenes.

“This faire specifically is incredible. There’s a hostel for all the people that work here. They donate food so that everybody gets fed… And we have our own little parties and our own charities.” She went on to elaborate. “On Saturday nights, there’s someone that does dinner for everybody. We call it the cèilidh, and it’s burgers and hot dogs, and we all hang out and get to know people.”

The charity she spoke of was RESCU, which stands for “Renaissance Entertainers, Services, and Crafters United.” The foundation’s website describes it as “a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established to promote and maintain the health and medical well-being of the participants of Renaissance Faires, historical performances and other artistic events through financial assistance, advocacy, education and preventative programs.”

“It’s designed for people who perform and live their life on the road,” Jacks explained. “As you can imagine, that can be a little difficult at times, because your car breaks down and you have no way to get to your next job, [or] something happens with your boss and he can’t pay you… You know, a lot of us don’t have health insurance, because we’re not working for a company that provides it, and it’s expensive. So something happens, we’ve got a ton of medical bills, that’s what RESCU is for. They obviously have money, but they also have people on staff that are dentists that can tell you what you need to do with your teeth. Or they make sure there are defibrillators on every site, or they’ve got people that can call the hospital and talk your bill down. They can advocate for you.”

Dull from Crimson Chain explained that Rennies often have their own Facebook groups, which can serve as a useful means of communication.

“You jump on one of our webpages and you’re like, ‘Hey, I got a flat tire. I’m stuck. Within about 20 minutes, you’re going to have three people coming out to get you, get your tire back on the road.”

On the patron side of things, Paradise said she liked “the camaraderie” of the faires.

“People are nice and friendly and just here to have a good time. And they take good care of the kids. They have a lot going here for the kids.” Clearly, the kids agree — Wayne was still as enthusiastic about the faire as she had been when her mother had taken her there as a child.

At the end of the day, the cast lined up by the gates to wave goodbye. As I waved back, I found comfort in the thought that their world would continue to exist the next weekend, and the weekend after that — that the fantasy would live on, if only for a while.

Brittany Menjivar | .