Last updated on June 10, 2023
Last fall I spent a day wandering the grounds of the Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Festival outside of Orlando, Florida. I’m habitually traveling in the spring every year and miss the one in my hometown, but I chanced upon one outside of Orlando last fall and the lure was too much to resist; I went and played for the day.
My previous participation in (and on going love with) Renaissance Festivals is one of those things that my friends tease me about even though I know they love me (it ranks up there with the “let’s laugh at Shannon because she was once a synchronized swimmer” jokes). The thing is, they’re not exactly “mainstream;” when the State Fair comes to town, that’s “normal” whereas Ren Festivals appeal on a slightly different level.
So what exactly is a Renaissance Festival?
Well, it’s a handy way to time travel. Yep, that’s right, even cooler than round the world travel is time traveling back to Elizabethan England. Well, at least, in my book it’s cooler.
Renaissance Festivals take place all over the world (just looked that up to be sure, and they do indeed have Medieval Fares all through Europe and Australia too) but I’ve only ever experienced a US Festival. And boy do I love them. It may tip my dork-o-meter off of the charts, but I still love them.
In fact, if any of these travelers I meet all over the world actually come to visit me, I’ll drag them to a Renaissance Faire because once you go, they’re actually less odd than you’re thinking. People fall on one of two opinions on Ren Faires:
- Those who have never been, think it’s supremely odd, ranks it up there with Civil War reenatments and never want to visit one.
- Those who have been, know its supremely odd and habitually attend for a day of playing with interactive actors, creative games, crafts, and unhealthy food.
My sophomore year in high school I auditioned for my local Faire, the Bay Area Renaissance Festival. I got in and promptly forfeited every weekend of my life for six weeks in exchange for dialect lessons, interactive acting classes, and character building workshops.
By opening day of our six week Faire I had perfected a 16th Century lower class English accent, sewed together a raggedy peasant costume to highlight my inferiority in the class system of Renaissance England, and fallen in love with the open acceptance and alternative community of adult actors also acting in that year’s Faire.
Monday through Friday was the humdrum of highschool classes and all-night study sessions. But come Saturday I traded that in for a whole new persona. A character I built from scratch and could adjust, change, and humanize while I played with all of the turkey-leg toting visitors to the Ren Faire.
That first weekend of Faire was the first time I really feel in love with acting; the character and experience was an escape and I met people my parent’s had never previously exposed me to – they were “alternative,” a bit crude, but warm and accepting.
If you’ve never yet visited one (and I sadly suspect that’s a large portion of people reading this), the character actors at the Faires are a hoot. Many of the Renies (think Carnies … but decidedly different) have perfected these personas over decades and take their Renaissance characters and costumes touring Faires all over the US.
Yeah, they do it for a living.
That concept floored me. My parents both go to work every day in an office and Faire was my first exposure to a more nomadic existence … and the community you can still create as a nomad.
Back in high school my weekend escapes acting in the Renaissance Festival gave me an “out” from the stress of high school and that notion of “fitting in.” All of the Ren Faire actors are just a tad wacky … and it was nice to be accepted wholly and totally no matter what I said, did, wore, thought (a marked contrast to high school let me assure you) – whatever I did was all welcomed with a “yes, and” (which is a standard improv game where you just build upon what the other actors feed you, never negating an idea).
Really, it just feels open. I went last fall and though I didn’t know half of the people at the Orlando Faire, I know they’re the kind of people I’d love to grab a beer with and lose an entire evening to swapping stories.
To write this post, I flipped through my scrapbook and there was a catch in my throat as I thought about those years. There’s this nostalgia writing about the Ren Faire. It’s only in retrospect that I value the experience and see how it shaped who I am today.
I love the memory and now enjoy going back as a visitor, walking the festival grounds and reveling in the quirky Renaissance environment I tried so hard to perfect a decade ago.
Visitors are invited to walk around for the day shunning modernity and instead playing games made out of wood and ropes. There’s the jousting and human combat chess. Princesses and peasants.
The people are friendly and if you’re outgoing enough you can spend the day captivated in the story the interactive actors have created for you. There’s almost always a plot to assassinate the queen.
One of my favorite shows was in Orlando this year; the Washing Well Wenches are raunchy (which I adored back in high school and I was thankful to see it’s still funny now) and they tie with the Mud Show as best show to catch. My first year working in the Faire I visited the mud pit as a part of my morning ritual so I could slather my face in mud and really feel like a peasant … commune with the dirt and all that jazz.
Both shows tour the US Faires extensively so if you’re visiting the US, and a Faire is nearby, how lucky for you that you get to attend!
Also have to shout out to Empty Hats—their music pulls at my heart and I was so glad to hear their tinkling melody at the Orlando Ren Faire … because Faire is just not Faire without them. My Ren Faire memories are thoroughly laced with the sounds of these talented musicians.
If you get the chance, I have to say—just go. I know it sounds weird. Even people who know me think it’s strange. But seriously. Go. It’s a bizarre slice of culture you won’t find anywhere else and a travel experience in its own right.
Ever been to a Ren Faire? Want to go? Think I’m a dork who should lose all speaking (er… writing) privileges? ;-)