I am part of the performance company for Scarborough Renaissance Festival, Scarborough Academy of Performing Arts (SAPA). What this means is I dress up and portray a character from the 16th century out in the streets of the festival. I do a lot of improvisational acting up close and personal with strangers trying to make them for a moment believe we are a real place and not just an amusement park or themed shopping mall.
This is hard work on so many levels. No one really understands what it is that the performance company goes through in order to be what we are, which is one of the top performance companies for renaissance festivals in the country. It may not seem like a lot to some folks, but it is really kind of amazing for us.
I mean think about it. Sure you may not be into this sort of thing and think it is silly, but think about something you do enjoy. Think of something you have been part of and were proud of. Think of what it would mean to you to be recognized as one of the best in that thing. No matter if anyone outside your little world cares or not, it is your thing and you care. This is my thing and I care.
We go through two months of workshops before we ever see a single patron. We spend seven to ten hours every single Saturday and Sunday going through classes in improvisational acting, guerilla theater, character and dialect, and history customs and manners. We do hours of event rehearsals for stage combat, country and court dancing, English wrestling, music, and other stage shows we perform in.
We also spend countless hours outside of those weekend rehearsals working on this. Whether we are polishing our fights, polishing our dialects, sewing our costumes, working on stories for shows, taking outside improv classes, or just developing strong characters, we put in the extra time. I don't know of any performer that doesn't spend a good amount of their 'free time' working on something for faire.
Have I mentioned also that we do all of this in less than savory conditions. We are always outside no matter what the weather is. During our workshops this normally means it is pretty cold outside. We are Texans. Cold is not our friend. Also the faire sight, which is pretty much a cow pasture with a village worth of shops and stages built on it, is like a giant wind tunnel. We get strong biting winds blowing down through the main portion of the site all the time causing all kinds of trouble.
If it is not cold it is most likely uncomfortably hot. Even with all that lovely wind the temperatures can spike up into ridiculous highs. Mostly we see the deadly heat during the run of the show, but sometimes we have freak hot spells in mid March.
Then of course there is the rain and hail we occasionally suffer through. Yes I have stood outside in workshops being pelted by pea sized hail. I have stood outside and worked in torrential downpours. I have worked in sauna like conditions. There is no calling faire for weather, we just work through it.
The site itself is well developed but it is still an outdoor arena. The ground is covered in rocks that seem to have been created to do nothing more than trip you or gouge into the sole of your foot. They seem to sneak out of nowhere and jump under your boot and send you falling to the ground. There are also the lovely bees that are everywhere. I can't tell you the number of people who have been stung in the mouth and throat from swallowing the bees. I've personally drank three.
Now add on top of all this lovely weather and terrain the fact that we are wearing 16th century inspired costuming. We do try and remain historically accurate as much as possible. The fabrics we use are mostly natural fibers, but there are layers upon layers of them. The women are almost all in corseting or heavily boned bodices. When I say boned I mean there are flat steal bones running along the bodices holding them in. I swear we are bullet proof in those things.
None of it is really completely comfortable. Bodices and corsets are tight. They can rub in weird places and cause blisters and painful bruising. The weight of our skirts can leave bruises. The men suffer similar discomforts from their costumes as well. We all suffer from the threat of extreme chafing as well. Honestly it is a serious issue. We have entire classes devoted to the prevention of this.
Next you add in the fact that a lot of what we do is dangerous. We do stage combat which is just an accident waiting to happen no matter how safe we try to be. In my time at faire I have seen peoples heads and faces cut open with swords. I have seen at least one person almost lose part of an ear to a sword. I have seen black eyes from taking quarter staffs to the face. I have seen a guy take a bad punch and break his ocular socket to the point his eye popped out when he sneezed. I have seen so many broken ankles, legs, wrists, and fingers. There are countless sprained and dislocated shoulders. Sprained knees are rampant. One person got hit with a weight for distance* and his wrist bones were turned to dust.
Then there are all the little injuries like getting rapped across the knuckles fighting with wooden swords, bruises from fights and wrestling, cuts and scrapes from climbing walls and trees and rolling down hills, and all sorts of weird injuries and bruises you can not actually identify when they turn up. The amount of bandages and ibuprofen we go through in a season is a little obscene. Also the amount of aloe we go through for the sunburns is pretty crazy.
Other things we worry about include dehydration, heat stroke, severe allergy attacks due to the excessive amounts of pollen in the area in the spring, our own selves. That last one can be an issue. I know a guy who broke his leg climbing a pretend mountain, or was it a pretend ladder? Either way he was climbing an object that wasn't real and still broke his leg when he 'fell' off of it. Needless to say the local ER is sort of used to us showing up broken in costume.
So why the hell do any of us do this? It is painful and uncomfortable and dangerous and a huge time suck. We are constantly fatigued and sore. Our homes are always a mess for the entirety of spring, we have no free time, we most all work seven days a week for this, some of us aren't even paid to do this at all. There is no logical reason anyone should want to do this with all of those things against it.
It is simple though. The reason we do this is so simple and so beautiful. We do this because it is magic. We do this because it is the way that we can bring joy and happiness and magic into the world. We can take the world for a few hours and make it someplace happy and carefree. We create our own world and get to play there every weekend during the spring.
The magic is not just for us, it is for our patrons. I get the pleasure, no the honor, of entertaining the people who walk in our gates. I get to make children smile, women feel beautiful, men feel brave, adults remember to dream, and bring laughter to the souls of people who are a lot like me. People who lead hard working tiring dull grey lives in the real world. For just a brief moment I get to bring them to my playground and show them all the colors that still exist and they had forgotten about.
I get to do this every weekend, and I get to do it with 120 other people who are there to make the magic with me. I get the pleasure and honor of working with some amazingly talented and incredibly dedicated performers. Each and every one of them tries their damndest to make the magic every day.
Sometimes we fail spectacularly. Sometimes we flail and fall flat on our faces in the mud (literally). Sometimes the patrons just look at us with blank fish faces. Sometimes we get tired and frustrated and cry in the keep because we just can't do it. Then we dust ourselves off, wipe away the mud and tears, find a friend and go do it again until we succeed.
Improvisational acting, especially when you are doing it in the streets in the guerilla theater fashion, is possibly the hardest type of acting there is. We have no scripts. We barely have boundaries. We have characters we have developed, history we have learned, and basic theories and techniques in our brains, but the rest is up to courage and perseverance and trust in our fellow actors to help keep us floating.
It is a labor of love like no other being involved in this organization. It is a lesson in trust and patience. It is a trial every single day to do more, work harder, play bigger, and make the magic more realistic for our audience.
I know a lot of people that wouldn't even try this. They think we are sort of insane for doing it at all. I know people who would look at us and judge us on one performance or one small portion of what they see. It is impossible to see all of us doing all the amazing things we are doing at once because we are spread over 35 acres. While I am choking out a sailor on one side of the festival there is a beggar getting people to cover themselves in mud on the far side of the festival and at the same time there are thirty people putting on a live full combat human chess match on another side of the festival. If you see me sitting at a bench breathing and doing nothing you don't realize that I just got six little girls to play follow the leader with me crawling under picnic tables for 10 minutes. Or you don't realize I just had a 45 minute intimate discussion with an older couple about life in the renaissance.
It is sort of impossible to see the brilliance and all the work that we do. There are people who would nay say us, and to them I say, who are you to judge us? Until you are here standing beside me, having suffered through the last few months of pain and exhaustion, you can't judge me or my people. I don't care if you have done this before, you are not doing it now, and you have no idea what we have been struggling through or how far we have come.
I am so very proud of the people I work with. I may not always like all of them. I may complain about some more than others. At the end of the day though they are all still sitting there, hot, sweaty, sore, and exhausted, and every one of them has a war story about how they watched the magic spark in someones eyes. For that alone I am proud and happy to work with every one of them.
We suffer and we shine. We make merriment and magic from nothing. We bring joy and laughter. We are SAPA.
*Weight for distance is an event in Highland Games. Pretty much you take a 20 some odd pound cannon ball and put it on the end of a chain. You then spin around and lob it as hard as you can to see how far it will go. The guy throwing the weight at the time was very good, and he could throw it very hard and very far. He lost control and the weight flew into a crowd of us watching. It almost caught my head, but I was pulled back out to the way and a friend of mine 'caught' it with his hand. It could have been a lot worse, though it was pretty bad still.