Men in tights loudly hawking pickles and tavern wenches in revealing blouses are common sights at the New York Renaissance Faire, which delights in campy tributes to Renaissance culture.
In a festival that juxtaposes a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” with a chainsaw-juggling acrobat, historical purity often takes a back seat to putting on a good show. About 150,000 people come to the Tuxedo grounds in a typical summer, for a day of staged jousts and brawls, bawdy ballads, fake accents, shopping and giant turkey legs. Ongoing stories, centered on the exploits of Robin Hood and the many of Queen Elizabeth, crop up throughout the day, with sideshows and variety acts between.
While most visitors show up in shorts and a T-shirt, some dress the part, braving the August heat in chainmail armor or butterfly wings. For these fairgoers, and the merchants and performers who make the whole exercise work, the fair is more than just a job or a day of fun, its a passion that justifies the dedication of time and energy for whatever pittance they might be paid.
Jay Reeder of Kingston, a tailor who owns the Knightly Endeavors clothing store on Wall Street, has spent the last 13 summers traveling to the fairgrounds for love and for money.
“Mostly love at this point,” he said. Still, he expects about 80 percent of his annual sales to be made at the fair, which is open weekends (and Labor Day) through Sept. 20. Knightly Endeavors has a full-time booth at the fair, but Reeder himself only plans to spend a few weekends there, since his day job as a salesman for Verizon is taking up more and more of his time. He needs the job to get health benefits for his family, including a five-year-old daughter and two stepdaughters.
“The notion that you’re going to be transported for a little while to another place,” is what gives Renaissance fairs their appeal,” Reeder said. “It’s the fantasy that you can be someone else.”
A nerdy introvert can don a doublet and become a rascally pirate, or a shy girl can spend the day as a saucy wench or a fairy princess.
“For some guys, it’s the weekend to see the young ladies dressed a little more provocatively,” Reeder said. “And for some of the girls, it’s the songs, the music and the spectacle. And of course, shopping.”
Also, there’s plenty of chances for flirting amidst the pageantry.
“A pretty pickle to please your palate, princess?” a pickle purveyor asked a female customer one recent Saturday. Once he got her attention, his wordplay turned from alliteration to more suggesting punning, inquiring whether she would prefer length or girth in her gherkin. As he handed over the $2.50 pickle she’d picked from his barrel, the vendor wrapped it in a napkin and announced, with mock gravitas, “I shall even wrap my pickle for thy protection!”
Reeder said he started his business with since-departed partners who shared his love of Renaissance fairs.
“We were looking for a way to justify being at the fair every weekend,” Reeder said. They got an opportunity in 1996, after another vendor dropped out. But before the fair opened, they found themselves far behind schedule in making the clothes, and Reeder, a self-professed “retail geek” who was working at Radio Shack at the time, was pressed into last-minute sewing service.
“I like engineering, and this is just engineering in a different format,” said Reeder, who said he wanted to be an astronaut when he was a child. Now he’s the only one of the original partners still left at Knightly Endeavors. He and one employee make all of the clothing they sell.
Emma Servant of Wallkill — who plays an oft-drunk villager in the fair between singing with an a capella group, The Singing Sirens of Sterling, assisting the joust team and other roles — said that the camaraderie that grows between cast members and the chance to learn unique skills are two of the big perks of working there. Servant has learned singing, acting, improvisation, accents, horseback riding, stage combat and miming at the fair.
“This is one of the most fun jobs I’ve had in my life,” she said.
“It’s different than any other acting job,” said Pearce Larson, a second-year cast member who plays Friar Tuck. “You get to do things like fight with a longspear.”
Most of the cast are from the New York metro area, so they camp near the fairgrounds each weekend. Because weekend rehearsals start about a month before the Ren Fair opens, cast members end up camping together for much of July, August and September. Everyone brings their own tent and air mattress, and there are showers and running water but no electricity. For dinner, the cast divides around a few campfires and has a potluck-style cookout. Returning cast members get first dibs on keeping their tent site from the previous year, and the rest have to fight it out for spaces.
“It’s sort of like adult summer camp,” said Greg Powell, who’s in his fifth year in the cast.
Servant often organizes themed parties to encourage bonding between cast members and to bring up morale after a long, exhausting day. As an example, she mentioned an “anything but clothes” party in which people must come dressed in improvised materials other than articles of clothing, such as a garbage bag.
“I made an outfit out of a pillow case, but I’m really small, so I could do that,” Servant said.
The full-immersion of spending the whole weekend in the woods makes it easy to stay in character for nine or 10 hours a day. Powell said he sometimes had the opposite problem, because he got too used to greeting people by tipping his feathered cap.
“Occasionally, I’d pass people in New York, I’d reach up to tip my hat and realize I wasn’t wearing my hat,” he said. “It turned into a sort of awkward wave.”
Romances often bloom between cast members who spend so much time together. The two improv directors are married, for example, and dating is common.
Powell has dated three fellow cast members over the past five years. He met his girlfriend, SUNY New Paltz grad Polly Solomon, at the fair. This year, Solomon has an aerial silks show based on the tales of Scherezade. Powell said he knew four cast members who proposed marriage during the fair.
“It’s very hard not to fall for the people you’re working with,” said Stacey Jeungling, a 21-year-old college student from Middletown who’s spent the last six summers at the fair. She sold clothing for three years at M’Lady’s Panties, then joined the cast. Besides playing the Mayor’s daughter, she helped make costumes before the fair began and works at the costume shop cleaning the outfits after performances. She said she’s not dating someone from the fair, but has in the past.
“It takes a certain kind of person to strap yourself into the most ridiculous costumes and sleep in the woods for weeks on end,” she said. “This year I went to two weddings between cast members.”
Besides weddings between the cast, the New York Renaissance Faire hosts weddings, too. There’s been one wedding there so far in 2009. Reeder said it’s less of a focus recently, but sometimes it brings in money. He said his store made close to $11,000 making 12 outfits for one wedding party in 2006.
Reeder’s own wedding six years ago was a “fantasy, gothic kind of thing.” He said he worked tirelessly for 10 days sewing costumes, sleeping little and working until the very last minute. Because he made most of the outfits himself, he was able to have more elaborate costumes than if he’d bought them. He estimated the retail cost of the clothing at $20,000, which he said is probably too much for a reasonable person to spend.
“To me, it seems like a waste of money,” he said.
And money, although it’s not the whole reason Reeder does what he does, can’t be ignored. This year, he canceled his shop’s booth at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair because he calculated that he would probably lose money. A typical women’s outfit from his booth costs $140 to $200 and a men’s outfit costs $110 to $185, numbers that are hard to ask in the current economic climate. The fair charges a 10 percent commision on items sold there.
And even though fair season would seem like a good time for Reeder to enjoy his hobby, he said he’s often working too hard to participate. “The horrible reality of it is that … during season you’re working like a demon to get things done,” he said.
For the performers, it’s not exactly all play and no work either. Servant said she’s paid $65 for a 10-hour day, and a good number of the cast are unpaid volunteers. Stage fighters get slightly more, but only the jousters, who put themselves in harm’s way by fighting on horseback, and the full-time managers and creative directors make decent money.
It’s also physically demanding, with performers fighting and acting in several shows in high heat and uncomfortable costumes — corsets are practically a requirement for the women. Larson, who played a one of Robin Hood’s yeomen last year, said he was glad to trade his thong and tights for the more comfortable robe of Friar Tuck.
And a lot of work goes into keeping those costumes clean. The more elaborate the costumes, the dirtier it will get as the Fair wears on.
“You can’t really wash velvet and brocade in a washing machine,” Jeungling said. “It’s a lot of Febreze and beating it with a stick when they get dusty.”
At least their undergarments are relatively clean – there are backups to be worn while the first pair are thrown in the washer.
But Servant said its easy to keep the troubles in perspective when she sees regular patrons going all out for a day at the fair. “They pay hundreds of dollars for costumes and hundreds of dollars in passes,” to do what she gets paid to do.
“As grueling as the day can be … you keep coming back,” Servant said. “There’s a deep-seated love you just can’t shake.”
“It’s not something you do for the pay,” Powell said. “Everyone who’s there is there for the whole love affair.”
And then there are the smaller perks, too. “I’ve got a Facebook (page) full of kickass pictures,” Powell said.
Published by the Daily Freeman