This Is What It's Like to Work Scarborough Renaissance Festival

Working the festival means a lot of pretending, but some of the acts also require workers to incur real danger.EXPAND
Working the festival means a lot of pretending, but some of the acts also require workers to incur real danger.
Photo by Pongo
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It literally takes a village to put on an event like the Scarborough Renaissance Festival.

Just before spring every year, hundreds of actors, jugglers, jousters, costume makers, crafters, artists and others dedicate a huge chunk of their time to turning a 35-acre stretch of land in Waxahachie into a 16th century time warp. It's like a play that lasts 12 hours a day with a scattering of breaks, no intermissions and no curtain call.

"It is somewhat hectic," says Steve Zalman, the performing company director. He's worked at the festival since 2002 and will oversee a cast of 140 performers at this year's festivities, from lowly peasants to members of the court's royalty.

Preparations for the festival usually start in early August, when the festival's main organizers begin assembling lists of the people and resources they'll need for the opening in April.  

Bryan Beard, a performer, director and owner of Noble Cause Productions, which stages live jousting demonstrations for renaissance festivals all over the country including Scarborough, says they don't just spend a few weekends out of the year preparing for their performances.

"A lot of people think this is a weekend job for us, but we rehearse and perform five days a week, and if we're having trouble with a horse or training a new guy, it may be six days a week," Beard says. "We do whatever it takes to keep us safe and the animals safe."

Kymberly Nielsen, the general manager of Costumes By Dusty in Arlington, who also manages the Suit Your Fantasy costume shop during the festival, says her family's business has been dressing up the fest's patrons for 20 years. She says they even have a whole room in her costume shop filled with 300 to 400 handmade costumes just for the festival. It takes two to three weeks to pack it all up and move it to the fairgrounds.

Nielsen says the demand just keeps growing and growing as new pop culture entities force them to add to their stock.

"We just pack up the room and move it down to the festival," Nielsen says. "Johnny Depp made pirates a whole new theme and then Game of Thrones came along and now there are Vikings and warriors. There's just so many new things."

Then when the gates open on the first day and the cannon fires to signal the start of the festivities, it's nonstop action for everyone involved. There's an 8:30 a.m. call time to get in costume and warmed up before the masses pour into the place, and the festival workers usually don't get to leave until 7:30 p.m. on a particularly busy day.

"When the cannon goes off in the morning up until the moment we leave, we pretty much are that character," says performer Kei Boardman from Fort Worth, who plays a barrister named Sir Gwain Clifford in the village's upper gentry class. "The only times we will break character is when we're in the backstage area or we're taking a breather before we're back in the lanes again."

Nielsen says since her booth is located right next to the festival's entrance, she's also required to stay in character as she dresses people, to create the illusion that the crowds have stepped back in time from the minute they pass through the gates.

"We try to create the atmosphere that they are a lord or a lady and have come to the shop to purchase their clothes and the staff is really big on acting like we are their servants," Nielsen says. "If a young child wants to be a knight, we tell him he must see the king because they've just been knights. We like to think we're the first one that creates the fantasy."

Festival performers spend a lot of time on their feet. Everyone is required to carry a mug, a flagon or something historic-looking that holds liquid to keep from getting too dehydrated as they stroll the grounds, or "lanes," as most performers call them.

"On a slow day, you still walk about three miles a day," says actor Dakoda Taylor from Lewisville, who has been performing at the festival for five years as a French nobleman. "A good day is probably about five or six or even seven and that's not including the fighting or human chess of the knighting ceremony, which requires a lot of squats because I have to get down to the kid's level. If it wasn't for my love of pizza, I'd probably be physically fit."

This Is What It's Like to Work Scarborough Renaissance Festival (3)EXPAND
Photo by Pongo

Some of the more physical performers like the knights in Beard's jousting tournaments take serious-looking falls during their performances.

"Even though this stuff is faked, you can't choreograph with gravity," Beard says. "We want to make it look as real as possible without people getting hurt. We want the sword fights to be fast and thrilling and believable and especially with movies like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, our audience becomes much more sophisticated [as far as] what they want to see. So we have to make sure we up our level."

Even these stunt performers who take on more dangerous roles are expected to act just like 16th-century knights when they come into contact with the public, Beard says.

"Between our shows when we're not prepping for the show, we try to get out and walk around as much as possible and interact with people and that adds a personal feel to it," Beard says. "Not only can we invite people to our next performances, but it gives them a chance to see us and take a picture or if they are cheering against us, they can give us a hard time. It's really a way to meet the fans face to face and get feedback from them."

Most of the visitors wandering the festival grounds are willing to play along, but a small, select few may not feel up to playing make believe. Others take the improvisation too far.

"I was trying to start duels with people by playing rock-paper-scissors with them and letting them win and this one guy thought I really wanted to fight him," Taylor says. "That's when I realized that some people like to get drunk at 10:30 a.m. in the morning. ... Thankfully, I had a friend who's 6-foot-5 and built like a Mack truck who was willing to back me up."

Zalman says that during rehearsals everyone is prepped on how to deal with unresponsive or unruly patrons.

"We teach them to read the audience and read the perspective of their target," Zalman says. "They look for things like have they had too much to drink or are they acting upset or uninterested. We still try and say hello to everyone, but we've also encouraged them if they get an uneasy vibe off of someone to keep their interaction as short as possible and go on to the next interaction. If they feel someone being unsafe for some reason, they have different contacts where they can get safety services."

This Is What It's Like to Work Scarborough Renaissance Festival (2)EXPAND
Courtesy of Scarborough Renaissance Festival

Learning to roll with those reactions can make the day more interesting, Taylor says.

"I may say the same lines 11 hours a day, but it just takes one person to say, 'No, I don't agree with what you said' and then you have to refocus and respond to that," Taylor says. "That's what keeps it fresh. Otherwise, you're just a dude in a costume standing in a cow pasture in the middle of North Texas."

Boardman notes that coaxing someone out of their cocoon of apathy and bringing them to a place of genuine joy can make for a more rewarding interaction.

"One stands out in my mind from last year," Boardman recalls. "It was a little girl, and she and her family were talking to another performer, and I had a rose that I was supposed to give and tell them to pass it on to someone else. And when the performer was over, I glanced over and it looked like she was about to cry. So I went over and took a knee and met her mom and dad and introduced myself and asked what's wrong and she said she was upset because she couldn't have a flower like everyone else. So I asked her mom and dad, because we always check with the parents first, if I could give her one and that little girl's face absolutely lit up like I just made her a Disney princess."

As a licensed wedding official, Zalman also gets the rare opportunity to create real memories for loving couples that will last them a lifetime. Zalman estimates that he's married around 130 couples in his 15-year history with the Scarborough Festival.

"It's actually a lot of fun because you get to meet a lot of different people who are exploring things they haven't seen before or talked about as different characters," Zalman says. "It's a lot of work but you also can get a lot of energy from an audience just from seeing people's eyes light up as you're bringing a little bit of magic in that moment into their lives and seeing how they're drawn further into the magic of the setting that we've created."

Scarborough Renaissance Festival runs April 8 through May 29 at 2511 FM 66, Waxahachie. Tickets are $12 to $28 at srfestival.com.

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