Hear Ye, Hear Ye!
The Maryland Renaissance Festival Opens Its 30th Season
by Kat Bennett
Quietly tucked on 25 wooded acres between Crownsville and Annapolis, a
16th century English Tudor village called Revel Grove awakens. For nine weekends from August 26 through October 22, entertainers, merchants, workers and their families migrate to this little town, transforming it into a bustling center of merriment: The Maryland Renaissance Festival.
With 10 major stages, five pubs, more than 118 craft and demonstration booths, a jousting arena, medieval-themed carnival games, street juggling and magic acts, a playground, free pony rides and an elephant, the Maryland Renaissance Festival feels like a History Channel production of Henry VIII with an open-air circus at the boardwalk.
Each year of the Festival represents a year in medieval history; 2006 is year 1539, two years after Queen Jane died. King Henry VIII has decided to visit the village of Revel Grove in his search for a new bride. Each day at 2:30pm, the drama of Henry’s bachelor court unfolds via a series of mini-plays written and directed by Carolyn Spedden.
Another series of daily sketches depicts the village life of Revel Grove as the townspeople host their liege, Henry VIII, and his court. There is always some intrigue; this year’s involves an evil sheriff and his deputy, an evil tinker; a mayor with a gambling problem and daughters; a pirate queen; a wool merchant; and various rogues, idiots and heroes. Duels are requisite, but true peace is resolved with a game of human chess with people as the pieces.
This village drama spills all over the festival as the actors are highly skilled at drawing unsuspecting patrons into their theatrics.
“It’s the biggest party around,” said general manager Jules Smith Jr.
Smith is not just tooting his own horn. The Maryland Renaissance Festival is the second largest event of its kind in the United States. More than 280,000 revelers visited last year, making Revel Grove a destination for about 14,000 people each of its 19 days. Some 2,800 purchased Fairever, passes granting access each day of the festival.
Preparing the Village
This week the village echoes with the sounds of hammers and saws as it does every year at this time as merchants busily renovate and freshen their shops. Work areas are set up and supplies laid in for the busy season. Merchants here make and sell their own handicrafts (the book and music shops are exceptions), and all newcomers must pass a two-year trial. But new spaces rarely become available as many businesses are passed down within families, just as they would have been in the 1500s.
From across the United States, Canada and overseas, craftsmen, jousters, musicians and entertainers are traveling to Maryland. Some travel the yearly circuit of Renaissance Faires, while other vendors only appear at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
The Hansen family of glassblowers moved their business, Art of Fire, to be part of the very first
festival, back in 1977.
“We like to make pieces that customers can watch being created,” said artisan Theda Hansen. “We keep the length of the demonstration to 15 minutes so our audience can move on and see as much as possible while they are at the festival. The first piece we make at the show is called the studio spirit, and we hang it for good energy and good fortune. The purchaser must wait until the festival is over to get it.”
Craftspeople thrive on the symbiosis of working to a live audience. Mike Rose of Croswel Magic often invents and names new tricks. One year, when a trick amazed a teenage visitor he cried out, “What the monkeys!” His exclamation became a catch phrase for the shop. “We liked it so much that we created a trick using cards with monkeys so we could call it What the Monkeys,” Rose said.
Denise Lamont and Grant Speight of the Rock Shop and Sluice Mine also make wax hand castings. Denise remembers a mother and daughter who had their joined hands cast. The mother was dying of cancer and wanted her daughter to know that she would always be with her, holding her hand.
Getting into Character
Teachers, real estate analysts, authors, financial-services brokers, lawyers, chemists and government employees are shaking out their tights and practicing their thees and thous. Many of the crew at the Maryland festival take time off from their regular jobs each year to step back in time and play. The fortune-teller reading your palm may be a research chemist; the cheerful sales clerk might be a
public affairs officer for the Navy; the saucy lady lacing bodices could be an author with books in print.
Actors staunchly maintain their characters, which sometimes requires a little creativity. John Verrico of The Tall Toad remembers the creativity of Bill Huttle, the man who played King Henry VIII for many years until he died in 2003. “Bill was a great fan of the Washington Redskins, but during the Festival, there is no way to watch or listen to a football game. Spying a festival-goer with a radio, he would ask What news have you of our knights in burgundy and gold?’’
Not all the performers start as professionals. In 1991, Festival officials founded an apprentice program, the Youth Acting Entertainers, where teens apprentice alongside skilled performers. Duncan Pace and Matt Conolly joined the program that first year and return to the 2006 festival as part of the successful London Broil Show. “We’re so proud to be back,” said Duncan. “We learned so much here.”
How the Renaissance Came to Maryland
Inspiration for Maryland’s festival began in the early 1960s in Minnesota, when Jules senior, Julian Smith, helped philanthropist Henry McKnight create Jonathon, an experimental, utopian community in harmony with nature. Inspired by California’s Pleasure Faire, that Minnesota community created its own Celebration of Life and Love in 1971.
With other local businessmen, Julian Smith helped shape the celebration into the first fully professional for-profit renaissance fair, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. Next, Smith resolved to create a fair of his own. When he shared his ideas with visionary Baltimore developer James Rouse, Rouse offered space in Symphony Woods, near the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.
Opening in 1977, the first Maryland Rennfest delighted its visitors with stage and street entertainment set in the time of Elizabeth I. Vendors like Verna and Cynthia Cole of Purple Unicorn operated out of lean-tos and tents while Smith constructed temporary stages in his driveway and transported them on flat-bed trucks. The festival had to be set up and struck down each season.
By 1985, crowds were outgrowing the Columbia site, so 150 acres were leased in Crownsville, a location convenient to Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Thus was born the village of Revel Grove.
Smith junior had worked at the fair during his college years. In 1981 he graduated to full-time and today presides as general manager and vendor coordinator.
“What excites me,” the younger Smith said, “is seeing people having fun.”
Using a book on Tudor architecture, he designed the pubs, stages and outbuildings for the village of Revel Grove. Along streets and alleys, merchants designed and built their own shops, each uniquely suited for their craft. Today, merchants own, maintain and repair their own buildings.
Size and permanence have not been the only dimension of growth. Over the years, the village has evolved a soul.
The Spirit of Revel Grove
Each year the festival community grows stronger and closer during the nine weeks that the performers, merchants and crew spend together. Three of the 118 vendors The Art of Fire, The Purple Unicorn and Sozra have been a part of the fair for all 30 seasons. Performers Johnny Fox, Comareta Musica and Mary Ann Jung have been around for 26 years. At least 75 vendors and almost all of the court and street characters have been at the fair 20 years or more.
Many families live camp-style right at the festival grounds in mobile homes. Others, like Dan the Joyner (aka Daniel J. Mehn) rest in little rooms built above their workspace and welcome customers by lowering the shutters just like the Renaissance guildsmen they emulate. These on-site spaces also provide a homey space where merchants and entertainers can take a break with friends, work, snooze or catch a little Ravens action.
Revel Grove has grown into a family where children are recognized and watched by everyone.
“My son worked here for 11 years until he went to college,” reports Cardinal Sinnius Lascivious Vice, aka Tony Guida, the festival’s “marrying clergyman.” “He could go anywhere, and there was always someone keeping an eye out. If he did anything, I would hear about it.”
Love has blossomed at the festival as well. As Cardinal Sinnius Vice, Guida has married more than 200 couples at the festival chapel. Originally a street character, Tony became a real minister of The Universal Life Church so he could marry his friends at the festival.
“At one ceremony, rain had turned the grounds to mud,” Guida recalled. “The bride was in a beautiful dress that she had beaded herself. By the end of the day, the dress was caked with mud, but the bride was beaming with happiness.”
Couples renew their vows at the chapel, and staffers often marry there. Michele Schultz (aka Stupina and Columbina of Teatro: That Show), Sheila Jensen-Wight (booth staff at Noblesse Oblige) and Lisa Carvell (Journeyman wheat-weaver) all met their husbands and married at the festival.
“Fairgoers were surprised that it was a real wedding,” Jensen-Wight said.
Last year, a girl from the village was asked to deliver the queen’s wreath to the winner of the joust. The winning knight dismounted and proposed to her all before a cheering festival crowd. The pair will marry at the chapel during this year’s festival.
Budding lovers can test the strength of their devotion at Tideline Salvage where Roger Swezey muses that his vulture sculptures might cause romantic trouble. “Usually the men like my work and the women don’t,” he said. “Business is better when it rains. Women duck in to stay dry instead of dragging their dates away.”
When help is needed, the village erupts with strong communal support.
Lori Titus of Bee Folks was five months pregnant when her husband suffered a stroke. Festival folk helped her husband practice speaking as they left baby gifts tucked here and there in her booth. Toward the end of the festival, Titus said, “I learned that a collection had been taken up for us. I am a proud person and do not ask for help. Still, I was extremely grateful that so many people kept us in their thoughts and prayers. I am glad that I will have the opportunity to raise my new baby among such a community.”
When Paula Perterka’s (aka Lady Kytson, Household of St. George) husband was suddenly scheduled for a triple bypass, she went to rehearsal the next day. “People asked me, How can you do the faire? I told them it keeps me sane. The festival people made sure that I was okay. Today my husband can bike 800 miles, but I could not have made it without the love and support of the festival.”
Children Welcome Here
Worried about the influence of TV and computerized games? Get your children engaged in Tudor life.
With free pony rides, a climbing wall, playground, free juggling lessons, storytellers, sing-alongs, games and activities, you can spend an entire day doing things with your children (all children must be accompanied by an adult).
But be warned, bringing your children to the Maryland Renaissance Festival can lead to more serious involvement. Janet McCabe, owner of festival bookstore Page After Page, tells such a tale:
“My boys were going to be knights for Halloween, so I sent my husband to the festival to buy swords and shields. It was a smash hit. Nothing would do but that we all go to the festival again the next day, and the boys wore their knight costumes. The following year, I made costumes for the whole family, and two years later we talked friends into doing the same thing. When the bookstore was available, I bought the booth and business, and now we’re there every day the faire is open, dressing the part and
speakeing the speeche.”
Before 12:30, children can sign up to be part of the cast of Robin Hood or St. George and the Dragon. Most shows are family rated, but customer service staff will help you determine if certain shows are appropriate for your family.
During children’s weekend Aug. 26 and 27, ages 11 and under enter at no cost. The Boars Head Tavern presents a special show with music, activities and a parade for pint-sized pirates and princesses. In honor of the 30th anniversary, King Henry VIII presents prizes for the most historically accurate Tudor family.
Joining the Life of Revel Grove
Through the gates of the festival, visitors enter a new world where people speak a different language, wear different clothes and engage in decidedly different customs.
First-time visitors often wander the streets like tourists, clutching their schedules, nibbling cheesecake on a stake and ogling the souvenirs. There are so many shops, performances and tasty treats that they imagine they can return again and again and never see it all.
John Verrico, salesman at the Tall Toad, encountered a middle-aged couple who looked overwhelmed. He leaned out of the shop and called “Good day. How are you faring this fine festive day?”
Taken aback, the husband approached slowly. We’ve never been here before and we really didn’t know what to expect, he said. But I am having a great time. With that, he put on a jester hat with four dangly bells. How do I look? he asked his wife.
Like a fool, she laughed.
I have to have it, he said, and both dug into their pockets. When they seemed to be coming up short, Verrico remembered a half-price sale. The couple purchased the hat and skipped out, laughing like school children.
“I saw the smiles on their faces and thought, I did that and that makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
After a few festivals, visitors become familiar with the performances and hasten to grab good seats for their favorites. The Maryland Renaissance Festival boasts an array of first-class magicians, jugglers and acrobats. There are mind-readers, hypnotist, a sword-swallower and a clown as well as comedy acts, parodies of plays, internationally acclaimed musicians and one completely serious Shakespearean production.
“The audiences are great,” said Michael Rosman, the Squire on the Wire.
“Once a huge storm blew through, and the audience ran away. I kept my balance on the wire and finished the act, and then there was this huge cheer. All the people were still watching. The work is exhausting, but there is no place that I would rather be.”
“Some singers get flowers and trinkets from attendees,” said Lisa Magyar (aka Dotty from the O’Danny Girls). “The O’Danny Girls get moose toys, which are much harder to find, so we think the audiences really like us.”
Gradually, faire-goers join in the life of the village. One way to become part of the performance is by interacting with one of 25 character actors who wander the streets of Revel Grove (All festival performers wear a ribboned badge.) You can blow a kiss to a wench, make a bow to the king or offer your child to the rat catcher and watch what enfolds. Keep alert for Robin Hood, Mother Goose, a laundress, a surly Scot and Maude, the bride-in-waiting: They will be looking to play.
Comic performers frequently draw the audience onstage, mostly targeting those in modern clothing so the rest of the audience doesn’t suspect a set-up. (If you are shy, disguise yourself in Tudor garb.)
Street wanderer and storyteller Bill Wood recounts coming upon a very small boy, perhaps less than two years old, sitting in the dirt drawing with a stick. “I sat down and started making marks in the dirt, too,” Wood said. “Soon, eight or 10 other people were sitting with us, making marks and moving rocks while about 35 other people were watching. People feel free to be anybody they want to be.”
“When I first went to a festival at 20,” Michele Schultz remembers, “someone flirted, and I blushed and didn’t know what to do. Now in Teatro-That Show, I engage in a battle of wits, and I flirt. There is a sense of play here that is freedom. The festival is my home, and I invite people to enter it.”
The Household of Saint George acts as a kind of Tudor embassy to the modern world, recreating a wealthy merchant’s home. There, an entire household carpenter, spinster, embroideress, cook, wool merchant, shipmaster and family members answer questions about how things were done and what people said. Demonstrations are scheduled on woodworking, love and life at sea, but guests are welcome anytime.
Two encampments demonstrate the military side of Renaissance life. Director James Frank will make a longbow before your eyes, and fight combatants are always looking for recruits.
But nothing draws people together better than song. Fairgoers have been known to spend the entire day singing with the Pyrates Royale, The Hooligan Brothers and other musicians at the pubs. As night falls, musicians and performers join patrons in ending the day with song. At the last pub sing of the season, the entire festival population comes together to say farewell until the next year.
Cleaning Up after the Fun
The Maryland Renaissance Festival improves on 16th century life ... in trash collection.
“My eldest son worked at the faire for three years as a trash-rat,” said Sheila Jensen-Wight. “That’s what the kids who empty the cans are called. He absolutely loved it and was sorry to have to leave when he went away to college last fall.”
Current manager and King Rat Danny Ventsias calls his work “the best job in the faire: “Everyone likes you and is happy to see you, and you get to see everything.”
Trash ratting is more than garbage clean-up; it’s a subculture. Rats create trash costumes and have a standing record for most bags carried: 32. To count, these must be regular full bags and carried along a set pathway.
On rainy days, the rats are known to delight in sliding down the muddy hills, covered in mud with trash bags in tow.
Clean-up has its benefits, as well.
“People, especially if drunken or tired, throw away money, purchases, keys and clothing,” said Ventsias. “One night we found the pieces for a complete Tudor outfit scattered about the parking lot. Whenever we find anything we turn it in to the Lost and Found. But we leave our name, and if nobody claims it at the end of the season, it’s ours.”
Then, come each August, the village again rings with life.
This year’s 30th anniversary adds special, celebratory acts to the usual fun. Among the anniversary features, The Medieval Babes fly over from England to grace the festival with their sexy musical renditions of medieval poetry. BBC television watchers heard the Babes on the soundtrack of this year’s BBC production about Elizabeth I, The Virgin Queen.
All 85 acts 36 of them musical are worth the price of admission. But the real attraction of the Maryland Renaissance Festival is the camaraderie and the heartfelt spirit of fun, of life in the revel of Revel Grove. This time each year, it welcomes us all.
New Themes Each Weekend
As if there weren’t enough to see and do, each weekend has its own special focus.
• Aug. 26 & 27: Children’s weekend, free for ages 11 and under.
• Labor Day, Sept. 4: Free for seniors 62 and over.
• Sept. 9 and Oct. 15: Certain stage shows are signed in American Sign Language by the Sharava Interpreting Service.
• Pirate adventure weekend, Sept. 23 and 24: Dress as swashbucklers and pirates, with prizes in two categories for best pirate: children (up to 15) and adults (16 and over).
• Oct. 7 and 8: Celtic weekend, celebrating the traditions, music and dance of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Galicia, Cornwall and the Isle of Mann. There will be kilts aplenty.
• Oct. 21 and 22: The final weekend features a special competition for the title of Greatest Knight in the Realm.
Visit the Maryland Renaissance Festival 10am (9:45 to enter with the king)-7pm SaSu Aug. 26 through Oct. 22 and Labor Day, Monday Sept. 4 @ Renaissance Festival Grounds, off Crownsville Rd. $17 adults; 62+ $15; children $8. Two-day passes (good for any two days; they don’t have to be the same weekend) $26. 19-day Fairever passes $70. Call for group discounts: 410-266-7304.
Kat Bennett attends the Maryland Renaissance Festival annually and discovers something new every time.