Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | February 22, 2010

Musings from a Ren Faire Newbie – Part 1, the crash course training

Disclaimer:  If someone takes issue with what I write here, please understand that as a newbie,  I can only speak to what I have experienced over the last couple of years.  I don’t know much about the politics or history of the various guilds, performers, or faires.  No disrespect is intended.

I am a relative newcomer to the Renaissance Faire world.  Yes, as a kid/teen, I was introduced to the great Black Point Forest Renaissance Faire in Novato.  But I didn’t go to Renaissance faires  in any regular way until two years ago when my family joined a reenactment guild.  Last weekend I attended the 8th Annual Renaissance Symposium,  For those of you who don’t know about Symposium, let me quickly summarize.  It is a fun weekend of classes designed to share information about the Elizabethan era for use by Renaissance Faire performers and reenactors. This was the third year that I attended and I’d taken a lot of the classes on the schedule.  I’ve considered the symposium as a crash course in how to participate at faire.

This year I decided to attend 3 history classes, 4 costume classes, 3 acting classes, and a class that sort of focused on the themes for some of the faires.  I picked classes that I thought would help me develop the role I play in a Scottish reenactment guild.  My character is a Highland woman from the western coast.  I play a wife, spinner and cook.  (It’s easier to play a role you know something about.)

The history classes. I took one on Irish history hoping to get an idea of how the Irish interacted with the Scots and English, but it was mostly military history- so that wasn’t very useful to me except to know that there was an awful lot of fighting, famine, and disease for the common folk because the powerful people were at odds with one another.  Another class was about the trade of exotic goods by dangerous caravan routes and pirate infested waters.  Entertaining and great on examples (including why nutmegs were so expensive), but not as encompassing as I was hoping.  (I wanted to find out more about the trading that may have been done by ship.)

The third history class was about who the Scots were and why would they be at faire.  Great class.  It made me think about why I (and my guild) would be so far from our clan home and in a place where people considered us barbarians.  It made me consider how I would interact with all those other people at faire…those strange English, Germans, French, and Italians…and how they would react to me.  It made me really understand the difference between Highlanders and Lowlanders. What I liked was the way the instructor showed how a foreigner would function in a foreign land.  In fact, I recommended the class to a guy who will be a Turkish trader because it was a class that focused on outsiders coming into the English world.

Costuming classes. As a newbie, I’ve been really cautious in accepting information as gospel until I can get some info from people whose work seems reasonable and reliable.  Last year I went to a couple of garb classes but found that I couldn’t use the info that focused on garb for English and noble garb.  There’s not a lot of information on Scots clothing.  Everyone says, look up the Irish.  Yup, right.  Let’s just say, for the last year I’ve done a lot of researching on the internet.

This year I wanted to take more “how-to” focused classes. This year I went to 4 classes. There was the one on fabrics for performers – Great hands on! Touching and feeling samples of fabrics, explanations of what was good or bad for each one, sources for finding fabrics, lots of personal experience samples, and a chart of fabric burn test results!   The class on sewing tips and tricks – Useful! They shared their treasured tools and equipment and sources.  Suffice it to say I’ll be taking a trip to Home Depot with a sewing project in mind!  A special highlight was being the sewing dummy for Margo Anderson for the Draping the Doublet class!  She was so matter of fact and clear in showing how the art of draping can be really be useful and easy!  I’m not intimidated anymore.  Bonus: I got to keep the pattern!

And then there was the one on busting costuming myths –    Fabulous!  Costumers and garb enthusiasts are particularly great at sharing information on clothing myths as they are brought to light through research on extant samples.   THANK YOU KIMIKO SMALL!! Yes, people wore black, pink, and lavender.  No, blue was worn by high ranks as well as low ranks.  No, back lacing isn’t the only way to deal with tight bodices on gowns. Yes, peasants wear hats.  Her handouts were great!  Thank you, thank you, thank you! (Please see Kimiko’s website -A Gentlewoman’s  Accounts,– for information for the areas she has researched.)

Now a digression…Bill (one of the producers) had a class called Popping the Bubble which explored how faire myths have spread and grown from some pretty murky beginnings.  I love classes like this and the costuming myths class.  They help the community and newbies reset the cultural memory.  So much information and examples out in the general media is based on romantic ideas, Hollywood, or stories.   When I’m talking to patrons about my spinning wheel, they often want to see the part where Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger.  I have to explain to them that a distaff isn’t sharp. (So many fairy tale illustrators didn’t/don’t have a clue.)   And sometimes those bubbles of myth are created because we haven’t explored the history enough before we present information at faire.   I still have to catch my breath and do a slow count to 10 when I meet people who a) passionately say there was no knitting in our period or b) insist on knitting or crocheting in inappropriate techniques/projects for our period.  My retorts to these statements:  a) Yes, there was knitting – but it was tubular projects on thin, double-ended metal or bone needles.  The cappers and glovers were very busy knitting away, thank you very much, and it was a trade not a hobby.  And Elizabeth even had a program that gave away metal needles to really poor women so they could knit socks for their children using the yarn remnants donated by the wool guild.  b) Don’t knit a flat project – scarf, afghan, shawl –  at faire using single pointed, bulky sized needles with neon acrylic. (The historical knitters group on Ravelry all made a collective gasp when I shared that observation with them.  Please note that I saw this being done when I was a paying patron looking for 16th century illusion.) And please, crocheting was not done with the modern crochet hook technique.  It was done by nuns and gentle women for the Church’s religious objects, not for those flat bulky projects in Red Heart variegated primary colors acrylic. If you want to knit at faire, try to portray someone who is doing piece work for the cappers guild by knitting a cap.  Okay, I’ll stop snarking now…

There were acting classes. I took one class on Physical Characterization.  Definitely an acting class and it reminded me that I am a reenactor vs. actor, so I come with my “green umbrella” by the trade I demonstrate – my props are a spindle and a spinning wheel.  But what it did help me visualize is how affectations can be important to presenting a character.  More importantly, this class emphasized how to OBSERVE people and become aware of how we move when we are embracing our faire character.  I’m thinking about how I stand, move, walk and shop as I move through faire just as much as when I am doing my craft demonstration.

Which brings me to the How to Sound Like a Scot class.  Yes, Highland Gaelic words remind me of the Klingon language.  Except it’s friendlier sounding.  Usually.  I like that the class showed how there were differences between the Highlanders and Lowlanders.  I love learning about languages.  Although you can’t learn a language in an hour, this class (which I’ve repeated now) does help to get your brain to start thinking about how a language can color your character.  (Practicing our accents and roundabout word choices at the dinner table may become more than an idle threat in the next couple of months.)

The other class was character development.  Now, I had really thought about my character over the last couple of years.  As a reenactor vs. a theatrical performer, I’ve been very focused on learning how to bring my character to life based on what I would have been vs. who I wanted to portray.  But it was great to have Barky (a long time faire participant) put it in so clear a format (even if he wasn’t feeling his best that morning).   “What’s your name?  What’s your job?  What do you do for fun?” He made us go mingle with each other and interview each other so that we could a) get used to having to think about who we are supposed to be, b) meet others who may be playing at faire, and c) network. Yes, network – you may find someone with similar or related storylines that could be used to create gigs or projects.  He also pointed out that you gather your garb a bit at a time, starting with very basic pieces and working your way on as you develop who you are.  Nice touch, that.

The best thing this class did was poke holes in how prepared I am (and others I play with) to really talk to patrons at faire. I can’t give the name of the character my guildmaster plays…I can only say he’s the Chief!  Sad, so sad!  I bet that Colm, Seamus, Mairi and others in my guild can’t give my faire name readily.  We only know each other’s modern day names by heart!  Our entire guild is a little shaky on why we are at faire!  Eegads.  How in the world are we supposed to answer the patron when they ask what our names are and why we’re at faire??

Which leads me to the class that Marti (the other producer) facilitated talking about using Shakespeare as a theme to unify the diverse groups at faire.  During the class, she pointed out that many groups just do their own thing and don’t really interact with others at faire.  Her class really became a bunch of questions of how do we make the faire a positive experience for our patrons.

It got me thinking.  As a patron, what had I responded to?  (Answer: the hands-on elements like the “impromptu” tug-of-war game that erupted in the middle of the  road , the invitations to step closer and see something cooking, listening to the bartering in the market and wooings under the trees.)  As a faire performer, how can I improve my character and interaction with others so it is interesting to the patron as well as myself?  If we don’t know what other guilds are doing, how are we to interact with them?  Is it appropriate to sit in our guildyards talking about computers and mundane work lives when the patrons are walking by?  During lunch on Sunday with some faire friends, we talked about how it makes such a difference when you walk by a guild or booth and hear accents and conversations about the 16th century life…it helps the illusion that our patron is paying for!

So all in all, this  weekend was a jump start to the season and got me questioning how I choose to participate in creating a Renaissance experience while having fun.  Remember, we’re supposed to have fun!

Faire is right around the corner.  Time to prepare!




  1. This was a positively wonderful article, and I know it’s being shared around the staff and instructors from the symposium and are all very appreciative.

    Look forward to reading more things from you in the future – thanks again!

    • I’m so glad the response has been positive! (It was a little nerve wracking to decide to write this because you don’t want to piss off your new community in any way.) I figured that there needed to be an article (or three…) that was focused on the newbie because it can be confusing and intimidating and mystifying to find a way to fit in.

  2. Thanks for posting this! It’s great to get a newcomer’s take on things, and to know we were of help.

    • Thanks for being so down to earth with your information. It made it more accessible and less intimidating.

  3. Thanks for sharing your reactions to the Symposium, Magaidh. I’d love to have had this kind of feedback on a conference I helped with several years ago. I’m sure that your newbie take will help potential instructors and the programming staff when it comes time to choose topics next year.

    *chuckling* You’ve really reinforced my desire to make it to RenSym one of these days. It sounds like such a fun way to learn.

  4. Your article was so well written and it captured the mood of the symposium perfectly.

    You didn’t mention the ‘meeting new friends’ class at the fair. It was an unstructured and ongoing class that met at different locations and times, usually impromptu. THIS class was my favorite.

    • You’re right about the “meeting new friends” class. It is the best class. I have found that it is difficult to meet people at symposium as a newbie because the established groups/cliques/seasoned actors are so comfortable and busy with their communities that they don’t really stretch out to the newbies. Over the 3 symposiums I’ve gone to, I’ve noticed that some newbies actually reach out to each other. We’re kinda obvious…we kinda drift around looking a little lost and pool in the corners. (Lol.) I know that I literally marched up to strangers and introduced myself in order to stop feeling like a passive participant at the conference. (It didn’t always work.) When my guildmates introduced me to someone, my connections increased. When I taught the spinning class, my connections increased. I got to meet you because we connected through a totally non-faire related connection. But luckily for me, I got to meet a bunch of neat people just by meeting you. (Husby and Daughter are still wondering who you are, but we’ll fix that this season.) Maybe there’s a need for a “welcoming” event for newbies. I’ve overheard conversations about people wanting to know how to recruit new members, maybe a meet and greet during lunch break or cocktail hour could help newbies make connections.

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