Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | August 24, 2010

Musings of a Ren Faire Newbie – Crunchy on the outside, mushy on the inside

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 3 years.  I don’t know much about the politics or history of the various guilds, performers, or faires.  No disrespect is intended. Remember, people, this is my personal experience and opinion, not gospel.  Oh, yeah…and be forewarned that I have a distinct bias for the historically focused  vs. what is convenient for showing at faire.   Let’s share what we think and discuss it friendly-like.

Starting to be reenactor at faire?  Are you more than a shell?  Can we get past costuming defining our characters?

I needed to follow up on my musings on historical accuracy…I was in a chat room discussing historical accuracy being incorporated into our faire presentations when one guy brought up that there is a lot more effort focused on the shell of a character than the guts.  I totally agree.  I get tired of being judged just on my costume.

I’ve talked about costuming in quite a few posts.  Now we need to talk about the guts.  What are the guts?  They are the way you walk, talk, interact with other actors/reenactors, the way you interact with the patrons.

“But Magaidh, what’s the difference between actors and reenactors?”

I don’t know.  I haven’t figured that out exactly, but I feel a difference that I can’t put my finger on.  I think one of my personal hang-ups is that I don’t consider myself an actor type.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve run into actors who don’t really care about history of non-noble characters.  Maybe it’s because I’ve run into actors who don’t bother to check into accuracy.  Maybe if I’d met more actors who made me feel comfortable or didn’t put me down for not having a good accent or physical gestures/quirks…It takes a bit for me to put myself out there and interact with the “actors” at faire.  I don’t feel comfortable gigging with many because I don’t know who they are or why we would be interacting.  Part of this is because I don’t have the history down about how to address someone of various classes/ranks.  But then if I’m supposed to be so low on the social totem pole (Highland Scots are considered barbarians just above the Irish), I shouldn’t even be hanging out at faire.   In fact I would be an oddball because I actually know English tongue instead of just speaking in Gaelic.  And I don’t know enough Gaelic to converse in that language as a background.

It makes my head ache.

I actually use my craft as a way to define myself. It was the easiest way to fit in.  (I may look bad to a costume snob, but I at least can be real in my craft.)  I try to be more like the spinster that I’m portraying.  I put on the clothes and move in them and use them the way that makes sense.  My apron gets filthy because I actually use it for carrying stuff and wadding it up as a hot pad and laying wool on it.  My tools must work vs. just look nice. (I need a good period-looking oil bottle for oiling my wheel.) I roll up my sleeves because I need the freedom and I’m hot.  I wear a straw hat because it is better sun/glare protection.  I boss my faire kids around asking them to help me with a task or to do work…but they tend to see it as Mom just being bossy instead of being in character.  (I’ll have to work on that…hmmm…communication with teenagers…oh, this is a real life problem of they don’t understand it is “the play”!  Wow!  Lightbulb moment!)

I use my spinning as a way to interact with patrons and participants.  When I was discussing how I try to be historical in a recent Tribe chat, this is what I wrote about stretching my gigging skills:

… I’m trying to stretch a little and work on being in character more. When I interact with patrons, I try to really show them what I’m doing, I’ll interact with someone else in the guildyard to bring the relationships out more – calling the dyer over to explain the pot, or calling “Husband, can you please fetch me the (throw in the name of something in Gaelic)…when other people aren’t working their characters, it makes it harder for me to stay in character and practice. And it is soooo great when the person I start interacting with has some of the history behind them as well. At Valhalla, when a patron asked about sheep, I had to ask the Lady Douglas… to explain where the sheep were that had provided the wool I was spinning…it became an inter-guild gig that was so much fun. But I could definitely work with the patrons about the wool processing…just not in character. Yet.

In the same chat room I mentioned before, someone assumed that as a craft person, I wait for patrons to come to me to ask questions.  I had to get on my soap box.   Here was my response:

I don’t wait for a patron to come to me. I try to engage them when they are about 6-10 ft away. I’ll notice they came around the corner, see the wheel, and start staring. That’s my cue to talk to them – “You’ll never learn anything if you don’t ask questions.” “You’ll see better if you come closer. ” I’ve been known to suddenly rise from my wheel, and rush out to a patron with blue or pink hair and circle them and then ask what kind of dye they used or if they will sell it to me. I’ll yell back to the dyer, ” THIS is the shade I want!” and then the dyer comes out and looks at it and we keep going on or end up bringing out a sample from the dyepot.

I will target the kids and motion them over to me…if the kid comes over, the parents will follow. If the husband is drawn to the engineering of the wheel, the wife will follow. If the girlfriend comes over, the boyfriend will follow. I’ll often ask people if they want to see a magic trick – showing how the untwisted fiber is weak, but with the uttering of magic words and some twisting, the yarn allows us to play tug of war. (The engineering type of men love this!) Once the patron is in my circle of influence, I explain what is going on, answer questions, whatever. I do a whole picking to spinning demo that ends with the kids walking away with a souvenir bracelet of plyed yarn. That is the kind of experience I had as a kid at faire, and that’s what I try to give them.

I’ve also want to start to gig with the booth across the road from me or the guild next to me – I’m hoping to do a gig where I pull the newly spun yarn from my wheel to the weaver across the road and ask her if it is the thickness that she needs. Then the patrons have to stop or dive under the yarn or stop and see what is going on. (Bwahahahahaha!)

In another chat, I learned that Tudor aprons at Kentwell were sewn in a certain way.  A very logical way:  the waist tape is sewn to the center two quarters of the top so that the outer corners are loose so they can make the apron into a carryall.  Oh my gosh! You mean that garb can be logical not just decorative?? I’ll be changing my aprons to be the same design.  Not only will it change my appearance, but it will change how I will act – easy folding makes it a bundle allowing me to move my spinning fiber or veggies or whatever.  I also learned that working aprons could be in colors: green, blue, beige, tan.  Colored aprons show less muck.  I don’t have to keep bleaching my white ones!  This illustrates how research can help how we clothe our characters in realistic ways.

Research can be daunting.  Take it in bites.  Small bites help to avoid indigestion and heartburn and fat hangovers.

Yes, read a lot of articles – but spread them out in different disciplines.  I’ve mentioned before that to work on my Highlander character I had to look at the geography, fishery and forest surveys, historical building articles as well as clan histories.  I started with family genealogy and moved out from there. I don’t play a documented character, but I base my persona on what may have been possible for a person to experience by living in a place at a certain time.  Look into information on historical building and gardens and you start to see how people changed their houses to be a patchwork of time and taste…the garden wall was from the 1700s but the building was from Tudor and the garden itself was designed in Victorian era.    Yes, learning about other periods help you sort through – process of elimination.

Did I mention that research is not linear? (Apparently, neither is this post.)

Look at easily accessible  sources like the Compendium and resources of guilds who do lots of historical reenactment: Kentwell ( or our local group,  St. George –

If you are a sailor check into sailing history.  Check out the Privateers of the Dauntless link:  Find out about navigation, tides and currents, spice trade routes, what were the astronomical guides that aided sailors at night, what were the tools that sailors used on rigging, for finding North, for staying fed.

If you are baker’s apprentice, check into the history of cooking.  Modern cakes didn’t happen til after the Renaissance, pastry will hold any number of fillings, puddings and custard were common sweets.

I’ve challenged Ren faire newbies to be as accurate as possible when starting out.  I’ll also challenge you veterens to renew your experience by taking the next steps to being more historical past the costuming.  I’ve seen apathy, and comfort make veteran participants a bit too comfortable in how things are done.  Can you find a fresh way to present yourself by deepening your knowledge AND SHARING IT with your fellow performers and the public?  I’ve argued with people who want to know why I don’t spin on a bottom whorl spindle.  As a Highlander, I had interaction with Scandinavian technique, which could be both top and bottom whorl.  When I play an English spinner, I will use a bottom whorl spindle, because it was more common.

Let’s take this challenge to incorporate education into how we play.  Incorporating history doesn’t have to be expensive…if we focus on how we interact vs. how we dress, that can have no cost at all.  It doesn’t have to be drudgery, or boring, or complicated.  I think perhaps it may be as easy as learning one new historical thing each season and incorporating it into our presentations.  It may be about creating a stronger, more knowledgeable and interactive community by making it a goal of meeting one new participant each faire you attend.

BTW, check into Tribe and look for the Renaissance history snob group, There’s also one on Elizabethan clothing,

Both of these groups have discussions on why something would probably be done a certain way, and then the group tends to help each other figure out how to present these bits of information at faire through our characters or guilds or whatever. (Hey Rydell, I’m giving you a shout out!)

Yes, go to education events (like Ren Symposium), but also find other ways and events. I just spent a day with two new faire friends who wanted to learn about spinning.  During that day, we picked and carded and spun.  I talked to them about a dream a faire friend and I have of starting a woolery group.  But we also discussed period songs and sewing tips and who we knew and respected and how we wanted to have period appropriateness be a priority standard for competitions at faire (cooking and brewing).  We drank plum cordial listening to rock music from a solar radio after having a dim sum lunch.  (How’s that for temporal/cultural distortions?)

I’ve mentioned that I have joined the cast for a new faire in Sebastopol called Much Ado About Sebastopol.  What was really interesting was we were asked to prepare to discuss our proposed character.  The cast met recently to get acquainted and to build the heart of the “village” that will people the faire.  We had lectures/workshops on speech, costumes, and acting.  We learned aobut what common people would know about the world – agricultural cycles, life cycles, etc.  We learned about religion and politics (from the guy who plays Walsingham)…and that they are one and the same in this period.  We learned about how we really would have looked.  Not ragged clothes, but neat and tidy even if they are plain.  (I’m working on some new clothes for this English character I’m going to play: a shirt, a corset, a kirtle, sleeves or a waistcoat. Stay tuned, there will be pictures.) We learned how to dance and sing a little.  We learned how to reverance (proud English kept their heads up and met the eyes of our lords and Sovereign).  We learned about how our village, Fenford, is famous for its apples.  Although we are used to our Lord Leicester (aka, Robert Dudley) coming through our village, we learned that THE QUEEN IS COMING!

I loved that we went through exercises to create the characters in a village where we know each other and interact with some familiarity and common background!  Rydell, the leader of this cast, and Claudia his right hand cat-herder, have given about 50 players a framework to build upon.  My favorite exercise was when we had to create relationships to each other based on the characters we are playing and then practice interacting with each other in those characters.  Heck…the coolest thing for me is that I’m learning enough about “who” I am that I will be able to stay in character better than I have before.  That is worth the cost of admission (or rather the cost of travel to these rehearsals) alone!

We have two families in the village – the Huddlestons and the Dyers – and everyone is related in some way to those two families, through blood, marriage, trade or whatever.  It was like gaining 20 family members at a reunion.  Uncle Wat is the patriarch of the Dyer family and he is my grandfather’s younger brother.  From there it gets complicated…just as any extended family does.  But what is great is that we’ve now had the nobles (who are visiting our pretty little village of Fenford) practice interacting with the villagers (merchants, artificers, farmers and such) and there is a sense of connection.

Although I will be working primarily in the Weaver’s House at the faire, I will have relationships with the characters that will be roaming the streets.  Here is what I know about my persona for this faire…and based on history as I’m learning about it and as we started to define it during the workshops.  Remember, this village is full of people who are related to one another.

  • Name: Mistress Margret Greene, of the Dyer Family in Fenford. I was raised by my Gaffer, Samuel Dyer, who was an orchardist.  His younger brother is Uncle Wat, now the family patriarch.   Uncle Wat made me my first spindle, and with that spindling I caught the attention of the old Masterweaver.  He brought me into  the workshop when I was 15.
  • Occupation: Put-out Spinner for the very wealthy Masterweaver, Mistress Catherine and her husband Master John.  As the head spinner, I sort and evaluate fleece as it comes to workshop.  I also help select and train apprentices for the Masterweaver.  I supervise two spinners: Mistress Mery Kettle and Mistress Molly Dyer.  (Mery is the wife of my husband’s stepbrother.)  I have one apprentice, Bess (aged 14) and her younger sister, Nan (aged 11), is another likely candidate in another 2 years.
  • Family: Married to a drover for the Masterweaver, Mistress Catherine.  Husband is Benedict Greene.  I married Ben when I was 26 and we’ve been married for 20 years and are genuinely fond of each other.  I have one living child (lost 2 sons to fever), daughter, aged 16 and unbetrothed!  Elizabeth, named for our queen, is trained in cooking and spinning.  But she is very clever with baking so is now apprenticing with the baker.  I’m looking for a suitable match for her and one of the visiting  ladies at Lord Leicester’s manor has said perhaps that Elizabeth could go to London with them to work with their baker and perhaps meet a good match!
  • Entertainments: I enjoy seeing the plays when actors come to the village.  I also make (and drink) cordials.  My favorite cordial this year is the herb and strawberry cordial.  We had good berries this spring.
  • Religion: The Queen’s religion.  Although I am under the guidance of my Lord Leicester, and he is of the godly people, I remember (because I am older than 35 in the year of Our Lord 1578) being Catholic, then Protestant, then Catholic, and now Protestant again.  To simplify, and to stay out of harm’s way, I attend chapel as often as I’m told to – which means morning and evening.

So here is the next challenge to my fellow Newbies and veterans who are looking to renew your sense of enthusiasm for faire:  Find your relationships.  Meet your fellow faire players and see how you can play together.  Let’s dare to become more than the shell of our costumes and gestures.

I’ll catch you later.  I’ve got an unfinished kirtle calling my name.

Magaidh, aka Mistress Margret Greene, aka Spinner Maggie



  1. I have a small glass bottle with a cork. It would work for oil, I think. I can send it to you, or give it to you at Sebastopol.

    • Thank you so much!

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