By Jeff Baldwin
I'm uncertain how other festivals do it but for the past
twenty-two years as the entertainment director of TRF I have categorized
entertainment into three categories, stage acts, music acts and street
characters. I then look at these performers and ask myself is their performance active
ACTIVE STAGE ACTS
Acts like Ded Bob, Arsene, and Sound and Fury are classified as active stage acts, meaning they must be watched by an attentive audience member. If you're not watching and listening, you won't know what's funny. Most stage acts are active, although there are exceptions. These stage acts have been compared to the vaudeville acts that toured the country in the early twentieth century. In fact, renaissance fairs have been called "the new vaudeville", because of the type of stage acts touring the circuit. Jugglers, sword swallowers, acrobats, ventriloquist, etc. all examples of active performances you can see at renaissance festivals across the country, or a hundred years ago on the vaudeville circuit.
PASSIVE MUSIC ACTS
Most music acts are passive, meaning you don't have to be completely involved in what's happening to enjoy the performance. Music at TRF is often enjoyed from a distance, and the audience may not even see the stage that the musicians are performing on. Nothing can create the festival mood more than music. It best reflects and conveys our theme, and it can hearken you back to the festival if heard outside, in the mundane world. It's the best use of TRF's entertainment dollars, and we have a thriving community of musicians here at TRF.
ACTIVE MUSIC ACTS
Some music acts can be active. Iris and Rose are a perfect example. Yes, you can enjoy their singing by itself, but if you want to have some real fun, you must listen to the words and watch their actions. Seeing the size of their audiences every day, it appears most are listening and watching. Another example - try just listening to Tartanic and not be mesmerized by the stage presence of its front man Adrian. It's hard to take your eyes off him.The same can be said about the dancers of Gypsy Dance Theatre and the visual effects of Saxon Moon. Yes, these acts can be enjoyed passively, but there better if your fully involved.
Finally, there are the street characters. I have been fortunate to personally experience all three types of festival entertainment as a performer, street character, stage act, and music act, but for me the joy of performing at renaissance faire is found on the street. I have also found that most of the successful acts around the country take time to, "work" the street for several hours every day, just to make that personal, one on one connection with their audience. This type of performance is almost always active.
A Street Character. what exactly is it you do in the streets you ask? Our job is to interact with the patrons. That's it? Sounds simple, but it's not. TRF's company of street characters, called the "Performance Company" partakes in a seven-week rehearsal process prior to the opening of the festival each year. Here they learn skills, and practice techniques that teach different methods of contacting the audience.
THREE KEY STEPS
As director I stress the importance of a good greeting, reverence and parting. Meaning you meet the audience member, you show respect to them, with a bow or curtsy. At TRF we assume all our audience members are people of high stature, so we show reverence to everyone. And lastly, we take our leave, with a parting. If a performer can perfect these, then ninety percent of there work is done for them, because these three things should take place in every audience interaction they have. Every performer, whether they are a stage act, music act, or street character should have some form of this. This is a beginning technique; they get more complicated.
WHAT IS A TRIGGER?
Most of the interactions on the streets of TRF are a result of a trigger. What is a trigger? It can be anything that triggers interaction with the audience. Turkey legs, ball caps, short pants, anything can trigger that interaction. As a performer my favorite triggers were bald men. Being bald myself, this trigger gave me an instant comrade in baldness. We could commiserate, make fun of people who a weren't bald, and it gave me an attentive audience member to laugh at all the bald jokes I had compiled over the years.Most of the time the bald audience member would have bald jokes of their own, which I would then claim as my own, and use it on the next bald man I encountered. You would be surprised how the biggest laughs of any festival performer, initially came from an audience member.
More advanced techniques are active choices, patron co-stars, and patron conversations. An active choice is an interaction in which the patron takes an active role in what the performer is doing. Our King does a great one of these on the streets.It goes like this after meeting an initial patron, he then introduces himself to another patron, and has the initial patron and the new patron introduce themselves. This continues, and shortly we have a group of patrons in a sort of Royal progress through the village, introducing themselves to other patrons. It's brilliant.
A patron co-star interaction assumes the patron is someone that they are not. Exampleâ¦I see a young boy dressed as a pirate. I ask him his name. He says Tim. I immediately assume that he is the Dread Pirate Tim, the scourge of the seven seas, and instruct everyone within a twenty-foot radius to be on their guard because the Dred Pirate Tim is here to steal their valuables. If Tim says he is not a pirate, of course we do not believe him. He must be trying to travel incognito He has now become the Dred Pirate Tim for me, and everyone else who saw the bit happen. This is great when you happen to see the Dred Pirate Tim patron again throughout the course of the day. I would then do the entire interaction again, for a new crowd.
A patron conversation is the most advanced technique we will discuss. This is exactly what it sounds like a conversation with a patron. But in order to succeed at this the performer must be completely secure in their own character and be able to answer any question that the patron throws at them. They must also be skilled in the art of improv. Improv is based on the technique of, yes - and meaning, yes, we accept what they say, and then we add to it. You must listen, you can't pre-plan. You must listen and respond, in character, truthfully. Once a performer masters this they are ready for the real fun of being a performer at a renaissance fair. I call it stream of consciousness.
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Stream of consciousness is walking down the street of a festival, and being open to anything you see, hear, or smell. Nothing is pre-planned or scripted, every audience encounter is based on your character and reality.
Example. On pirate adventure weekend I play a version of the Modern Major General from the Pirates of Penzance. A lone good guy amongst all these criminal pirates. I see a family dressed as pirates the youngest being a 6-year-old girl. I engage the family and try to convince the little girl to turn from her life of crime.
Next I see a group of non-costumed patrons and I sneak up to them and whisper. "I do not wish to alarm you, but the village has been overrun by pirates, and then spend the next 15 minutes discussing how to handle them. Next I see a large group of adult pirates; I inform them that they should enjoy themselves while they can because by sundown all of them will be incarcerated.
Some take the bait, others do not. This stream of consciousness continues throughout the village. I see something, hear something or smell something I make a choice and react truthfully in my character in an over the top manner that draws focus to me. This technique leaves the performer open to anything that comes their way and will help create material for the other techniques we have discussed.
Stage acts, music acts, and street characters it takes all three to make for a successful festival. A successful performer at a renaissance fair will often also be skilled at all three. Equally confidentâ¦ on stage, musically, or improvising on the street. Encounter some of your favorite festival performers outside of their scheduled performances and see how they stand up.