Follow the adventures of a sociologist as she travels to renaissance faires to conduct field research for her master's thesis. Meet interesting characters, sing along with pirates, and perhaps learn a little something about social interaction along the way. The working title of the thesis is "Shared Fantasy and Identity Performance in the Renaissance Festival Subculture." But you're probably here for the pirates...
I must find a way to sleep...sometime between all of the driving, and interviewing, and note taking...and teaching when I'm back in the real world. But so far (possibly because I have managed to keep the Barge, meaning my car, on the road despite sleep deprivation) it has been worth it. I had an excellent time this weekend and got some really great interviews with some renfaire pros whom I feel privileged to have gotten to talk with so candidly.
Nyxie Tryx the Thistle Faerie
had fun with the theme of
To start at the beginning, this was Steampunk Weekend at the faire. What is steampunk and what on Earth does it have to do with the renaissance, much less 14th century Scotland, you may ask. Steampunk is a geek fantasy version of Victorian science fiction. Think H.G. Wells and The Time Machine and you'll be on
the right track. Or, as I've heard it said, steampunk is what happens when
goths discover the color brown. In any case, there isn't really much that it
has to do with 14th century Scotland, but both renfaires and scteampunk tend to appeal to the same subculture audience of consumers and event attendees. And that more than anything is what they have in common--geeks who like to dress up and spend money. I mean, let's be honest, as fun and affirming as it is, these festivals are still a business. And this past Saturday there was a record number of people through the gate, certainly the most so far this season. Steampunk is popular. Perhaps one in
five people in attendance was in some kind of clockwork, Victorian, or fanciful
high-low-tech costume or accessory. And it seems to be that almost anything
looks steampunk if you add goggles. Even the Faewood Faeries.
The Tudor Rose Players
The Tudor Rose Players, an independent historical acting troupe who started in renaissance faires, were guest cast this weekend. We took some time early in the day Sunday for a panel interview of sorts in which I got to talk with five of them at once about what they do and how they help to create the unique fantasy and authenticity of experience that is the renaissance festival. Their reputation for striving for historical accuracy preceded them, and I was not disappointed. These people are scholars as well as performers. And, as a textile geek (and kilt-o-phile), I especially loved the aside lesson on the history of the kilt with their artistic director. Also, I got some good insider information on the more intense experience of working some of the larger faires. Oh the plans I have for when I get to do more extensive research than this thesis! (PhD dissertation, anyone?)
And, saving the best for last, I had a "lunch meeting" with Doktor Kaboom on Sunday. He is becoming a bit of a celebrity in certain circles, not just renaissance faires, and so it was a privilege to be able to monopolize a little of his time. This man has been performing at renaissance festivals (although not as the Herr Doktor) for many, many years. He had some wonderful insights to share about the subculture behind the scenes, not just while the faires are open. He is smart, funny, and he knows renfaires. Certainly one of my best interviews so far. Plus, this man is promoting science, and there's just something enjoyable about listening to a grown man speak intelligently about how he gets to play like a little kid. "The best part is--I'm at work right now!" Me too, sir. Still the best thesis topic ever.
This was Masquerade Weekend at the faire. Many of the cast members, vendors, and even some of the patrons wore masks or dressed in costumes that were not their usual mode of dress. And it illustrates quite well one of the major points from my own theoretical framing, that of the carnivalesque setting and the way norms are purposefully inverted in such a context.
What did she just say? Okay, here's one example: I would normally dress as a pirate at renfaire. You've all seen the pictures in previous posts. But this weekend I pulled out a couple of dresses from my days (of yore) in the SCA that, in the context of this particular faire count as "noble" garb. Meaning I dressed as a "Lady" instead of a pirate. That's a big change in roles, and a huge leap in status, even if you considered the *ahem* captain character, as the owner of a ship and an entrepreneur, not to be a lowly criminal. Huge reversal, no? That's what I'm talking about. I was even treated differently, as part of the play of course, the cast all know what I'm doing with my research and my persona. Many of them curtsied /bowed to me and called me m'lady who would not have done so were I wearing a pirate hat instead of a circlet and veil.
But it was not only me. This picture of the cast at pub sing Sunday afternoon also illustrates this point. Look at the hats. Some of them have traded with others of vastly different stations. The two you can see here are the king's piper (in front waving her arms) wearing the tinker's hat, and (behind her in yellow) Lady Isobel wearing the cooper's hat that looks like one of his barrels. Though they were not taking up one another's trades for the day, there was still the inversion of "norms" by the trading of hats that scholars have written about in a carnival or festival setting, especially when dealing with things of the medieval time period. It's really validating when something like this in my research comes together without even trying or looking for it.
This weekend's research theme ended up being somewhat about adjusting to adverse situations--in this case some very rainy weather. This was the scene outside the doors to the main pub on site at the faire. It started raining at around 9:00 Saturday morning, with the gates not opening until 10:00. But even so, many die-hard festival goers traveled from near and far to attend.
I have learned that nothing can dampen a rennie's spirits for long, not even a deluge from above. While it was raining buckets (Kentucky colloquialism) outside, there was a party going on indoors. Nearly 200 people gathered in the pub for singing and performances by several of the acts that do not show up there during the course of a typical day. And this was even before the bar opened! Aside from the usual musicians, like Drunk & Sailor here seen here in the photo, the Dueling Fools stopped in for a brief display of their cutting wit and swordplay. And the jousting troupe put on a sword fight in the main isle. Meanwhile, patrons and cast alike enjoyed food and conversation. It was rather like the whole faire in miniature. And people kept filing in even through the rain.
The weather finally cleared up at around 1:00. There were still puddles of water to avoid and wet stages to contend with, but the festival continued as planned after that.
The particular challenges I faced as a research involved the logistics of taking notes with all that water falling from the sky. I usually carry my field book tied to my belt. (At the renfaire, everything you carry hangs from various straps on your belt--money pouch, drinking mug, fan for the hot weather. It's easier than trying to carry a separate tote bag or satchel that you might lose.) So, no sh** there I was (that's an SCA joke), trying to conceal my phone behind my hair/veil in order to record audio notes to myself. Luckily, Sunday's weather was more accommodating, at least earlier in the day, and I was able to carry my book with me like normal.
This video is from evening pub sing in the main hall. Drunk & Sailor always get the crowd singing along--"You will participate, or the Captain will come out there," is what they like to say. And he certainly does seem to like to single out individuals or small groups of people (usually newbies) who are not playing the game with the rest of the audience, and encourage them to join in the fun.
This song may be familiar to some readers, but we'll just chalk that up to our collective cultural literacy--you, me, and my rennies here--and ignore that. But if that is the case, you will also notice that I failed to record the whole song, which is rather long to sit through if you're not here for the music. (Although I know you may be here for the pirates.) But no matter!
What I took this video for was to show the collective behavior of ritual--yes, ritual. That and how you can tell who is a "cultural insider" at this faire. You can see how the people down front who know how this show goes are jumping with the music as if this is simply how the world works. And at KHRF, it is! (You should see the version of this that happens in the Twisted Thistle, the over 21 pub on site. There is more...bouncing...involved. Think wenches in tight bodices. But this here is a family show.)
Now notice how some of the ones along the edges, like the faeries who were visiting from Great Lakes Medieval Faire, weren't quite sure how they should join in. Meanwhile, the king was up front jumping around like a little kid. (He's a good egg.) It was a lot of fun watching the people from the other faire acclimate to this one over the course of the weekend.
I camped at the faire's campground this weekend. From a scholarly standpoint, I got some great data and learned some things I had not known about how the performers at the faire approach their job. From the standpoint of someone who loves renfaires, it was a lot of fun to get to play behind the scenes and be treated like I was somewhat part of the cast for a while. And I have truly never tried to stay in character before as much as I did this weekend, which was a really valuable experience for a participant observer kind of ethnographer like myself.
But none of this would have happened if not for the people who assisted me and allowed me inside the workings behind the scenes. And for that, I must say my thanks. Ed Frederick, the general manager of the Kentucky Highland Renaissance Festival, and Carolyn Cook, the cast director, were both quite understanding and accommodating, letting me into the "backstage" portions of the faire. But it was Bob Watters, the assistant cast director, who really advocated on my behalf, vouching for me to the bosses so that I could do this part of my research. Thanks a million!
Also, my Kickstarter proposal has been fully funded! (see earlier blog post) Several people made modest donations, for which I am quite thankful. And one individual, whom I have never met which makes me doubly grateful, donated $400 (see special thanks below). In my world, that's a lot of money.
I got a bunch of really nice interviews with performers, cast members, and the people who run this faire. I mean some really excellent insights! This week I'll be doing a lot of transcription (the boring part) from the recorded interviews to get it all onto a page. But this part of the process also lets me hear what people have said--again--and mentally process it moving forward with my research, long before I get to the writing stage.
Avast! Sorry there were no pirates in this post. It was Pirate Weekend, so I'll have to sort through my notes and photos and make another post this week about them.
I returned late last night from my first weekend of field research. I got some excellent interviews, recorded copious fieldnotes, and took more than 100 photos. But this (in the video) was one of the highlights of the weekend, non-academically speaking. I could say a great deal about how the ritual of sending someone to the sticks is sometimes used as an initiation of sorts for "faire virgins" who are on their first visit with friends who are regulars. Or I could give a follow-up on the history of rat pucking. But this is much more fun!
Apparently the use of pucking carts (or pirate ships for that matter) is strictly prohibited in the village of Briarwood. The King deemed the use of the "cart" to cheating, and the Captain was sent to the stocks for his transgression. I had been told by someone that this is the first time the Captain has ever been sent to the stocks in the seven year history of this faire, but Capt. Amos himself said he has been sent there several times before (and may have deserved it that one time). However, clearly this breach of rat pucking practices was a grievous offense.
(No pirate captains were harmed in the making of this video. I'm not sure how the beanbag rat feels.)