RenFest is every bit as much fun as I remember

Mon Aug 20th, 2001 02:08:13 PM EST

Diary Entry 34
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The Michigan Renaissance Festival opened on Saturday for the first of 7 weekends in its 2001 run. This year, as last year, I'm participating.

Last year I came out to RenFest at the request of my fencing coach, Dale, who, in addition to having 19 years of Olympic-style fencing experience, is also an accomplished stage combatant and jouster. I came reluctantly, hoping that I wouldn't have to come back. But it was so much fun that I came back again and again, totalling 13 of the 15 days. I became a semi-official member of the cast and a sort of honorary member of Ring of Steel, the stage combat troupe whose members (former members, in some cases) comprise a good part of the RenFest's cast.

This year, of course, I wouldn't miss it for the world. Unfortunately, I'll be leaving for California on September 20, more or less for good, so I'll only be able to attend 5 of the 7 weekends. But while I'm here I'm going to make the most of it.

My job at the RenFest, this year and last, is to run, or help run, the ``bunny fencing.'' This is a game where we dress up patrons in fencing gear, with jackets, gloves, and mask. The masks have a pair of balloons attached to them that look kind of like bunny ears. Then we give the patrons fencing sabres, explain the rules, and let them have at. The goal is to pop the opponent's balloons, of course. It usually takes only a few seconds, except for little kids. It actually takes longer to get them in and out of the protective gear in most cases than to pop the balloons.

For this, we get $3/person (USD). That's $3, total, if they challenge one of our ``champions,'' or $6, total, if a pair of patrons fight each other. It used to astound me that people were willing to pay so much money for maybe 10 seconds of swordplay. And then I realized that each of these people had already paid $15 each to get it at the gate, so they expected everything else to be expensive too. Plus, I'm pretty jaded with fencing weapons, having fenced collegiately the last four years, whereas I bet using a sword is a novel experience for most fairegoers.

This year, the bunny fencing is being run as a cooperative effort among MSU Fencing Club, Schoolcraft Fencing Club, and Ring of Steel. As self-appointed leader of the MSU faction, it's my job to make sure that we get some of our members out there to help out. This weekend, I got my sister Betsy to come out on Saturday, even though she's not a fencer, because few MSU students have moved in yet.

So, Saturday morning I got up at 7:00. Betsy and I left for RenFest about 7:45, arriving by 9:00. We snuck our car into the back lot—the RenFest management are trying to get participants to park in the ``Mount Holly'' lot and bus them in from there, but I don't want to deal with all my equipment that way.

We wandered in and made our way across the grounds, winding up at the ``morning meeting.'' A lot of my RenFest and RoS friends were there. I got directions to the bunny fencing sites. Yes, plural—we are running two arenas this year. I found my way there and ran into some Ring people and helped to set up the arenas.

At this point, I was feeling pretty relieved. I'd been worried, up until then, that my wonderful memories from last year had been illusory, that I'd exaggerated them to myself over the interval, or that some key fact would be changed this year and that it wouldn't be any fun this time. But now I knew that it was all going to be okay.

I spent most of the day helping to run the bunny fencing at one or the other of the arenas. I'm pretty good at this, and I have a good costume for it, too. My doublet is heavy suede, so I don't even need to put on a fencing jacket when challenged. Sabre is my own fencing weapon, but I generally hold back a little and let myself get beaten. Why not? The patrons enjoy it more when they win.

Doug McLaren was there from Schoolcraft Fencing Club. He's an MSU alumnus and a coach there at SCFC. He took the lead on the other part of what we do at RenFest: Olympic-style fencing demonstrations at the Treetops Stage. We have little shows at 11:30 and 1:30 and a mini-tournament at 4:30 each day. I'll probably lead these next weekend because Doug's not going to be there. Hopefully I'll remember the routine we used last year.

Pitching the bunny fencing to passing patrons is half the fun. I like to come up with creative new things to say. The phrase that turned the most heads this weekend had to be ``36 inches of fun, milady!'' which I came up with on the spur of the moment. (A sometimes-necessary follow-on to that is the much-cliched ``If your kids understood that it's not my fault.'') ``Step right up, step right up. You too can attack your friends, your family, your neighbors, your enemies, right here, and get away with it, guaranteed! —Milady, you look particularly dangerous, I bet you could demonstrate skill at arms. —Bunny fencing, get your bunny fencing here. —Renaissance marriage counseling!'' and so on. Keeps me amused and draws in business, too.

Of course, being young, male, and unattached, I pitched hardest to attractive young females walking by. Many of the women patrons at RenFest are very good-looking, and the dresses (bodices!) don't hurt either. There was one young lady in particular, wearing a white/cream-colored dress, who wandered by the bunny arena several times. I was never able to get her to stop by, though, just my luck. But there were certainly others.

In the afternoon it began to rain. One of our arenas is covered by a tent, but the other is out in the open, so we closed that one up and covered the equipment with burlap to protect it as much as possible. Water won't hurt fencing jackets but patrons don't want to wear soggy ones (surprise!) and swords rust (ditto). At first I tried to stay out of the rain under the tent, but as it continued I couldn't avoid it. When I was as wet as I could get I stopped worrying about it. I wandered around the grounds, remarking cheerily on the ``fine English weather'' to the now-dwindled number of fairegoers. At least my head and neck were protected from the rain by my wide-brimmed cavalier hat, even if the white feather was starting to turn sort of dirty beige (its natural color, I presume).

Along with the rain, our bunny business declined, meaning that we didn't need as many staff, so I headed over to the Guinness Pub and had a Bass ale. The place was packed because it had a roof. After a while I ran into Doug and a couple of RoS guys and we started to talk. Presently it was RenFest closing time (7:00 pm) and the security guys kicked out everyone not on cast. The last to leave was a rather tipsy woman who really did not want to go. As her final protest, she turned away from security guy Bill (also dressed in period), bent over, and flipped her skirt up above her waist. She had nothing underneath. I was only a couple of feet away from her when she did this. It was quite a surprise. Bill got her out soon after that.

Eventually we got everything into our cars, got away from RenFes, and made it to Duggan's for dinner. It was myself, Betsy, Doug, Jim (the entertainment director), Dale, Allie (Dale's girlfriend), and Caroline (Queen Elizabeth). I had pizza. The best story of the day was from a performance of one of Dale's shows: an audience member was actually set on fire and had to be put out! Apparently the bargain-basement props (the RenFest's management are notoriously cheap) were the problem.

Saturday, I also ordered a broadsword from Dale, who had overpurchased for a show.

Sunday I went to RenFest by myself because a couple of MSU fencers went to it on their own. When I got there, I got my new broadsword from Dale and wrote him a check.

It rained off and on all day. The rain and threat of rain kept people away from the festival, so it was a slow bunny day. We took in less than $200 in the one booth, as opposed to more than $500 over the two booths from Saturday. But we had a lot of staff: myself, Eric (the guy in charge from RoS), Sheri (Eric's SO), Zoe (from RoS), Doug, Susan (Doug's SO), Julio (from Schoolcraft), Peter (Julio's son), Darin (an MSU fencer), Erin (also an MSU fencer; Darin's SO), and later in the day, Danielle (from Schoolcraft).

This surplus of staff meant that I got to spend a lot of the day wandering the fairegrounds, and therefore that I got a chance to improv with lots of people outside of pitching. This is great fun when I can do it properly, and I'm getting better at it. I improv'd with lots of patrons.

I also had fun improv'ing with cast members. One female cast member kept coming back to the bunny fencing booth and flirting pretty heavily. I always get confused by this: what level are we on here? Are we flirting, or are our characters flirting? There's no script and the subtexts are hard to read.

Besides that I watched one of the scenes in the plot (the theme is Robin Hood this year) featuring Sheriff de Lacie (Dale) along with a cast member. Whenever the sheriff looked our way we tried to hide behind each other, and hilarity ensued. Oh and then there was the girl in the fajita booth, she was a lot of fun too...

Although I now had my own sword, I couldn't wear it on the faireground because I had no scabbard or sword belt. Jeff (of RoS) took me to a leather shop and we looked at what was available. They told me it would take 30 days to make a scabbard. Ugh. Fortunately Jeff knew a guy Nick who could make me a scabbard and baldric this week. If all goes well then I'll be wearing my sword next weekend, and it's a lot cheaper to boot.

Queen Elizabeth (Caroline) stopped by the bunny fencing booth in the afternoon and cheered on the competition between a child and his father. There is something funny about a queen shouting ``Hit him harder, Josh! Hit him harder!'' but it was perfectly in character. Fortunately for this little kid I didn't have to pop his father's balloons surreptitiously from behind with a knife, but I was ready.

Some of the crowd seemed to have chips on their shoulders today. In particular there were a couple of goth lesbians on the grounds who walked by the tent a few times, pointedly ignoring my pitches. At one point it stopped raining for a couple of minutes and I said ``Come in out of the rain and try out bunny fencing in our warm dry tent!'' or something to that effect. One of them turned to me and said, bitterly, ``It isn't raining, you idiot!'' and they both stomped off. Some people, I guess.

After the obligatory session at the Guinness Pub after closing time, we all headed to Dale's house to order pizza, play pinball (he has 8 or so pinball machines), and wrestle with his dogs (especially his malamute, Sabre).

After dinner and part of an awful movie about a RenFest, named Knight Riders, I drove home. The only notable on the way home was when I stopped at a convenience store and very nearly said ``Pardon me, milord!'' to a guy who was standing in my way. The weird things that RenFest does to me...

Now I have to clean and polish my boots and wash all of my clothes. I hope next weekend isn't as rainy, and I hope that I can take Tim, or Jeremy, or Sarah out to it as well.

Last updated 03 Apr 2004 21:17. Copyright © 2004 Ben Pfaff.
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