The sign declares that you are in the right place as you turn right off of Route 73 just outside of Waynesville Ohio. You drive along a path that is flanked by green fields of grass to the waiting representatives from local charities and scout groups who take the $3 for parking. More orange vested workers direct your car onto a path lined with banners and then into the parking lot which is little more than a field utilized for this purpose.
Outside of the cars stands a mixture of people in various state of preparation; a stroller being set up here and a corset being tied over there. The field gives you the perfect view of the Castle around whose gates there is a group of people milling. The people around the gate are a motley crew of people dressed in a mixture of modern clothes, various Halloween costumes, Steampunk, Medieval Finery, Garb and every mixture of these in between.
The crowd grows and grows as it gets closer to time for the gates to open at 10:30am. A group of musicians and dancers appear suddenly toward the front of the crowd and begins performing. Atop the battlements faces appear to run through their opening skit, Queen Elizabeth I joins them among fanfare and cries of “God Save the Queen!” and “Huzzah!” Soon the Queen announces that it is time to “Throw Wide the Gates!” and the sound of a cannon splits the early morning air. It is time. Welcome to the Ohio Renaissance Festival.
In early 2020 as Covid-19 began to make its way into America and the first wave of closures and shutdowns began everyone was sure they would last only a few weeks. Quickly however it became clear that this was a fallacy, and the cancellations began. The first Renaissance Festival to close their gates completely was the Bay Area Renaissance Festival who on March 18th announced that they would be cancelling the remainder of their season which began in February. After this more and more festivals began announcing their cancellations.
On social media in the Renaissance Faire groups and pages a mild panic began to set in. The merchants, artisans and entertainers in the Renaissance Faire circuit are dependent on the faires and their patronage to support them and their families. These closures were leaving performers and merchants with no income and no safety net. Some entertainers, like the Kamikaze Fireflies a duo who became famous after an appearance on America’s Got Talent in 2014, set up a Patreon account asking that fans support them in increments of $5 and up per month with rewards for each level. Some performers began to do online shows passing a virtual hat via Paypal, Venmo or Cashapp.
Some Rennies (a shortened name for those who love Renaissance Festivals) set up a group on Facebook called Faire Relief where merchants and performers could sell their wares, link to their online shops, promote virtual performances and connect to customers. What resulted was merchants and performers being able to keep themselves going. Rennies connecting with merchants that they otherwise may never have experienced. The world of Renaissance Faires became more connected than it had ever been. You could by a brooch from a vendor based in the Renaissance Pleasure Faire out of California from your living room in Ohio for the first time.
As you walk through the gates the smell of incense from a vendor somewhere to the left assails your senses. Before you touring acts with signs bearing showtimes and locations mix with cast members clad in finery (and not so finery for the lower classes) greet you as you enter, imploring you to see this show or engaging you in a quick conversation to get you off on your way. Amongst the trees across from the gate is a small pond with a large brass and copper dragon fountain adding the sound of running/splashing water to the sound of barkers and laughter. In the middle of the pond a hand rises from the water holding aloft a sword, a tribute to th lady of the lake from the Arthurian legends.
The fair is a mix of Renaissance style buildings and old-world tents. Topped with wooden shingle and varying in color as much as in contents the buildings range in age, some of them being as old as the Festival in which they reside which in the case of the Ohio Renaissance Festival is 31 years, and some built in the last year in spite of the Covid-19 issues that have plagued the United States for the past year. Some of the buildings sport little windows at the top that are painted to look like eyes giving the building a silly, angry, or menacing appearance depending on the style. Throughout the 30 acres that encompass the festival grounds you will find carnival rides that are powered by the power of people, vendors selling a variety of handmade items and booths selling foods of all kinds including the ever-present turkey leg.
The first ever Renaissance Faire took place in 1963 in California as a fundraiser for a local National Public Radio station. It was a weekend festival produced by Ron and Phyllis Patterson and their students at Haskell’s Rascals Ranch in North Hollywood. This faire became the Renaissance Pleasure Faire which is still one of the largest faires in America. The modern Renaissance Faire was built off of this original faire, and currently there are over 180 active faires in North America. In Ohio alone there are four faires of different varieties and sizes that run from a single weekend to several weekends. The Ohio Renaissance festival is the largest of these and opened its gates in 1990.
Generally Renaissance festivals are set in the 1500’s during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First though some choose to be set earlier in time, such as Medieval times or with King Henry VIII reigning. Some also lean more towards a fantasy theme: like Robin Hood or Fairies. Most faires have a hired cast made up of upper-, middle-, and lower-class characters who interact with patrons and add to the ambiance of the faire. This cast is made up of both trained actors and locals who just want to be involved and have the time to devote to classes in dialect, history, stage combat and improvisation in the weeks leading up to faire. Then there are regional acts who move from faire to faire performing. These acts range from musicians to fire eaters to professional insulting. There are also the vendors who can be local or also travel from faire to faire. These vendors sell everything from handmade one-of-a-kind items to more mass-produced pieces depending on the vendor and the faire.
Taking the right hand path, you walk past a booth selling bright colored clothing bearing the name “Damsel in This Dress.” Across the path lies a biergarten with tables and benches surrounding a small stage where a trio of witches with instruments is tuning up and preparing for their first show of the day. A small cart in front of the biergarten sells colorful horns and ears that are worn on a cord around one’s head. Past this is a pub where you can partake of Beer, Mead, Wine and Cider or some mix of all of these. From Davinci’s Pizza comes the smell of garlic, tomatoes and melting cheese. This scent mixes with the fresh Kettle Corn produced in the next tent. In front of the next building a man in doublet and tights calls out to pull passers by into his shop to view the jewelry housed within. Around you the crowd is a true mixture of people in varying degrees of costume and normal clothing.
Patrons of the faire who attend often and in costume are called “Playtrons.” There are many different kinds of Playtron but generally they are people who want to be part of faire but because of time, place or circumstance cannot be cast, regional act or vendor. Playtrons can be another useful part of the Renaissance faire experience. They add more costumed characters to the grounds and often know the faire grounds as well as any cast member so they can help other patrons find their way, suggest shows and point out restrooms.
The love of faires and everything to do with them is what fueled the Covid-19 response on social media. Patrons and performers alike who had any available funds bought goods, watched shows, supported performers, and donated to funds like RESCU. RESCU stands for Renaissance Entertainers Services Crafters United, and they are a group that helps deal with the medical needs of the community including helping those who contracted Covid-19. The community rallied around those who were displaced and unemployed during the pandemic. Many renaissance faire employees and performers were ineligible for unemployment because of the nature of their positions and often they are uninsured or underinsured so RESCU steps in to help when no one else can.
You wander into a pub that has a band playing on a stage in front of several rows of tables. The band made up of two men, one playing a hand drum and one a guitar, are singing a variety of sea shanties and traditional songs with an occasional anachronistic song in the mix which is keeping the crowd in the pub clapping, laughing, and singing along. You order a King’s Tea from the board and the bartender presents you with a mixture of Guinness and Mead. Finding a seat you find yourself sharing a table with a viking, a pirate and what appears to be the 10th doctor from Doctor Who. A new act steps on stage and with a whirl of a blue veil a pair of belly dancers begin to dance.
Found on the Faire Relief vendor page on facebook was Yanna who creates porcelain jewelry art which she has sold exclusively at California Renaissance Festivals for many years. A friend of hers was able to connect her to the page where she twice sold out of wares by connecting to buyers across the country to support her through the pandemic as California faires were closed. Her artwork was so lovely and in the past someone in Ohio may never have known that there was a porcelain artist in California who makes winged animal pins of all varieties. Thanks to the pandemic and to the Feire Relief boards not only did others get introduced to her work, but they also got to purchase them and help support her.
Some performers set up zoom sets with other performers who would charge $5-$10 per screen to watch them perform so you might watch an act in Michigan, Florida, Texas and California on one performance stage in one night. There was the ability to watch performances almost every night of the week during the height of the pandemic. The connection we all felt to each other and the faires we may never have visited and performers we may never have experienced was new and powerful. Suddenly the world seemed a little smaller and more overlapping than it ever had before.
You wander the grounds some more grabbing a turkey leg to eat while you watch a full armored joust. Watching the seasoned knights as they charge towards one another on their beautiful horses their lances slamming into one another’s chests hoping to break a lance and score a hit. The crowd screams with every pass and it is impossible not to join them as the joust reaches its conclusion. Behind the joust arena you pay to have a photo taken holding a cooper’s hawk while learning about falconry from the handlers.
At the beginning of 2021 faires began to reopen but the connections that were made during the pandemic have remained. As we head back into our little worlds into our home faires we carry with us the items, entertainments and friendships we acquired as the pandemic kept us apart and brought us together. The faires that have opened this year have been setting records for attendance and sales showing that these faires are an important part of people’s year, not just the cast, the vendors, the performers, or even the Playtrons, but just to those who visit each year to be for a moment a part of history.
As the day winds down you make your way back to the gate. Standing in front of the gates the cast gathers together and begins to sing. The song speaks of friendships and goodbyes, “So fill to me the parting glass Goodnight and joy be with you all.” Once the song is done the cast exits the gates lining up on both sides to wave and say goodbye. You exit waving and laughing with the cast but knowing that this is not the last time you will be here. You will come back at least next year because there is more to see, more to do and people to meet.