From Part One of this series by Hilary Bryant, originally published October 1: A Renaissance Festival is many things to many people. Just about every kind of person, in fact. What started out in Southern California as a small bit of countercultural rebellion has grown into a rather mainstream phenomenon. RenFaire culture is a convergence of many (often contradictory) ideas: traditional historical reenactment combines with fantasy and lore; family friendly entertainment plays out alongside chainmaille and alcohol-fueled debauchery. Here, it seems, everyone is welcome – the history buffs, the geeks, the goths, the young conservative families, the old hippies, the capitalists….. Hail and well met to all!
All. A tiny word that carries real weight.
Photos above by Jay Morrison and Debra Gallagher
The Holidays are here, y’all. Can you believe it? Christmas trees and Menorahs have been placed lovingly in windows; festive songs are ringing out over the radio – a trip to the grocery store brings with it not only the potential dangers of Covid, but now, on top of everything, we fear getting “Wham’d” (Google it). We are at the finish line of 2020, and what a year this has been. One for the books, quite literally. This year has brought unprecedented events – a global pandemic that dovetailed with a long overdue racial reckoning and a bitter election. This year has made history several times over, but in only a few more short weeks, 2020 will be in the rear view mirror. Blessedly. Yet, before we bid it the enthusiastic farewell it truly deserves, it feels worth it to reflect on its lessons one more time.
In our last issue, LadyFaire released part one of “Diversity in the Realm” – a two part series of articles that resulted from a group of interviews with BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) participants of Renaissance festivals from across the country. At that time, the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer were giving way to massive natural destruction (wildfires and floods); the election was ramping up into high gear; Covid-19 was coming down from its big summer spike, but anxiety around the inevitable ‘next wave’ was palpable. The conversations we had highlighted the myriad challenges that BIPoC performers face when performing on the path – the role that race plays in casting, in patron interactions, in their feelings of safety and artistic expression. In this article, we are continuing that conversation – paying particular attention to backstage dynamics, and with special hopes of highlighting what festival management teams can do to make every Renaissance festival the most open, diverse, and creatively dynamic place it can be, both in front of and behind the scenes.
“With regards to racial sensitivity, our concerns are usually casually brushed off as us being too sensitive or dramatic. South Florida is fairly diverse, and it’s easy to buy into the lie that racism doesn’t exist. Unless we call it out in the moment and in front of an audience, a change is rarely made. It hurts because at the end of the day, it’s not just our characters, but our heritage that kind of gets insulted, too.” – Vivian O.
So first, let’s talk about the BIPoC standard of excellence. People of color, most especially women of color, are too often expected to perform at a level that their white counterparts simply are not. Michelle L. expressed it perfectly: “As minorities – this is just what we do. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, we say we have to do three hundred percent to equal your one hundred percent. We are meeting and exceeding their expectations and our goals, so management can’t say anything to us.” Michelle and her son, Tre, created and run the profoundly rad Ottoman Encampment at the Florida Renaissance Festival. They had a strong vision for it from the beginning, and they both expressed the pressures that came along with it: the need to outperform the other encampments, to be so ambitious and on top of their game that they stayed above scrutiny. Their vision has been successful to the point that the Turkish Embassy has even paid the Festival a special visit, but it doesn’t necessarily relieve the pressure they feel. Says Tre, “Our encampment is awesome because it has to be. Because if we did anything else, we’d be a laughing stock.”
Vivian echoes this sentiment in her experiences. She’s a Hispanic performer, and she is beautiful and intelligent enough to have worked her way from working class to reigning queen of her festival. She loves it, but also told us, “I felt I was treated differently by virtue of the fact that I was a different nationality than most of the queens that participated before… there were double standards in place. For example during rehearsals, I had to be off book the week after we got the script. If I was on book, I would be in trouble. However two of my male cast members, as well as another Caucasian female…they didn’t have to be off book until three weeks before the show.”
Vivian felt the inequities of the expectations placed on her have been compounded by her age, a sentiment shared by Monique and Monae Lott – twin sisters in their twenties who, when placed in leadership positions, felt the push back from members of the cast. “Once we were put in charge of a group, I had to keep reminding people ‘I’m not angry, I’m just passionate about my work!’ People think ‘black girls are mean, black girls are angry’. If we get upset, it is because we have a job to fulfill a vision.”
Troubie D. supported the twins’ feelings, adding that the frustration they shared was exactly why she has avoided taking leadership roles at her RenFaire, saying, “I have experienced in the real world that I need to do three times whatever my male counterpart has to do to even be listened to. So, I don’t want to experience that in the place that I go to escape THAT.”
Photos above by Robert Self
That the lack of equity experienced by BIPoC performers in the “real world” is so often reflected and repeated in the RenFaire world – a place that so many are drawn to for escape and fantasy – continues to hit pretty hard, and is something that should be considered as we all move forward and think about 2021 seasons. Often, it feels out of reach for minorities to participate, even if they feel called to. The same economic struggles that disproportionately affect their day to day comes into play here. As Ordo points out, “For a lot of events and faires, staffing is on a voluntary unpaid basis, with maybe the larger for-profit faires only paying department directors, upper management, and headliner acts. A lot of times, the cast is unpaid. This can lead to an economic disparity in that the most of the people who participate are only the ones who can afford it and can take the time to do so.” He’s right. Participating in a RenFaire can be quite the undertaking – from travel to costumes to food, it all adds up. People most impacted by the systematically exclusive frameworks that prop up so much of our country are unintentionally excluded from becoming a cast member or, really, even from attending.
Navigating the backstage racial implications of being a cast member also extends to… well, actually navigating their way to the festival or camp site. Multiple people mentioned that the location of a renfaire can play a role in whether they work or attend it, or at the very least factors into their travel plans. “If I go out into rural areas – if I’m not sure how the population is balanced out, is that a risk I should be taking?” (Troubie). Ordo told us about an uncomfortable evening on the road to an Illinois faire, when he and his wife stopped to eat: “ Before we walked through that door, all my wife and I were thinking was about what to eat for dinner. When we walked in, it was like you could hear the scratch of the record player bouncing the needle as all eyes were on us. Here was a couple strange to conservative eyes: an Asian man wearing a kilt, walking in with a white woman. By the time we realized what was unnerving us, we had already sat down and were handed menus. We felt it was too late to turn around and walk out without seeming judgmental, so we stayed and ate…..For as much as a non-incident as that was, it’s colored our plans when thinking about taking trips to events. While we might feel safe at the event itself, is the event located in an area known for conservative values, or even outright bigotry? We look up the nearby towns faires are in and look for reports of racism and bigotry in those areas, in case it’s something we might have to worry about. It might even cause us to second guess going to an event.”
Personal safety, which was brought up in our first article frequently, continues to be a factor that so many caucasian people seem to simply take for granted so much of the time. While there is little the managers and owners of a Renaissance Festival could do to change the location or demographic makeup of the county their faire is placed at, ensuring both the feeling and physical reality of safety for its participants and patrons should be top of mind. Security teams could and should be trained to look specifically for signs of a dangerous white supremacist looking for trouble, and be familiar with the cast and what specific challenges they might face. A Code of Conduct (a suggestion of Ordo’s) should exist at every festival, in which it is clearly stated that the festival grounds are designed to be safe for people of all religions, colors and creeds and there is a zero tolerance policy for bigotry.
Here is the thing: these behaviors should be a given. No one wants to think that they live in a world or work in a place that helps to foster an environment where people don’t feel welcome or safe. The conversations we had with all of these amazing performers were overwhelmingly positive – even with the stories of prejudice and complicated dynamics – each of them truly loves the Renaissance Festival world. Stories were told about entertainment directors coming to their aid when racist language was used, about the amazing support of friends and patrons, they joy of crafting characters and worlds. They feel the magic and the love, and in general trust the good intentions of the people they work with and perform for.
Still, if this year has made anything clear to many of us, it is that minorities and people of color are always handed the burden of making unfair, inequitable systems work for them. The unspoken mandate is that they must learn to adapt to whatever status quo they find themselves in, and historically they may be punished or ostracized for pointing out that things could or should be different. This is egregiously unfair.
There is a new year coming. Thank Goddess. The holiday season has always been a time for celebration, and also quiet reflection. What better opportunity for all of us to look at our lives, our spheres of influence, our workplaces, our home faires and ask: how can I commit to a more loving future? Not simply to condemn or express concern for the racial inequities so prevalent in our world, but to joyfully and actively create a new world in which they hold no power? It is clear that even in fantastical and progressive spaces, if the subjects of racism and prejudice haven’t been tackled head on, then they will continue to prevail, however quietly.
What if every organization and business, however small or niche, started their very first meeting of 2021 with the support and safety of BIPoC at the top of their lists?
Cheers to that, and Happy New Year.
Hilary Bryant is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She uses her perspective as a storyteller to explore what is beautiful, weird, and hard about being a human. Past and current projects include comedies about dating a war veteran with PTSD (Love and War) and a modern “Mary Poppins-esque” series about a young divorcee processing the end of her marriage (Aftering). She is the co-host and producer of Cereal Bowl, a popular variety show in LA that highlights and brings together some very cool, very talented people! She loves loves coffee and wine and kombucha (basically all beverages) and is the proud dog mom to the cutest girl in the whole world, Maizy – she will fight you about that.
Cover photo by Michael Falgoust