“This is Halloween! This is Halloween! Everybody waiting for the next surprise!” – from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
Autumn is finally in the air! The crisp fall breezes and brightly colored leaves on the trees mean more than just pumpkin spice lattes and corn mazes to our family. Sure, our theatrically inclined household loves dressing up on the 31st. We decorate the house with spooky creatures and make sure to include a teal-colored pumpkin on the porch to indicate that we have non-candy ‘prizes’ for anyone with food allergies. Pumpkin carving and hay rides are also on the schedule, but, most importantly, autumn signifies a return to the Renaissance Festival!
Renn Fest, as we call it, is very special to us for many reasons, and not just because that was my first foray into the performing arts. The Maryland Renaissance Festival is where Russ, my husband, and I met. We were both waiting for friends who never showed up so we ended up spending the day together. Now, years later, we still go every fall to see some fun shows and listen to great music. It is one of the places our eldest daughter, Liz (our daughter who recently died), loved to work. There is even a small memorial in her honor in the booth where her best friend and our festival “family” still work. It is also where Russ learned how to play Maryland’s state sport: jousting.
This year, Russ is a part of the festival cast, meaning he dresses up in his 16th-century finest to play someone else: a Landsknecht guard who protects the king. In fact, he was actually asked by the king himself to take this role. He didn’t even audition, in the traditional sense, just answered some questions and got several endorsements from current Renn Fest employees. I have to tell you, I was quite nervous he wouldn’t be able to handle it. It is one thing to joust or work a booth, with the all-day protection of a fence or a way to squirrel away backstage. But he is doing “street work” all day – out in the midst of hundreds of people, all clamoring to see the king, whom he is protecting. Quite surprisingly, his anxiety at Renn Fest all but disappears. Perhaps because he is in character and not himself, he does not have his typical aversions to crowded spaces. He happens to be playing a royal guard so his many years of actual U.S. Air Force personal security training may quell his nerves. In this role he is really able to have fun. He spends a full day among the patrons and, so far, has reported only a couple of triggered moments when audience members in a large crowd wanted to get a little too close to the royalty — the actors portraying the king and queen. But again, since he was in character and costume, he was able to play off his hypervigilance as a protector, and in one instance, was able to alert security to have the very inebriated and disruptive patron removed from the festival grounds.
Russ’s calm demeanor is a completely different experience than, say, spending the day in a busy museum. I have been trying to think of all the ways in which acting helps his mental state and I haven’t nailed it down just yet. Is it that he is doing something that we’ve enjoyed doing together for years? Is it that he has friends and support in place throughout the festival grounds? Maybe it is that he has backstage areas to rest and take a break from the crowds when needed. Could it be his fabulous outfit that was hand-made — by me — covered in pearls and embroidery that helps him portray his character? Perhaps it is the routine structure of the day — there is a set schedule of shows he must participate in each day so he knows what to expect. Maybe it is because his character wears weapons (stage or blunted swords) so he feels protected even though they are props. At the end of the day, I don’t really care why it works for him, I am just glad it does! He is having a great time outside, with friends and strangers, challenging his anxiety and isolating tendencies he would normally have thanks to his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Renaissance Festivals are most assuredly an escape from reality, and honestly, with today’s news, we all could use a little escape. We are transported back to another time, another way of life. It is a place where creativity shines, from the artisans and vendors selling handmade goods to the costumes people create, curate, and wear. And what amazing costumes there are! I know people who spend the whole year building their costumes for each fair. Renn Fest is a place where we can see old friends — or our once-a-year friends — as many of the artists travel to various fairs as their means of employment. We can also visit with our local friends who come to see Russ in character. No matter what, Renn Fest will always hold a special place in our hearts. I hope Russ continues to flourish as an actor, even though he never really indicated any desire to be one, and challenge his anxiety.