19 July 2008

Years of a Clown


This is long and meandering. Consider yourself forewarned.

My home faire, the Washington Renaissance Fantasy Faire (WRFF) has been canceled. At least for this year. There was a battle with local commissioners over the new site. We lost. I've been absent from this blog because every spare moment has been spent flyering, marketing, leading parades, waving banners and finally getting in the middle of a multi-car, terrible, awful auto accident. Head injury, neck and back. Not conducive to sewing during recovery.. I was pushing my physical therapy, in fact, to get back up and running in time for the first weekend of August. No one wants a limping fool, after all.

There are many and varied "shutdown" events being planned to keep everyone together for the weekends in question...

I don’t really know what most people get out of faire. I assume that if you’re engaged in this enterprise at the level of a volunteer performing artist in for a for-profit enterprise, then on some level what you get out of it is more than the sum of its parts. We are unpaid actors entertaining a paying audience, after all.

There are several ideas being bandied about for reproducing the salient aspects of faire that most people will miss: period camping, campfire cooking, after hours at the alehouse, and even jousting. I don’t know what – if anything – will come of these ideas. All of these messages begin with the same message: “Find what you will miss about faire and we’ll figure out a way to reproduce it…”

I don’t think I can.

I will miss the camaraderie of my fellow actors, to be sure. I will miss the evenings of talking around a campfire (or lantern in the dry years), drinking with my friends in the Nunnery, and the low chatter of voices beyond the canvas walls of my tent as I surrender to sleep, the morning groggery, the first cup of coffee out of the French Press passed around, the dyspeptic grumble when people realize that if they want more they must grind their own beans and all I brought was a mortar and pestle.

I will miss those things and a hundred more. And I will attend as many of the shutdown weekends as I can make it to. Because all of those things that can be reproduced in a campground or the back forty of someone’s land. I will attend because we are friends first and Ren Faire Actors second.

But that’s not the sum of the pleasure I derive from those three weekends of August. What I get out of faire doesn’t happen after hours, in a camp (period or otherwise), an alehouse, or on a horse in the list.

I’ve told this story before. My ‘career’ with renaissance faire almost died the first day.

I started faire as a generic ‘Guy With A Sword’. Officially, I think the roster said I was a mercenary named James Wylde, but the mercenaries weren’t an organized guild and for all his historically-correct backstory, James wasn’t a character with a pulse. We didn’t gig or have anything assigned to us to do. There was a lot of time sitting in the guildyard. My wife was in the same boat, playing the ‘Pretty Girl in Noble Dress’ (on the roster she was Princess Claude de Valois) and the nobles didn’t do much that year either. They were hired outside players and snubbed the volunteers at every opportunity. If it wasn’t for Richard Curtain taking her under his wing, loaning her his two footmen to wait on her, I think she would have been even more upset than I was with that first day.

We tried to fit in, to find our niche, but it was for naught. I distinctly remember talking about not returning the second weekend.
Several things happened the night of that first disappointing Saturday of faire that brought us back. The first was that Mary found us. As the irrepressible Mistress Sophie, Mary was the heart and soul of The Hearth of St Brigid, as she had named our peasant guild. She led the wayward wenches and it was through her that we began to see not only that we had miscast ourselves as princess and pawn but that there was a *way* to do these things. The Tao of Renfaire. We also discovered that we had friends there. We met Zoe that night. Malakai fell asleep wrapped in my cloak. We sang songs we’d learned at the Kansas City Renfaire and found Charles when he and his group walked over and joined in the song. There was David, Mel, Holly, Denise… and many others who aren’t around anymore. And many, many more since. And where there are friends, there is a way.

When Saturday morning dawned, we gave it a second try. We had been attending ren faires forever, as patrons whose costuming made even the actors – and once the directors – think we were actual actors. We knew how to milk the life out of even the smallest faires and festivals. We spun away from our alleged guilds and walked together through the shops, Kristin played princess to every little girl who cooed over her gown, and we generally found our own faire… but we noticed that the people who were having all the fun were in Mary’s guild. They were the peasants. They climbed trees, tussled on the ground, quaffed ales in the alehouse… and they interacted with the patrons. The only guild that seemed to be doing that with any regularity.

That was when the last two things happened that rescued our faire experience and cemented forever what we would derive from faire – and I suppose what faire would get from us too.

Escorting Kristin through a booth, a leather mask caught my eye. It stood out among the flaming faces, fairies and green men and standard tissues of modernist whimsy. It was simple, yet distinct among the others. Dark reddish brown commedia-style leather, prominent nose, flaring nostrils and arching eyebrows… perhaps Pantalone without the bushy eyebrows, or a particularly disdainful Capitano had been in the mind of the maskmaker. Among the stonefaced bland masks surrounding it, this mask had character, cheeks drawn up in mischievous glee, one eyebrow arched in perpetual amusement.

I was entranced. I paid $85.00 for it. Today I can’t find any like it for less than $125 and they haven’t the quality and my mask is quality. And even though I can make my own now – and probably could have then – it was worth every penny paid for it. Last year, I spoke with that merchant and she told me she still occasionally got catalogues that had a mask like mine in it and decided not to order another one. Said she only knew one person who wanted one and he already had one. Then she winked at me.

All the following week, that mask sat on the shelf above my computer as I worked, drawing my eyes away from the screen. I turned it over and over in my hands, examining it from every angle. It was sturdily made from heavy leather, sealed inside and out. An elastic headband was attached… I put it on and stood in front of a mirror, frowning at my reflection. The mask looked manic, a pent-up id waiting to escape.

Saturday of second weekend dawned. Kristin dressed and got out of the tent as I sat staring at the mask, questions tumbling over themselves in my head. I hadn’t asked permission to change characters. I was in the mercenary guild. Could I just create a new character and slip away from my guild without getting in trouble? I should ask Amy, she’s the director. I didn’t care. Forgive me, Amy, but at that point I was fed up with my faire experience and needed to change or leave. I had nothing to lose. I needed a name. What was my name?

I put the mask on and stepped out of my little tent. Mel laughed when she saw me and I felt better. My mind still a-twirl with questions, I sketched an elaborate bow to Mel, waved to Kristin and the others and skipped away down the trail toward the faire site. I needed to be alone on the faire site. See if I could do this. What was my name? Who was the guy in the mask?

As I traversed Shadow Glen, Mary was standing talking to someone. As I stepped onto the troll bridge, still wondering if I was going to get into trouble, Mary hailed me.


It all clicked.

I whirled into a clumsy pirouette and favored her with an even more elaborate bow than the last.

“I am Calabash!” I called. And I was. In that moment, it happened. No longer a man in a mask, it was all of one, a character whole. Mary saw it happen, I think. She laughed. No one can laugh like Mary. There’s something about it. Something infectious. It should be studied. If you could distill it, reproduce it, we would have world peace (or maybe three billion Calabashes… who knows?) I stopped questioning and capered away across the bridge and up the hill onto the green for the morning meeting.

There have been years since where I didn’t get what I came for. I was captain of the Queen’s Guard once upon a time. I had fun, playing an actual historical role. Tromping around in my big boots and pumpkin pants, pike held high as I shouted for people to get out of the way. But that’s not really my thing. I didn’t get out of that role what I got from playing the fool, which is why I passed it on.

I have since led the reincarnation of The Hearth of St Brigid with Mary’s blessing and tried to honor the ideas she taught us, the atmosphere she created before she moved on to other things. At times – when I have been ill or it has been too hot to wear the mask – I have taken back the mantle of Seamus the Scrivener. An upstanding man of the village, an artist and natural scientist and I enjoy that role, derive great pleasure from the intellectual aspects and teaching children to write with a quill, or demonstrating period optics or whatever.

Always I come back to Calabash. The unbridled id. Fascinated by children. In turns, playing each role of the Commedia as well as some maniac cross between Bugs Bunny and Harpo Marx. It took me about eight hours to realize I needed to make the mask somehow less intimidating to smaller kids, and a favor from the Green Seattle Knights (who were our jousters at the time) went up one nostril to trail in the breeze as I capered and spun. These many boogers later, the mask looks naked without it.

I don’t know how others will distill their main pleasure from faire into something reproducible in the context of another event or private gathering. But it is through the lens of Calabash that I get from faire that which keeps me coming back. Children giggle when I chew on my booger, or pull it out and jump rope, or pull a coin out of their ears… or whatever. I lead processions in manacles and run away from the guards, trying to sell the manacles to patrons as I dance around them trying to get away from the guards. “May I interest m’lady in a nice matched-set of bracelets? Chained together so you cannot lose one…”

There’s an energy created by the interaction between actor and act, between the stage and the audience. It’s ever the more intense when there is no division between the recipient of the actor’s attention and the actor, no footlights to blind us to their presence. It cannot be quantified, or measured. Some tell me that it generates more light than heat, that it’s somehow beneath other forms of art… and I smile because they do not know. They cannot because they don’t have a Calabash.

How do you get from a private gathering what I get from the patrons as Calabash? I don’t think I can.

I will attend these shutdown events and I shall enjoy the presence of my friends and the camaraderie of the campfire. I will sleep in my tent and drink from my tankard, sing the songs we all know, and dance the dances forgotten by the world without. And it will be fun. I will enjoy myself thoroughly.

Calabash will sleep in his box, waiting for the next faire or parade or folklife event. The next gathering opportunity to emerge into the light of childrens’ smiles, and the incredulous stares of parents or gasps of teens as he slurps a meter and a half of booger out of his own nostril.

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