No actor performs at a historical theme fair expecting to get rich or have a serious theatrical experience. Mostly, actors sign on at any one of California’s summer and fall renaissance faires, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco or other such fairs and expositions for fun and the love of living history. Along the way they gain valuable experience in the craft, whether as volunteers or as paid performers (most likely circuit acts such as jugglers, singing troupes or starring theme characters, who travel from fair to fair like regional theatre actors).
Some do make enough to supplement their living quite nicely. For example, fair aficionado Michael Cawelti, a longtime local stage combat instructor and swordsman who runs the Albion Schoole of Defense, remarks that although some may think the fairs are for amateurs, he has made big bucks in the system (in addition to writing, producing, directing and acting in comedies since 1987). Along the way, he has appeared in fairs as Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh and other historical figures.
Cawelti, who was in the theatre arts MA program at San Francisco State, first discovered the renaissance faire phenomenon in San Diego when he was a student at San Diego State. “I was transfixed,” he says. “It defined for me something I had a penchant for and hadn’t really focused on—historical theatre, costume drama. Here was a place you could do it!”
Early on, he says, the majority of his fair colleagues were professional or community theatre actors; in recent years the fairs tend to attract performers whose main interests are fantasy-life fulfillment.
He recently created an hour-long version of The Three Musketeers, held an open call, cast 25 people (many of them his students, all of them volunteers) and performed at last winter’s Dickens Fair at the Cow Palace. At the most recent Northern California Renaissance Faire, he brought back an earlier comedy show, Manly Men in Tights!He negotiates his pay individually with the fairs’ administrations, and as an independent contractor, he covers all his own production costs. Next up for Cawelti is the Los Angeles Renaissance Faire in the spring. During the summer he’ll appear in two one-weekend events at the Vallejo Waterfront: as a pirate in the Northern California Pirate Festival and as Theodore Roosevelt at the Pan-Kinetic Exposition.
San Francisco actor Deborah Doyle doesn’t exactly travel the country, but she does travel the Northern California fair route. As Queen Elizabeth I for the past 10 years, she’s worked at the Folsom Renaissance Faire, the Valhalla Renaissance Faire at Lake Tahoe, the Ardenwood Shakespeare Festival in Fremont and the Dickens Fair. She has also played the queen at various other renaissance faire spinoffs and played other roles at the original Renaissance Faire in Marin in the 1990s and the California Revels in the East Bay. One gig led to another and then to another, and now her summer and fall weekends are busy. She commutes and stays at local hotels, returning to the city for her job at Friends of the Library.
“Research is critical,” she says of playing the iconic monarch. She studied the life and times of Elizabeth, watched movies (the Glenda Jackson 1971 TV miniseries, Elizabeth R, is her preferred version), and has a deep understanding of the character’s chameleonlike personality.
“The bulk of the work is improv,” she says. Although she studied drama and drama criticism at the University of Virginia, she’d had no previous improv training, but now, after years with the fairs, she can think on her feet. In her regular theatre work, she’s confident that if she forgets a line, she’ll know the endpoint of the scene and won’t be thrown. “This is very challenging and rewarding,” she says. “And because the audience is right there and in your face, you get a real sense of how they’re taking your performance. I like that a lot.”
Not every actor is a fair regular like Doyle. Marin County–based professional actor Jessica Powell appeared in the Dickens Fair just once, about five years ago, as Lady Macbeth in a very short version of the Scottish tragedy; a friend had asked her to participate. She performed at least two shows a day on weekends in the fair’s Victoria and Albert Theatre, the size of an airplane hangar from Powell’s point of view onstage. “I had all these fantasies about my phrasing,” she says. “But it came down to, deep breath: ‘All our services/In every point twice done...’” That’s because the partitions between sections of the fair don’t go all the way to the ceiling, so actors compete with the noise of hawkers, music, etc.—general cacophony. “Aside from the volume, and having to rethink my breathing and phrasing, there wasn’t a lot of difference in how I would have done it [otherwise],” she says. “It was a kick.” She got a peer award for that performance. A high school teacher who saw it hired her and her husband, actor Jack Powell, to perform for her classes, so a nice little gig came out of the experience. Would she do it again? “It would depend on the show. How many times would you get to play Lady Macbeth? It’s pretty wild.”
Peninsula resident Liana Madison, who has worked in theatre in Los Angeles and at San Jose State, first attended a renaissance faire a few years ago when she was in college and knew she wanted to participate. So last August she showed up for the workshop process in Marin, which involves signing up as a volunteer with a guild, such as the Royal Court Guild or the Peasant Guild. Some of the guilds hold auditions. Madison chose the Danse Macabre Guild, which parades around the fair twice a day playing instruments and rattling bones to ward off death. She bought a bodice but made her own skirts (period fabric is required), bought expensive shoes, attended required workshops (“The dialect teacher said, ‘Don’t be afraid of seeming nerdy. Be proud to be a nerd!’”), and camped overnight in a tent during the six-weekend run. During the week, she did a lot of laundry (the fairgrounds can be muddy and dusty).
She’d thought the work would inform her acting craft, but as it turned out, the rewards she gained were not specifically acting-related. The fair’s actors and vendors formed a big, zany family, it was a party night every night on the campgrounds, and by the end of the summer she got what she says was her dream job: a merchandise girl for a comedy duo who was one of the fair’s most popular acts. It’s about improvising, not being afraid to make a fool of yourself, and just having fun, she says. She intends to return this summer.
Ripe Theatre cofounder Sarah McKereghan also worked one time, as a washerwoman at the original Renaissance Faire in the mid-90s, making “maybe $15 a day or a weekend.” She auditioned for the role (singing and doing improv), attended history lessons (“What you gave a baby if it was colicky, how they cured illnesses,” listening to language tapes to nail the accent and vocabulary of the times) and ended up washing clothes with other peasant women at a well in the middle of the fairgrounds and joining a song set at the alehouse.
She was in her mid-20s then, by far one of the oldest in her guild, she says, and had just come from an internship at Cal Shakes. She was “one of those actors who is kind of shy,” so it was good for her to get out there and be more outgoing. She chose her character’s name from a list of names popular at the time: Brynna Rose Hatherly.
As actors who work in fairs know, you can’t help but get at least some good acting experience. “I’ve performed for hundreds and thousands of people and made them laugh,” says Cawelti. “I’ve been able to hone my comedy skills. You don’t get a better education in improv—you have to be able to answer any question as the character. You get drunks who want to heckle. This kind of training is so unique.”
Doyle cites one of her favorite fair moments: riding on horseback to the front gate, “through beautiful oak trees with a peregrine falcon on my arm, to be greeted by a large crowd of actors and audience members waiting for my arrival. With flags flying, horns blowing and lusty cheers, it certainly felt good to be queen! And even better to think that for an instant, we might have transported the audience to the 16th century.”Jean Schiffman is an arts writer based in San Francisco.