Dread not the shackles; on with thine intent,
Good wits get more fame by their punishment.
–Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Episode the First
A Primer for Those Who Might One Day Have the Opportunity
I’m dreaming of a brisk autumn day in Lincolnshire, a bright, cool day, with an iridescently blue sky overhead as the fair opens. The cobbled walks are thronged with early–arriving merchants setting up their stalls, and the sound of shawm and lute drifts over the thatched sheds. I continue to walk through the crowds, the sound of the shawm growing louder and louder…
The piercing blare of Houston’s KIKK Kountry exorcises me from the bed like a 250 pound, single-serving Gadarene swine. It’s Saturday morning, the fifth of October, and your faithful author, through a exceedingly fortuitous set of circumstances, has been selected to perform with members of the Texas Brass at the 28th annual Texas Renaissance Festival.
The leader of the Texas Brass, Darryl Bayer, has been a recitalist at the Festival with his group for 17 years, and even though the Brass have grown in stature far beyond the periodic outdoor concert scene, they continue to play the Festival, simply because it’s satisfying. Darryl and I met at rehearsals of the Woodlands Concert Band last year, where he is the artistic director and I am now the associate conductor, and have a great working relationship.
As I’ve only been to one Festival previously, and not remembering exactly how far it is to the location (the Texas Renaissance Festival is about an hour away from my abode, as it turns out, just southeast of Plantersville, Texas–i.e., out in the boonies) I’m planning to leave home around 8:15am so I can be there at 9:15. Our concerts are at 10am, noon, 1:30pm, and 3:30pm, each set being an hour long, save the noon set, which is 30 minutes. So, it’s into the shower, and then, THE COSTUME.
You see, to be a performer at the TRF, you have to be in costume the entire time. And speak a watered-down version of Middle English, with an accent. (you=thee, your==thou, Isn’t that too expensive==Too dear for me purse mightn’t that be?, etc.) I’m told that all “professional” level Renaissance festivals are this way.
Ergo, it’s into the black tights (as an aside–have you ever tried to find a place that sells tights for 6-foot, 4-inch, 250 pound humans? Oi.), into the knickers, into the oversized muslin shirt with the little ribbon-ties at the neck, on with the embroidered vest with the leather laces, and, last, but most certainly not least, on with the soft floppy hat thing. I steal a glance in the mirror-wall in the dining room, and can hear my father speaking over my shoulder–and he’s not asking politically correct questions about my lifestyle preferences either, let me tell you. The tights don’t take as much getting used to as I had previously thought–but my boys are used to a bigger house, and it’s uncomfortable to start with.
So, it’s out the door. I think I look like a bloody idiot, and have drafts inside my clothing where I’m not accustomed to having drafts–Nonetheless, it’s into the Jeep, and off to Plantersville.
The instructions I have on what to do after I get to the Festival’s “vendor and participant” entry are vague. Darryl had mentioned something about “circling around outside the fences” and “driving through Toontown.”
What I discover this means when I arrive is that I have to show a very large, officious looking peace officer my performer’s identification, and drive around the outside fences of the TRF. Imagine a huge, 10 acre oval. Everything inside the oval is the Festival, dressed up to look like a small English town, albeit with Spanish, French, Greek, Italian, and Scottish sections. Inside the oval, everything is either (a) a historical reproduction (but more on this later) or (b) modern, but artfully disguised (e.g., no light bulbs visible, credit card stickers in Olde English, etc.)
OUTSIDE THE OVAL IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT STORY.
Imagine a large junkyard that has been inhabited by a generously proportioned gipsy village or three from Romania. Throw in a large number of Airstream campers, tents, lean-tos, and SUVs, as well as the ubiquitous and omnipresent collection of Volkswagen Beetles, both recent and vintage. This is “Toontown,” where the overnighters stay. See, some shopkeepers, performers, and other denizens of the Festival actually live at the Festival, while another group, like me, are only day-schoolers. Some parts of Toontown are actually permanent pseudo-residences. As I said, the TRF is in its 28th year, and some people have been performing, keeping shop, juggling, etc., since 1985. I asked one of them what keeps him coming back. His reply: “It’s a job.”
I drive through Toontown (slowly—I don’t want the death of Sholo the Barbarian on my conscience) and find a parking slot relatively near where my entrance is. Lots of interesting humanoids are swarming to and fro across the road as I poke along, even though the Festival “officially” started at 9am with the sounding of the Start Cannon. (no, really)
We’re setting up for our first set. We’re performing in the “New Market Gazebo.” One of the fond portions of my morning dream has already been punctured and stomped flat. It’s not even 10am yet, and it’s 90 degrees, as only Houston can make it: humid, sticky, breezeless. I’m sweating like a New York cabbie, and am a little worried, but then I catch a glimpse of Eric, our hornist, who hails from Connecticut. He already has sweat-stains on his vest–and he’s THIN. I worry a LOT then.
We launch into our first pile of music–a few Gabrielis, some Pezel, a few Frackenpohl arrangements. (To get the full effect, remember that I haven’t played in a quintet in 10 years and am sight-reading most of the book. So’s Eric, but he’s GOOD. I am NOT.) By 10:30, we’re all sweltering, but I’m honking along manfully. Did I also mention that most of the “bass trombone” book is actually tuba music? It is. Not a problem most of the time, but try reading manuscript parts where the tuba part goes down there in the De Profundis register–counting ledger lines can become a full time job. I get lost in the Contrapunctus IX, but the tenor trombone player, Karen, is invaluable. Miserable as she must be (she’s pregnant, in a Renaissance costume, in the 90-degree weather) she can sense, via her infallible moron-radar, when I’m not in the right place, and cues me with her slide. I honk right back in, foghorn style, and it’s off to the races again. The short fat guy dressed up like a fairy applauds us, and he curtsies to Darryl, in his pastel-explosion tutu. I’m told he’s been coming to the Festival for years, but he’s so entertaining to the crowds that this year he’s getting paid. THERE’S a career path for you.
I am going to die. I just know it. I hate the damned tights, I hate the stupid vest, and I hate Hate HATE the friggin’ floppy hat. I look at the other members of the group. Darryl is as fresh as a daisy. Eddie, the other trumpet player, is a machine, playing the Galliard Battaglia effortlessly. Karen glistens and is a bit red, but otherwise fine, getting a big, accurate sound out of her large-bore Edwards. Eric is tottering a little, but still sounds great. I can only imagine what I look like. I feel like a corpse that washed up in Calais, and I sound like a bean-fed elephant. Two more pieces, and then break time.
I put away my horn and head toward the concessions, where buxom wenches are crying out their slogans to get the attention of the passers-by. “Sink your teeth into a juicy breast!” (for the chicken breasts) “Come take all 10 inches of the King’s Weiner!” (sausage on a stick) God knows what the yell out for the “steak on a stick” booth. I want water and Dr. Pepper. NOW. I order two sodas ($2.50 each) and a water, and we retire to a bench, where we drink our pop and recuperate. It’s now 95 degrees, and hot as the 7th circle of hell in this outrageous get up. Meaning to continue my relaxation, I fire up a Parliament (I know, bad habit). Darryl grabs me and says “Hey, don’t do that inside the Festival–you can’t be seen with ANYTHING non-period, so grab the soda bottles and get outside!” If I had read the rules (you get a 40 page booklet) I would have known that. You have to have a cup (excuse me–tankard) that you carry everywhere with you, and costumes can’t have pockets. You have to have a purse, that you tie to your belt, and have a leather thong-thingie to clip your cup to your belt. EXCEPT I’M NOT WEARING A BELT. Nor do I have a cup. I’m screwed. For the rest of the day, I sneak outside with my soda or water carried inside my vest, and greedily guzzle it outside the fence, and carry my little gray purse crammed into the top of my tights, praying the heavy, awkward purse doesn’t fall down into my crotch.
Well, I’ve almost quit pouring perspiration, and it’s time for the next set. This is the short set, and we play as the noon parade goes by. At precisely “Renaissance Noon,” the cannon goes off, and we hurl ourselves into a madrigal set–My Bonny Lass, Now is the Month of Maying, and a few others. I’m good on these–I know my PDQ Bach. Then, into a request for some “band music.” The Texas Brass book is very complete, and there happens to be an arrangement of Shepherd’s Hey for quintet, arranged by Karen. Great arrangement, and while I know the piece, and we, as a quintet have actually played through it once, that doesn’t save me when it gets to the last 6 bars, where I have two bars of sixteenth notes and an exposed honky-thing in the penultimate bar, which I muff horribly. Karen smiles wanly, I busy myself with the page turning.
We’re into our lunch break now, and I’m admiring the sights and sounds. While I’ve never been an avid Renaissancer (new word, just made it up), I have always been a fancier of the medieval and Renaissance eras, having read my More, Erasmus, Luther, Boethius, and other dead white guys to an inordinate degree. To the historian, a Renaissance Festival is a feast of contradictions—I attach, therefore, a broad generalization of the types of attendees you will see there.
1. The recreationalist. This person cares not one whit for historical accuracy–they’re here to have a good time. The go see the Mud Show (guys doing standup comedy, standing in and using mud as a prop), drink a few glasses (dammit, tankards) of mead, have a staffed potato, and maybe buy a dagger or go watch the Talking Penis Puppet.
2. The Xena. You’ll see a lot of these. There are girl Xenas and guy Xenas. They’re the ones who have somehow confused the 1520s with Conan the Barbarian, and dress accordingly. There aren’t as many “real” Xenas this year; however, we all noticed a NEW trend: The Xena who wears a chainmail halter top with nothing under it. I cannot help but wonder what will happen next year with these Xena types.
3. The less-is-more. This is a new type of Festivalier, and I assume a subset of the Xena that I hadn’t noticed last year. These are the women (I saw no men dressed this way) for whom “Renaissance clothing” becomes “wear nothing but your Victoria’s Secret underwear and a bedsheet for a cape.” Saw a bunch of really STUNNING underwear choices. I don’t know how to tell these people that underwear in Elizabethan England was not exactly “sexy.”
4. The Half-Ass. These are the folks who, for instance, have a period–correct hat, linen shirt with no buttons, all authentic looking, a correctly-blazoned coat of arms on their tabard, and a historical reproduction Toledo rapier–and a pair of Lee jeans and Nike tennis shoes.
5. The Whole Hog. Not so many of these. I saw several groups, and can never tell if they’re hired by the festival, or just enjoy the hell out of the show. Couples attired in exquisite reproduction clothing, speaking French or Spanish, striding about.
Made it through the third set, am sitting out back smoking a cigarette and drinking a soda. One of the Beefeaters comes through the Sacred Door that divides Renaissance-Land from the back-stage area (for a lack of a better thing to call it.) I think I’m hot–and I am–but this guy is wearing the regulation English Beefeater costume. I heard him at the gates earlier, bantering in a fairly passable English accent with the entering visitors. We start talking, and it seems that this is the guy’s 20th year with the Festival. In a deep Texas drawl, he pointed out the difference between Renaissance Festival shopkeepers and performers, for whom the Festival is a job–and a hard job at that, from 7:30am all the way through the closing fireworks display at 9pm–and people that, according to him, don’t really have a life outside Renaissance reenactments. These folks are the ones who are described as “Rennies,” a modification of the word “carny,” used to describle the camp-followers of traveling carnivals.
“Don’t be a Renny,” he says, between drags off his filterless Camel.
I’m made it through the last set of Byrd, Morley, Weelkes, Bach, and Handel, and have wandered around the Festival looking for cups (err, tankards). I finally found the shop that sells the nice, varnished wooded variety, only to discover that they’re $45 per tankard. I can’t figure out a way to rationalize $90 for two of ’em, so I slog back to the Cherokee and set off for home. (I find perfectly acceptable tankards at the dollar store later in the evening for a dollar apiece–one for me, and one for Eric, the other newbie.
I collect my share of today’s tips ($3) and head southeast. It storms like hell on the way home, and I’m sound asleep by 8pm.
Sunday morning, 10:58am
We’ve just finished our “Church set,” a low-impact Sunday morning group of selections, consisting of Lutheran chorales and a little Bach. If anything, it’s hotter today than it was yesterday, and I’m beginning to question the sanity of dressing in northern European attire in southeast Texas. However, the crowds and hugeous, and everyone seems to be having a grand old time. There’s a mild disagreement with the group that follows us in the gazebo, their leader purporting that we’re out-of-kilter with the clock, but we kick off our noon set just as the cannon goes off, so nuts to her, I think.
During the noon set, one of the tuba players from the band Darryl and I conduct comes by and requests “The hardest piece in the book.” Bastard. I don’t think it was the hardest piece in the book–the Centavo V probably takes the cake on that one just because the imitative counterpoint isn’t regular–but the Canadian Brass arrangement (Fred Mills, actually) of Bach’s Little Fugue in G Minor has no measure numbers or rehearsal marks, so we dive into that. Whether due to the audience of the knowledge that there’s no way to take a cue from anyone if you get lost (no rehearsal marks!) we do a pretty good job of it. I am relieved.
Of course, then Darryl has this bright idea that we should do the Gabrieli Contrapunctus in REAL antiphonal style, so he distributes the members of the quintet all over the place around the audience. Aieee. Then, he and Eddie do the Galliard Battaglia a la Dueling Banjos. The crowd loves it. After that, we do a brass arrangement of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (yeah, I know, not Renaissance, but it’s part of the “Music You Recognize” set) and we’re 3 bars in before I realize that, hey! I have the first 16 bars ALL BY MYSELF. Gotta love that sight reading during the performance, m’lord.
The rest of Sunday passes a lot like Saturday; hot, hot, hot, but some pretty good music comin’ out of the gazebo, and while I’m exhausted by the end of the day, I think I’m beginning to get the hang of it. My opinion thus far is that the TRF is like a giant play–one in which the audience can actually come up on stage and talk to the actors. However, by the end of the day on Sunday, I’m all Renaissanced out, and we head home when the last set is over.
I notice on the way home that I’ve burst a blood vessel in my top lip. I leave a trail of soiled and nasty Renaissance costume from the door to the shower, and pass out, exhausted, by 9pm again. I don’t even remember if I took my horn out of the Jeep. Part of me doesn’t even care. Tip share for Sunday: $6. We doubled our income. Quintet members get their first “real” check next weekend. I hope I wake up in time to make it on Saturday morning; I suspect I shall sleep all week long.