Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Renaissance Faires, a Historical Fiction

I have been pondering the historicity of Renaissance faires.

Renaissance faires are most commonly weekend events, they are found all around the US, some in Canada, and are gaining popularity in Australia. Probably not surprisingly, special events on Medieval and Renaissance history can be found all over Europe, but the events that I am focusing on are a particularly colonial phenomenon. They vary widely in size, and intent from faire to faire. Some are long established, permanent enterprises, some are more ephemeral church or school fund-raisers. Faires also vary in historical accuracy, which is not necessarily related to size or any other factor. All Renaissance faires are based on festivals, markets, and celebrations in Renaissance Europe, but none of them intend to recreate life in a particular time and place with the accuracy expected of a museum. So where does that lead someone trying to make generalizations about Renaissance faires as concerns their historical basis or lack thereof? In quite a conundrum.

I’ve been working Renaissance faires for 6 years. Before being hired as a Stage Manager at a faire in 2002, my historical background was in museums. And now that I am expending more of my energy towards history and less towards theater I am looking to museums again. Today I find myself justifying my time spent at Renaissance faires to colleagues in the museum field. Many of these folks (who may or may not have ever visited a Renaissance faire) speak of Renaissance faires with derision, but are unable to tell me exactly what a faire is, though they all tend to agree “its not history.” The only response to these folks I’ve come up with so far is: the Renaissance faire is historical fiction.

I think the analogy between Renaissance faires and historical fiction is fairly solid, especially since there are so many forms of historical fiction: novels, plays and movies are most obvious. Historical novels, like Renaissance faires, vary widely in their portrayals of history. Middle schools use the novels of Karen Cushman to teach medieval history, but very few would consider novels like The Crystal Cave for teaching history, even if it is a great story. The same can be said for plays and movies. HBO’s series on John Adams, strives to be accurate within the confines of the mini-series, and is certainly more accurate than the movie The Patriot or the musical 1776, though all are based on the Revolutionary war, and all portray actual events.

Some Renaissance faires strive to include as much history as they can, training their actors in history and biography as well as interaction. Some have special days for school field trips that are more educational than the average weekend day. Some insist that only hand-made items be sold in the many shops and booths throughout the faire. But many more welcome the fairies and sprites of fantasy, celtic inspired art and goods, and entertainment that owes more to Victorian England (the 1800s) than Renaissance England (the late 1500s, early 1600s).

Renaissance faires share another important element with other forms of historical fiction: author/producer intent versus reader/viewer/visitor experience. Many authors will tell you that once they have released a creation into the world, once a story is published, each individual reader will bring their own interpretation to the book. No two readers will experience a story the same way, no two viewers will see a movie the same way, and no two visitors to the Renaissance faire, will have the same experience. Actually, this element is heightened at a Renaissance faire, where the many elements that make up the faire will all lead to varied visitor experiences.

At the Renaissance faire there are many varied live performances going on all day long, and no one person can catch them all. Just like at the mall, a person is unlikely to visit every shop, or shop for the same items. A large part of the Renaissance Faire experience is centered around personal interaction with the historical characters, so every actor tailors their performance to the people they are encountering at the moment, guaranteeing a level of personalization just not possible in books or movies.

So, can a Renaissance faire be called history? I think it can safely be called historical fiction. How historical is a Renaissance faire? Well, it depends.

I welcome your comments, please let me know what a renaissance faire is to you.

Photos, Top: Guild of Saint Michael lines up for parade, Bristol Renaissance Faire (photo by Alena Shumway), Middle: “Willow” the Fey of trees, Connecticut Renaissance Faire (photo by Jess Boynton), Botom: King Edward knighting a young visitor, Maine Renaissance Faire (photo by Rob Mohns.)

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sentimental Story

When I was 12 or 13 I was almost too old for the children’s section of my local library, but I was not old enough for the adult section. I was a late bloomer so I found myself reading more and more as my friends and classmates all went through puberty and got (in my eyes) weirder and weirder. I read books that that were not too lengthy, too depressing, or about falling in love, and was always looking for more books. One day in the kids section in the basement of my local library I found a set of thin books about a girl named Kristin, living in 19th Century America, and next to that was a set of books on a girl named Samantha living at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, and next to that a set on Molly, who lived through World War II. The books were fiction, but they had non-fiction history bits at the end, and each series of books followed the girls through a year of their lives. They had adventures, they went to school, celebrated holidays, got into fights with siblings, and generally acted like girls. No falling in love, no moping about, and doing it all in lovely dresses and interesting times.

I enjoyed all the books, read them all more than once, and in a fit of great rebellion and daring (I still feel guilty) I cut a reply-mail card out of the back of one of the library books and sent for the American Girl catalog. It turned out there were dolls that went with the books, gorgeous dolls with all the clothes from the pictures, plus doll furniture, accessories, and of course the books. I loved the catalog almost more than the books. It came in the mail quarterly, and was thrilling every time. I carried it around in my school bag, I read it cover to cover, over and over. Though I asked my parents and my grandparents for one of the dolls, I knew they were much too expensive. Instead I made lists of all my favorite accessories, I’d mix and match from the different time periods, and make my dream doll, I’d dream about owning all of the book sets in beautiful maroon slip covers. I did not actually get to purchase the books until I was 16 and according to my mother much too old for that sort of thing. But we found them on sale at a discount store, and I did read and reread them. Meanwhile my brother had discovered that he could take the cards out of the back of my catalogs and embarrass his friends by signing them up for a subscription to the American Girl Catalog delivered 4 times a year (very embarrassing for a teenaged male I’m told.)

While I was still receiving the catalog American Girl added a number of girls to the three I knew and loved. Felicity was the colonial girl, Addy escaped from Slavery during the Civil War, and Josephina grew up in what was Mexico before the southwestern states joined the union. They came out with a magazine, which I decided could never be as thrilling as the catalog. Besides, I was getting too old even in my own mind. After I was in high school and college and only peripherally aware of the goings on in American Girl they came out with baby dolls, modern dolls, and added a depression era girl and a Native American girl to the mix. I did hear about developments from time to time, in bookstores, and the occasional catalog, but for the most part they dropped off my radar. Until I started working at Strawbery Banke Museum.

I worked at Strawbery Banke Museum for a year in between my sophomore and junior years of college as an interpreter, or glorified tour guide. As one of the younger interpreters I was asked to work in the American Girl program during the summer.

It turns out there are a number of museum around the US licensed to run programs based on the books and dolls. There is only one museum program allowed specifically based on each of the historical dolls, so only Colonial Williamsburg can run programs on “Felicity”, the Colonial doll. Strawbery Banke has (or at least had) the license to run the “Molly” program to correspond with their WWII program. In this program the participants (mostly girls and their families) pay an extra ticket price and get a special tour of the museum, they get to meet characters from the time period (not Molly though because all the girls on the tour represent Molly) do activities that Molly does in the book (for WWII it was collect scrap metal and make purchases using a ration book) and have lunch from the time period (the poor 1945 girls get peanut butter and fluff sandwiches.)

The folks who staffed the program were all the younger interpreter/tour guides (we represented the camp councilors like when Molly went to summer camp.) The kids who went on the tours tended to either know a lot about the story, or know nothing about World War Two at all but from what I could tell they all enjoyed a museum program designed especially for them. Younger brothers enjoyed the Fluff sandwiches if nothing else. I liked working the program, though Molly was the least interesting to me, being the doll closest to modern times. I did not tell my fellow interpreters about my earlier obsession with the books and dolls, we were all college students, and above that sort of materialism.

While I was working on the program American Girl was bought by Matel, which was a huge disappointment to me, I hoped that American Girl would not change too much, but did not hold out a great deal of hope. At the end of that summer American Girl, the books and the dolls, dropped out of my life for the second time. Or more precisely, I was no longer keeping track of American Girl. I did not think about American Girl again until I acquired pseudo-nieces and nephews.

I now often spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s family and his siblings’ children. Giving gifts to kids can be a lot of fun, it is the chance to introduce another generation to all of the things that I loved as a kid. After the first couple of Christmases giving my favorite books and giving a lot of cool toys, I dared think about American Girl again. The 13 year-old was probably too old, and the 7 year old might be too young, but I dared to hope that the 7 year old could grow into it, and convinced a number of people to go in with me (the dolls are still darned expensive) to get Tessa the Felicity books and doll. I enjoyed my time browsing through the online catalog, and picking out a doll and some accessories, but that was nothing compared to the day that the box arrived on my doorstep. I came home from work and saw the box, lightly dusted with snow, in that telltale shape, and my heart beat a little faster. I had been waiting for 15 years for a package of that size and shape to show up on my doorstep, and while it was not for me, it was still thrilling. I did not attend the Christmas celebrations at which the books and doll made their debut, but I’m told that Tessa loved the books, was amazed by the doll, and (perhaps more telling) her older sister expressed her desire for an American Girl doll and promised she was not too old at all. (Maybe next year Alyssa.)

As for myself, when Stephen and I exchanged gifts that Christmas, there was a suspicious shaped box in my pile, and I did not get much past a corner of the wrapping before I was in tears. I received Samantha Parkington, my own American Girl, when I was 29. Some things are worth waiting for.

At the end of 2008 American Girl retired Samantha Parkington, the Victorian-era girl and the first book and doll set ever made. You can no longer buy Samantha, her outfits and accessories. Today the historical doll and book sets are only a small part of American Girl’s offerings, with baby dolls, modern dolls, and books and magazines on topics for modern girls (hair braiding, peer pressure, and many more.) It is my hope that the Samantha retirement is not the first of many more. There are those of us out there who love the dolls not just for their book tie-ins, but also for their historical subjects. And childhood dreams can be fulfilled many years later.

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