Friday, May 21, 2010

The Most Popular Thing in Camp

A few Mondays ago at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s spring show was School Day. The day when buses of kids descend on the grounds for mayhem and a little bit of learning if we can cram it past their stimulation soaked brains.

I have plenty of experience with school groups in historical settings, At Strawbery Banke I enjoyed field trips when I was a regular interpreter (tour guide) but had a few bad experiences as a costumed role player. At Plimoth Plantation I was only working in the gardens, not in costume, so I’d hide in the decorative borders and weed or water while observing the flustered teachers trying to line up their kids and follow all the rules in order to get them through the visitor center before the kids could even get to the 1627 village. Then I’d watch from the herb garden and the nature walk as the kids screamed past on their run to the village itself. For two years I ran CTRF’s school program. This time was my first in the encampment on school day. The experience was different from what I expected, and it was the same.

At the faire our encampment is set up on a back row that has only the games, a couple of stages, and us. It is a wide, grassy row with plenty of visibility and no shops, so you can tell that our set-up is different from a long way off. In fact, I’d say a lot of the kids never made it into our encampment. I know that the rowdy groups I heard about and encountered when I ventured out of camp either calmed down before they got to us, or didn’t bother stepping inside our camp. Since we’re set up in a very open semi-circle people come in and have a good view of all the things on offer. Ilsa and Wilhemina were tending the fire with Magda, who was also beading some paternosters. Sibalda was doing some copperwork at her worktable, Albert spent a lot of his time standing at the gate with a pike (and showing off the military prowess of the Landsknecht,) Gustav spent most of his time on the stage not too far off with his kid’s show called Master At Arms. I cycled around as needed and spent a lot of time sitting on a bench in front of the Houptman’s tent, which we had open a bit so people could see inside, and so Stephen’s dog Freke can see out, and get his share of the attention.

And that is one huge share.

Freke joined us on site last fall on dress rehearsal weekend, but we had planned during the faire itself to tie him up at the treeline in the wooded participant parking lot, behind all the trailers where he would not disturb anyone. We thought we were not supposed to have pets on site during open hours. But one of the owners likes dogs and saw him in camp during dress rehearsal, saw how well behaved he was, and decided to let him stay in camp for the run. One of our friends made him a metal studded collar (round studs, they just look pretty, they are not painful) and we tied him to one leg of the rope bed (much safer than tying him to a tent pole.) All through the fall he guarded the entrance to the Hauptmant’s tent, and proved a very popular addition to our camp.

He was the hit of this spring’s school day. Folks would come in and make a beeline for the cook fire, but when it turned out we were only boiling turnips, they’d spot the dog and run for him instead. Freke was great. He stood at the door of the tent, at the limit of his rope and wag his tail and stick his tongue out the side of his mouth. Some asked if they could pet him, I told those folks that he liked to lick, so they would get licked if they petted him. Most kids did not mind.  They would kneel in front of him in big groups and pet his head, scratch his back, and get him to shake hands. He has a horrible habit where, if you stop petting and turn away he puts a paw up on you to remind you to pay attention to him. It is incredibly endearing the first couple of times, and most people who do not know him find it charming, while Stephen and I have to put up with it every evening whenever he wants attention.

One group of kids that came to visit the dog took a look inside the tent and said: “look, this is his house, and there is his bed.” Meaning the tent and double size rope bed was for the dog. I corrected them, that it was my husband’s tent, and our bed, that the dog slept under the bed at night. A few made silly remarks about folks having dogs in the Middle-Ages. The most memorable group came by with a worksheet I wrote up a bunch of years ago, called “You’re the Journalist” it is a series of questions they are supposed to ask a “person on the street” i.e. a participant at faire. A human participant. The entire group interviewed the dog.

Now, I was stationed near the dog at the door of our tent to both keep people out of the tent (because part of it still has modern stuff in it, blocked off so that it is not visible from the door; and because we’d rather our nice stuff not get stolen) and to make sure the dog behaved. He is still a dog, and a rescue dog at that. He loves people, but we are never completely confidant that he will not react badly, or that a stupid person might not be mean to him. So all these people with worksheets could have interviewed anyone in the camp. Heck, they could have interviewed me and petted the dog at the same time. But no, they wanted to interview the dog.

The first questions is: “Are you a noble or a peasant?” the kids asked each other, but I butted in figuring if this is going to be the way it is I’d cram some information in there whichever way I could. I answered that Freke’s master is a baron, so that makes Freke a noble dog. They then asked me: “How does Freke spend his days?” “What does he eat?” “What would he do if he met the king?” For the last one I said that we are very respectful of the king so Freke would sit, or possibly lay down just like we would bow or curtsey. The last question on the shees is: “Do you have any advice for me?” so the kids asked me if I thought Freke would have any advice for them. I said he would probably tell them to pet him some more and be nice to dogs. Well, it is some sort of lesson, right?

I have told a lot of people the story of the kids interviewing the dog, and I think I’ve figured out why the dog is so popular. He is entirely approachable. To kids it is tough to approach adult strangers, especially ones that are dressed up and talk funny. That is why kids in costume in Living History situations will sometimes be mobbed by fellow kids. Well dogs are also approachable, they are not adults. Heck, other than a leather collar Freke is not dressed up either. He just pants and sticks his tongue out, and licks hands and faces. In a world of strange experiences, sometimes something familiar and non-threatening is just what the kids need as a key to unlock everything else.

Photo at top of CTRF’s Robin Hood Faire School Day. Photo in middle of our youngest guild member with her favorite pal Freke taken by Jennifer DeBeniditto.

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