It was a balmy day in September. I was getting ready to wrap up a wonderful, frightening, exciting time in my life. High school and one year of college were behind me, and all the world lay in front of me. I was getting ready to say goodbye to my summertime companions, people who expanded my way of thinking and made me feel like I could be funny if I wanted to. For most of them, it was the last time I would see them.
There was a pie fight. I was thrown in a pool fully dressed and in front of an audience. Then I was knighted by Queen Elizabeth … the first.
Yep. I was an actor at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, and that’s what happened on my last day there. For three days a week, July through October, over two summers, 1992 and 1993, I dressed up in full costume and ran around pretending to be a medieval peasant. Ah ha! That’s where I got it from, you say. You know what, you’d be exactly right.
Renaissance Faires are crazy places. Absolutely out of their mind wacko. Take a bunch of aspiring or waning actors, give them intensive history, Renaissance English, and dialect lessons for ten weeks, hop them up on caffeine, alcohol, and a severe lack of sleep, then let them loose in an “accurately recreated” *cough*yeah right*cough* renaissance village and let them do their thing. Pure pandemonium.
If you’ve never been to a renaissance faire, I highly suggest that you go. Ostensibly you’re there to experience live musical, comic, and dramatic stage shows, sword fights in the street, jousting, and roasted turkey legs. What you’re really going to see is a bunch of poorly paid people who just love the heck out of acting and history and Shakespeare and inappropriate humor being as silly as they can possibly be.
One of the highlights of my time at the PA Ren Faire was my second year, when I got to be a part of the human chess match. Ah ha! you say again. That’s where you got the idea for the human chess match at the end of The Loyal Heart! Yep. Guilty as charged. You see, that year I was on the “enemy” side. I was one of the Irish contingent, come to the village of Mount Hope to cause trouble. I may have just been a pawn, but when the trumpets sounded I scrambled around the board with everyone else, wielding a beribboned staff like a weapon, growling and threatening the English. And when all hell broke loose in a melee at the end, my fight partner from the English side and I went at it … in a carefully choreographed dance that involved me jumping on his back and pretending to beat him over the head. Absolute bliss!
My other favorite faire memory was from the first year when I got to be a shill in the Trial and Dunk show. What’s a shill, you ask? Well, I would change out of my peasant costume and back into street clothes, sit in the audience pretending to be innocent, and when the judge of the trial dragged “some hapless audience member” out of their seat and stuck them on the dunking seat, I’d go, pretending to be clueless. I was, of course, found guilty every time and – oh my gosh, they dropped that poor audience member into a tank of freezing water! And yes, let me tell you, that by the October shows, when it was in the 50s, that water was COLD! So cold, in fact, that in one of my last shows I held my nose too hard and bled all over the place. But man, it was fun!
Being a part of a renaissance faire is something only the truly cracked – and generally college-aged – can get away with. I was working 14 hour days in character, sleeping in a pack with a bunch of my actor friends at the house of whoever’s parents would let them flop there (or more likely, whoever’s parents were out of town). The ren faire is where I had my first kiss with tongue (the guy who was playing Don Juan, and DAMN was he hot – as part of a bit, of course), was where I went to my first drinking party (I woke up right next to a puddle of someone else’s vomit – and I didn’t drink or go to a party where people were drinking again for 15 years!), where I first found myself in a situation where people were “making strange noises” in the other room (but it was the middle of the night and I was trapped where I was and had to listen to the entire thing from “mmm” to “OH YES!”), and where I learned both how to wield a rapier and dagger combo and how not to actually hit anyone with it (stage combat – VERY useful for writing fight scenes!).
The ren faire was also where it first dawned on me that the people whose lives we were loosely trying to portray, Elizabethan people, once actually lived. They weren’t just characters in books or people in movies. Their lives actually happened. Learning about these people – pretending to be them – completely changed my way of seeing history. Part of it was the intensity of our go-to Bible for all things Elizabethan, The Elizabethan World Picture, by E.M.W. Tillyard – check it, but an even bigger part of it was our feeble attempt to breathe the air these people breathed and live the lives they left for us to find. Yes, we were silly and anachronistic and so, so young, but the spark was born.
The PA Renaissance Faire was the reason why I majored in History in college. It’s the reason I spent so much time studying Medieval history (well, that and Glencairn Museum in my hometown). It’s the reason I came out of the shell I grew up in and the reason I began to see people, all people, past and present, as fascinating, vibrant, and able to teach me something. It was the first time I interacted with people from different religious, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds than what I’d been raised with. It made me who I am on several levels.
So why am I telling you this? Why am I showing you goofy pictures of 18 year old Merry? Because the only reason I got involved in the ren faire was because I took a colossal chance. It was miles outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t know anyone who was doing it. I went in blind, but I learned so much. And everyone thought I was crazy for doing it. But it changed my life.
Go out there and try something you’re not supposed to do! Take a chance and walk on the wild side. Be a nerd if you have to. Make everyone you know shake their head at you. That one tiny leap of faith could mean the difference between a lifetime of the same or a whole world of new and different. Take that chance.
My one regret is that I’ve lost touch with all of my ren faire friends. Guys, if you’re out there and you see this, say hi!