Kenny Klein with Stapler

Kenny Klein with Stapler

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Give Me The Ren Faire Life! Or, Pre-Minstrel Syndrome!

Yes, it's renaissance faire season once again... well, like five o'clock, it's always renaissance faire season somewhere. But here in Kenny world, it's ren faire time again. (And kudos if you get the title's reference to the song Give Me The Simple Life, or to a Campbell's Soup commercial).

I've been working as a musician at renaissance faires for about thirty years now, and have hit most of the faires, both large and small, across the U. S. I've been meaning for a quite some time to write a blog about renaissance faires, and since I'm working at one right now (the excellent Bristol RenaissanceFaire in Kenosha, WI), I thought this might be the perfect opportunity. I spent my break from stage shows last weekend taking photos around the faire, so unless noted, all photos are of the performers (and ships) of the 2012 Bristol Ren Faire.

So let's start at the beginning: what is a renaissance faire, and what is it like to work at one, and to live the ren faire life?

 Me at Bristol Ren Faire opening gate. A fan pic.

Let's start with what it is (and isn't). A renaissance faire is first and foremost a for-profit themed venture (i.e. a theme park) that re-creates a renaissance village (1500s-1600s in England, the time of Queen Elizabeth I) for the purpose of drawing a paying crowd who wish to see, share, and shop in said recreated village. In this way it is not the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronisms) because the SCA is a hobby club that puts on events for its members, not for a paying outside audience (also the SCA recreates the Middle Ages, some two or three hundred years earlier than the Renaissance. To get a sense of how different those are, think of fashions in 1712 compared to fashions now). It is also very much not a Pagan event, because it is not run by Pagans, and Pagans, while they may enjoy being at a ren faire, are not always on the radar of the marketers of most faires (but we know they're there). Ren faires, unlike Pagan fests or SCA events, are held to make money: though not all participants make money, or participate for money, the owners of the faire grow wealthy (at least this was true in the '90s; many have given up their faires because they're not getting as wealthy as they used to), and merchants and stage acts participate to make some or all of their living.

Ren faires began in California in the early '60s when a woman named Phyllis Patterson created a living history fair as a high school project for her students. The fair was a one-weekend event featuring volunteer actors and local vendors. In time the fair became popular enough to expand to a seasonal, six-week event called the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

The idea spread. Soon renaissance fairs began springing up around the U. S., many of them less historically accurate than the SCRPF, and most of them willing to pay performers (something the SCRPF did not begin to do until the early 2000s). By the '80s there were faires in many states. Most had similar features: specific types of food, beer, costumed stage performers, a joust, comedy stunt shows, and a street cast that interacts with “patrons,” as well call the paying customers. Most faires draw a cross section of paying customers that range from people there for a day of fun, to festival attendees who come every season and enjoy dressing in costume (usually set apart from actual performers by the sun glasses, Nike sneakers and cell phone gracing the otherwise renaissance garb), and “playtrons,” patrons who dress in better garb than most of us and include themselves into our shows and scenes, or who dress as Star Trak characters and pretend we are a halo-deck program (I'm not kidding).  A new innovation called Ren Quest allows playtrons to participate in role-playing games with the faire as their environment.

Above: Barley Balanced. Below: the Pyrate leader of the Bristol Pub Crawl.

For those of us who live and work at faires, most ren faires have a campground and an RV park where performers and crafters live during the week, as we only work on the weekends (though crafters who own booths may work all week restocking their hand-crafted items). 

This is where I'm living at the moment. There are snakes, spiders and a heron...

I began my ren fair adventure in 1986 at the New York Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo NY, a faire set on a very beautiful plot of land with such amenities as a replica of the Globe Theater, and a living chess board, as well as a joust and other dramatic events. I enjoyed the audiences and the atmosphere, though my then-wife-and-musical-partner Tzipora did not enjoy working at faire. We worked the Tuxedo faire for a few summers, as well as a few smaller faires in NJ and New England, but Tzipora never wanted to pursue faires as a full-time avenue.

Divorced in the 90s, I saw faires as an opportunity to work and travel: that's when I seriously got involved with ren faire life. 

Me performing with my band Odd's Bodkin at the Northern California Renaissance Faire about five years ago. A fan video posted on Youtube.

Unlike many of my co-fair-workers, I'm not a huge fan of the history and the costuming of this particular period: while all costuming and history interests me, I personally prefer Victorian and Edwardian on both sides of “the pond.” But I do love playing to appreciative audiences, I love the freedom of the lifestyle, and I love the community of people who choose this life. 

 Above: Queen Elizabeth I. Below: Sammi the fiddler. It was her birthday last Sunday. 

 Yea, we have a big ship.

People who work faire as a lifestyle (as opposed to weekenders who work a real job and do local faires on weekends) are a weird, crazy, freewheeling bunch. Most are happy as clams (or, perhaps, as turkey legs) to travel year-round working faires and living at the faire in their booth or in the campground. In the past, most had no other home than their camper, van or booth. That changed in the '90s, when the Texas Renaissance faire (in the Houston area) sold off lots of its very large campground. Now many full time rennies own a plot of land with a makeshift house, shed or trailer in what we have come to call “Toontown,” and many winter there. (The Texas Ren Faire is a late autumn event, so many rennies work there and simply stay through the winter).

Ren faire workers tend to be very smart, and very free-thinking. One of the mud show actors was a Rhodes scholar; one of the booth owners here at Bristol retired from nuclear engineering to travel with ren faires. You can talk to most ren faire workers about pretty much anything, and they will follow the conversation and have thoughts of their own to add.

Many people ask me if the faire moves everyone to the next location: no. Each entertainer and each merchant has a separate contract with each faire they do. That means that I may see one set of friends at the Virginia Renaissance Faire, and then they may go off to North Carolina or Georgia, and I may see a different set of friends when I go next to Bristol or Ohio. I do end up running into some performers again and again: I work the same faires as Moonie and Broon a lot. In other instances, such as the Mud Show or The Wash Well Wenches, these acts have several casts so that they can do several shows at the same time (especially in the summer months, there may be be as many as five or six faires running concurrently).

Ren faire workers tend to take care of each other with a passion. An example is Rescu. In answer to the issue that most ren faire people, being self-employed, had no health insurance, a few faire people created a fund called Rescu to help defray medical costs. Now at each faire in the U. S. workers and friends of the faire (be they weekenders or patrons) hold auctions and events to raise money for Rescu; hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised and used for medical bills over the years. Moonie (Phil Johnson) and Lady Ettie (Carol Black) are the current officers of Rescu, and we love them for their work and dedication. Nearly every rennie volunteers, contributes or supports Rescu in some way. 

The magnificent Moonie

I get asked a lot if I play “medieval music” when I work at faires. No. I play original songs that are on my regular old CDs. There is usually a “consort” of musicians who play Renaissance music on traditional instruments such as sackbut or hurdy-gurdy. There is one outstanding performer who does sing completely accurate renaissance music on a period guitar (as opposed to a modern guitar), and that is Owain Phyfe. Owain is also active in the SCA. But many musical stage acts play original songs, or traditional songs from the Irish pub scene dating back to maybe the 1800s (such as the songs The Mermaid or The Wild Rover).  My songs like Epona, The Old Woman Was AGypsy, and Fairy Queen have a “renaissance” feel, subject matter that appeals to ren faire audiences, and can hold a crowd's attention. My comedic songs like Maria's Not A Catholic Anymore, Dead Gerbil and Chicken Murder are a mainstay of my shows. I also have audience participation songs like Oh No John, where I will “volunteer” an audience member to act the song out with me.

Most stage performers at faires are exceptionally talented and very creative. Moonie The Magnificent does his entire show without speaking; Adam Crack plays the harmonica and cracks flaming whips at the same time; Broon juggles various objects thrown at him by audience members; and new band Sirena (who I'm more than a little in love with) perform original songs in the persona of mermaids. 


There are certain acts every faire seems to have: wash well wenches who sing bawdy songs while laundering, a joust, and of course a queen's court with a royal retinue. Most faires have a Queen Elizabeth; a few have experimented with Spanish or German courts. Some have had Robin hood shows as well (a little anachronistic; Elizabeth lived in the late 1500s, Robin Hood somewhere around the 1200s). 

Sculpture: an example of the work of our amazing crafters. 

The "Fantasticals," fantasy creatures portrayed by street cast actors. One of our newest and most interactive shows.  

Faires only run on weekends. So what do we ren faire workers do on the week days? One of my favorite times of faire work is Monday morning, which for us are like Saturday mornings (the first day off after our work week). At each faire around the U. S. all of the merchants, performers and a few weekenders get together for breakfast, usually served by a few early-rising faire workers (the original event was served by a man named Bernie, so the event is often called Bernie's Breakfast), and we all sell items to each other: not items we would sell in our booths on a Faire day, but things like used videos, hand made clothes, tie-dye, and services like massage (after a weekend of 12-hour days, a massage feels great!). We call this event Bizarre Bazaar. Beside eating and selling stuff, it's a social hour. Most of us spend the weekend on our stages or in our booths, so we don't get a chance to socialize much at work. I find it ironic that my best friends among Faire workers are in their booths on faire days, so they have never seen my show! Another favorite ren event is Funky Formal. At each faire, we hold a dance/party/costumed social event, called Funky Formal. Each one each year has a theme. Here at Bristol, this year's theme is Apocalypse Wow (I still have absolutely no idea what I am going to wear, and the formal is tomorrow night). We also have a Rescu Rally at each faire, where we perform non-faire shows for each other, and hold both a silent auction and a heated verbal auction, with all money going to Rescu.

Faires in different parts of the U. S. have very different attitudes and policies. Kansas City Faire is very conservative in its hiring of stage acts (some people I have spoken to say that the entertainment director, who is a Mormon, will not hire Pagans. I know that in the years I lived in KC he never hired me, but that could be for a variety of reasons, including budget). In contrast, Texas faires can be very bawdy. Harkening back to the question I was asked, concerning clothing optional ren faires, the Hawkewood Fantasy Faire (in the fort Worth area, and now defunct) used to have an adults-only pub where pretty much anything would go. Patrons would sit partially naked there, and I once entered the pub to do a show and found a woman with her bared behind in the air being whipped. The same faire had a working S&M dungeon in the back of a leather goods booth. The campgrounds can vary in attitude too. When I used to work Scarborough Faire (also Texas) in the '90s, most of the workers would skinny dip together in the stream that ran through the campground. This happened at Colorado Faire too, though not on site, but at a state park nearby.Yet many faires are very conservative, in the campgrounds and on site. In New York, a woman was asked not to be nude in her booth in view of the faire's street, though she did so only when faire was closed to patrons and only fellow rennies were on-site.

As much fun as we workers may have, the faire is a job. We are there to work, and for most of us lifestyle faire workers (stage acts and booth workers), this is our income. However, not all faire workers do it for the pay. Some part-time booth workers, especially young ones, do it just to be able to attend faire. And many street performers do their local faires for the acting experience. Some faires give their local cast a training in improv performance, ensemble acting and stage combat that would cost tens of thousands of dollars if received from an acting or arts conservatory. Still others simply enjoy the costumes and the pageantry.

Cute Hurdy-Gurdy player. The Hurdy-Gurdy is a mechanical violin, populart among French minstrels during the Renaissance.

There was a time I did five eight-week shows a year, with a few shorter shows in the mix, meaning I played at ren faires pretty much year-round. Now I only do two or three faires a year, and focus more on festivals and local gigs.Still, I love doing faires, and may get back into doing more of them as time goes by.

Here are some questions I get asked constantly about ren faire, and at the ren faire while hawking my show:

Do you wear a costume?
Yes. It's a costumed event. Of course I wear a costume.

Do you play medieval/renaissance music?
No. But what I play sure sounds like renaissance music. See above.

Does everyone at the faire travel together?
No. Each performer and each crafter/boothie have their own contract with each faire they do. People who work in booths have contracts with a particular booth owner, and are often sent to whichever faire they are needed in by that booth owner.

Is that horse real? (Overheard at the joust; also “is that sword real,” “is that chain mail real?” usually asked in crafters' booths).
We hear this question a lot, with various articles in the middle of the question (is that armor, clothing, wind chimes...real?). I believe the intent behind the question is 'is that sword from the actual renaissance?' Everything at the faire is real, as opposed to being holograms or animatronics. Including the horses. Most things, like swords and chain mail, are made the way they might have been made in the 1500s.

Are you Moonie? (Really, I get asked that all the time).
Yes. And that guy over there in the black-and-white tights is stealing my act!

Do you speak with an accent?
Yes. So do you. You just don't notice. But indeed, I use an English accent when performing at faires.

Are you in the mud show? (yes, really).
Yes. I'm going to play this very expensive two-hundred-year-old German fiddle in a pit of mud. Isn't that awesome? But honestly, I think people who only attend faire on occasion have only heard of two or three acts, so assume any performer they encounter must be a member of those two or three acts. At most large faires, (Bristol, NY, Maryland, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, Southern/Northern California...) there are dozens of performers between stages and street performances (the Texas Renaissance Faire probably has over a hundred stage and street acts).

Do you live this way year-round?
No, we work at the ren faire, we're not Amish. On Monday I drive my truck to the internet cafe. 

What do you do for health insurance? (Asked by my mom)
Because many faire workers do not have health insurance, brilliant, visionary faire workers have created a fund called Rescu. Rescu helps faire workers who are sick or injured to pay hospital bills, works with hospitals to lower bills, and locates charities who will defray certain medical costs. If you are a person who loves renaissance faires, and you want to show your appreciation for the crafters, performers and street cast who make your enjoyment possible, a way to show your appreciation and love is to donate any amount, large or small, to Rescu through their site.

From the Bristol Faire, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.


  1. Kenny,
    This is an excellent explanation of the workers side of things. Thanks for taking the time to put it all down here.

    ... and I miss you and your fiddle both.


  2. Kenny, A couple of corrections.

    The new Nottingham Faire in Simi Valley CA is a non profit faire, but, you may not have known that.

    The SCA also encompasses the Elizabethan Era
    This quote is direct from the SCA website.
    " The SCA is an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. Our "Known World" consists of 19 kingdoms, with over 30,000 members residing in countries around the world. Members, dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, attend events which feature tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes & workshops, and more.”

    You also stated that the Southern California Renaissance Faire did not start paying performers until the early 2000's. I was a Town crier in 1987 and was paid every weekend by the faire itself as well as in 1988 when I was in Queens Court and every year there after. I will give you that sometimes the checks bounced but they always made good on them. Just saying.

  3. Where are pics or serious mention of artists and their exquisite products and one of a kind creations? Those of us who enable the festival to survive along with the patrons and playtrons? If it were not for our hand built shoppes, paid for by us but not owned by us, some of which are three storys high and cost more than the simple trailers we live in, festivals would not survive and festivals would just become a playground for musicians and games. That is fine but that does not contribute to what accounts to a Renaissance festival and unfortunately some of us would love to educate the public for free but we have bills to pay and families to consider. It just got a bit overlooked here.

    Can you add in some of the 300 shoppes that exist when you mention TRF and other large shows? I like your article and that it shows how 'some' of the festival works but it sounds like you're speaking as if festivals are all about entertainment and stages and music and they are simply not and have not been for the last 30 years and could not have survived without us.

    Thanks - from a hardworking Rennie who is not on stages and provides something one-of-a-kind and has been working at Renaissance festivals for almost 17 years.

  4. I did mention that this is an account of my involvement with faires, and I am a musician. But I also mention the excellent crafters at faire. Yes, the crafters are as much a part of the excitement of faire as are the performers, and hopefully your comment will fill in the information for readers that I may not have provided.

  5. Hi Kenny,
    Thank you for making this blog. I have been looking for something to explain the ren faire life for at least six months now. I am interested in getting involved in some Ren Faires as a musician (Harp/Voice). I have so many questions! If you don't mind could you email me at

  6. Kenny! Long time no see, Love this blog. Work with a faire in Columbia and love it. Dad(Ron Raiti) Says hi and hopes you're doing well.

  7. very interesting read! Thank you for posting. I've gone to Bristol on and off over the last 30years. Even made a trip to the Ohio faire once.

    After so many years of not having someone to go with on a consistant basis, I do now, and am now a regular at Bristol(we are both in full costume) and are both thinking of getting more involved locally. I hope i'm not too old to perform!

    Anyway, great to get your in-sight, and it gives me an even deeper appreciation for what the cast does.

  8. I had a couple of questions. My husband and I are considering doing ren faires as weekenders. He makes wooden toys/blacksmiths, I make paper, stationary etc. Is this venture suitable for children? We have a preschooler who we homeschool and would love to be apart.

    Second question, if the faires are to represent the renaissance then why is there so little christianity present in the acts? Historically people would have been Catholic, Muslim or Jewish in Europe or parts of Asia. We have attended Scarborough Faire and found people in costume/act saying things about the "gods be with you etc" which confused us. Just wondering if this area is fudged a lot? How do most workers feel towards christian artisans etc?

    Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

    1. First, yes, there are many children who are at ren faires as part of worker families. I know of adults who were raised as children at faires, and who continue to love faires and work at them. look up Heart's Delight online: their family of faire workers have raised about a dozen or more kids as part of ren faire life.

      Ren faires vary in their depiction from very accurate to very much steeped in fantasy; also, because of the nature of ren faires, they tend to draw many Pagans and free spirits as workers and as patrons. I have the same issue as you, from the other direction. While you see the lack of Christian worship presented in the everyday life of characters at faire, I get angry at the number of Pagans who think ren faires are a Pagan activity. I once asked a Pagan if he had ever been to a Pagan festival, and he shocked me when he answered "yes, I've been to the ren faire."

      There are a few faires that have characters such as nuns, bishops and priests, and that hold Sunday prayer as part of their scenario. Many peformers I know are Pagan or Jewish in their real lives, but wear a cross as part of their costume for accuracy. Sadly this is not the case at all faires, and some seem afraid to approach the subject of religion, allowing not-quite-Pagans to make statements like the one you mention, while in costume. (I do sing Pagan songs as part of my show, but I present them as classical mythology, a subject that would have been very current among troubadors of the renaissance). Also remember that many people in costume are not faire workers, but "playtrons," patrons who come in costume and act as if they are part of the faire. While we appreciate their patronage, we have no control over how they present their characters.

      I hope that helps. I'm sure others will comment on this as well.

    2. Thank you Kenny for a lovely written article. Hope to see you on the trail!

  9. Thank you for your insight. I have went to Scarborough Faire close to 20 years ago and then recently began going and the change has been incredible! I was surprised to see cheap Chinese made goods being peddled (fairy wings etc) instead of the quality hand made goods I remember from years ago...those artists are still there but it seems the fantasy stuff if taking over.

    I agree with you regarding the pagan aspect. I wish the faire here in TX would strive for more historical accuracy in regards to the overwhelming saturation the Catholic church had on that time period.

    I do know that a lot of Protestant (reformed) churches are starting Reformation celebrations with faires, dancing, highland games and music/singing. Usually found in October, they celebrate Martin Luther and the influence of the Reformation on western culture.

    Again thank you very much. Take care.

  10. This is quite an informative article, I thank you for taking the time to do this. What I am really wondering, though, is how do regular old patrons like me jump into being part of the Faire? I would travel around and work 9 months out of the year as a street performing actor (wood nymph is my thing) or even singing solo or in a band, doesn't matter to me. But what I'm not finding as a resource is a good place to start in order to get into a contract like that.

    1. You must identify the artistic director or entertainment director (ED) of each faire, and contact them with a promo kit. This is easier in some cases than others... some faires hold local auditions, but as a traveling act, the ED is your gateway in. Some faires are part of a syndicate (ie New York, Bristol and Southern CA are all REC faires: Jeff Seigal has several FL faires), so in those cases, if you get into one it's easier to get into their others. Whether they respond to you has much to do with the faire's needs and budget; you'll be asked how much you want to charge the faire per day, and that's a tough call: most entertainers are VERY reluctant to share their daily fee (I never had an issue with it, but I am in the minority); your daily fee should depend not only on the work you do, but on whether you can supplement by selling product (CD, video, t shirts, etc). Good luck!!

  11. Hello! I enjoyed your article and laughed quite a bit, but I also learned a lot! I am thinking of jumping in and start working in Arizona. My mom said I was 'running away to join the circus'... I actually lived 6 miles from the Carolina Renaissance Festival my whole life and was told it was a dirty filthy place among other things, but I went for the first time two years ago and I am HOOKED. I absolutely love the Renaissance Festival and my mother is a history teacher, so I know a lot about the history.

    Anyway, I don't want to bore you, but I don't plan on 'running away', I hate being tied down to one place and I want to be able to travel and work and HAVE FUN! I probably will be just working in the kitchen, I only know how to play the piano and sing... But, I guess, what's the way to get started? I'll need a tent, I guess...

  12. Hi Jace. You don't need a performing talent. Go on the first day of Faire, and go from booth to booth asking who needs a worker. One of the booths will hire you. Going rate is about $75/day, give or take (and account for the fact that you do not yet have experience in a ren faire booth). If you do a good job, the booth owner is likely to ask you to travel to other faires with them. If that's your goal, stick with a large national merchant, like Heart's Delight, Crystal Finery, Sky Chairs, Pendragon, etc. If offered a job in a booth you can ask if the merchant has booths at other faires. Good luck!

    1. Thank you so much for your reply! Do you pay to camp out at the Faire? I will be heading to the Renaissance Festival again next week and I will plan on talking to them! You have provided me great information, I really appreciate it!

      I've been looking at prices for tents and they are REALLY affordable! But, I'm really naive and I don't know about things like, what do I do for electricity or a bathroom? I wouldn't be able to afford a camper right off? I do remember seeing some fairs have hostels/worker housing, but I don't know how any of that works.

    2. Jace, first off, most merchants who hire you will provide for your camping fees. Some will allow you to live in their booth. Others may provide you a camping space behind their booth. Still others simply pay for you to camp in the faire campground. These are all things that should be discussed in hiring.

      Most faires have a campground with a shower house and some electrical hookups. You may need a long extension cord (I carry 50 ft). There are a couple of faires that do not have a campground---Ohio Medieval faire comes to mind (different than Ohio Ren Faire, though they didn't get a campground until recently). Remember that most faires are privately owned (even REC faires are run differently) and conditions vary. Your best bet is to get in with a large national vendor like Heart's Delight or Sky Chairs (there are many: I'm just giving a couple of examples) that are used to providing for their workers. A good online resource is Renaissance Magazine: you will find lists of vendors there, and see which ones do many faires throughout the year. Those vendors are a good place to start if you're looking for a career as a ren faire retailer.

  13. Kenny I haven't seen you in so long now. This is Elizabeth Reid. the last time I saw you I was Adam Reid's wife (The bawdy Juggler) I was doing some research for a film and found.... you! I had to say hi. If you do southern faire at all you should come by and see me at Tickle Thy Fantasy. It would be good to see you again.

    Elizabeth Reid

    P.S. you can find me on facebook through

  14. Wonderful article! I've been traveling for a year and worked my local show for 5 years before that. I'm impressed with the volume of topics and questions you've covered. We'll done ^_^.

  15. It was a labor of love for you to have written this article and I applaud you for it. Well done, indeed.