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Historical Dress-Up
by Sean Larson

Itís Minnesota, and itís August. This is the month where the men start to realize what will soon be lost to the cold of winter, and they start spending even more time than normal sneaking peaks of low-cut tops, bared navels and juggling.

Wait a minute. Did I really just say juggling?

Here in Minnesota, August does not simply signify the end of summer vacation and the looming presence of the State Fair. It also brings a skewed version of living history to residents in the form of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival (MRF). And, surprisingly enough, the Minnesota show is one of the largest, most widely attended Renaissance-themed festivals or fairs to happen anywhere in the country.

What started out from humble beginnings around thirty-five years ago has grown into a bustling community, boasting hundreds, if not thousands, of employees, performers and crafters. Much like other festivals around the country, MRF features shows including, but not limited to, jugglers, fire-breathers, musicians, and acrobats. There is also a huge amount of hand-crafted merchandise available for sale at any one of the numerous vendors, not to mention the ever-present supply of turkey legs and beer from the large number of food booths.

You may ask what makes MRF different from some of the other shows in the country. While the similarities are numerous, differences abound. In comparison with shows like the Bristol Faire, which leans heavily on historical accuracy as often as they can, MRF doesnít claim such aspirations. The fantastic mingle with characters lifted from the texts of history books, and the two are able to co-exist happily with each other. In fact, such interactions can be some of the most interesting, and are sure to catch the eye of some onlookers. In fact, if they arenít careful, the onlookers may quickly find themselves pulled into the interaction and supply their own voice to the exchange.

This is another thing that makes MRF stand out in its own right. The presence of street theatre is immense. While many other shows have characters that are present on the streets and interacting in a loose form of improvisation, the cast of the Minnesota show very heavy on street characters. With an audition process and training session, around fifty new performers are added every year, offsetting natural attrition that occurs with any form of employment. In fact, the training session ensures that, while they may not be as accomplished in their craft as a veteran performer, a rookie at MRF will be able to interact in a positive way with the customer base on their very first day.

Piggy-backing off of that concept is simply the performers themselves. MRF has had a few very big names come through their show, usually during the beginnings of their careers. Some of these people, such as Puke and Snot, continue to maintain their relationship with the Renaissance Festival, where others, like Penn and Teller, move on to bigger and better things after getting their craft perfected through improvisation and street theatre.

Another thing that helps MRF stand out is the shows that are presented everyday. While you can go to any festival and hear traditional music, there arenít many shows that can present the same volume of musicians that MRF produces. They are also quite proud to feature a world-famous juggling troupe, the Dew Drop Jugglers. And the black sheep of all Renaissance Festival stage shows, Vilification Tennis (picture people hurling insults at each other over a net made up of peasants) was started in Minnesota, growing out of a semi-regular street interaction. That particular show has grown to the point that other shows, such as the festival in Arizona, are copying not only the concept, but also the jokes being used.

Obviously, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival has a lot of things that help it stand out from other fairs. But what are some of the things that can be found at almost all Renaissance-themed festivals?

Well, almost all of them will have some sort of royal court, or at least a group of pompous nobles. These people not only serve as great fodder for the camera, but they help to flesh out the concept of the village where the fair is taking place. If it werenít for the nobility, why would all of these characters have come together in this sort of festive environment in the first place? By inserting nobility, it justifies just about anything that the other performers do.

Secondly, festivals tend to steer a little more towards bawdy humor, but delivered in a clever way. The level of performance is forced to rise, due to playing to a more informed audience, and the fact that the audience is right up in the face of the performer. Consequently, the humor tends to take a slightly bawdier turn, but almost never crosses the line to completely inappropriate for families with small children to hear.

Lastly, the environment of festivals, with the frivolity, the shopping, the alcohol, and everything else, makes them very welcome and open places. People go to festivals to get away from the troubles going on in the outside world. As a prime example, back in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival experienced some of its busiest weekends in ticket sales. The environment was open and friendly, and it allowed people to forget all the tragedy that happened. The performers all stepped up to another level, and the show continues to flourish and grow in no small part to the efforts like that one that occur every year on some level or another.

To sum up, whether youíre looking to participate in some street theatre that isnít a gang of mimes, interested in seeing new musicians that arenít on the local bar circuit, or simply are in desperate need of a new dagger and matching leather bracers, then make a point of finding your local Renaissance Festival and immersing yourself in the sights and sounds.

The Minnesota Renaissance Festival runs weekends and Labor Day from August 14, through September 26. Itís located just south of Shakopee, MN near the intersection of Hwys. 41 and 169.

Photos courtesy the Minnesota Renaissance Festival website

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