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Friday, August 18, 2017

The Royal Treatment with King Henry VIII

Written by  Frankie Kujawa
Fred Nelson as a man you wouldn’t want to marry Fred Nelson as a man you wouldn’t want to marry

It’s rare to find royalty in Maryland today, however the incomparable Fred Nelson of the Maryland Renaissance Festival bedazzles patrons in his royal regalia this month as King Henry VIII. “I’ve been playing King Henry VIII every summer and fall for the past 16 years,” Nelson explains. It’s a curious job for a military brat who grew up in Spain, Korea, Guantanamo Bay (Cuba), and Guam – everywhere but England. “I didn’t have a lot to draw from when I started,” Nelson notes. As a more contemporary head of state might say, he adds, “I had to learn a lot on the job.”

“The way I got the role was interesting in itself,” Nelson says. “I had performed in theater all of my life. Back in early 2002, I was appearing in a Shakespeare production out in Manassas, Virginia. I was approached at a cast party by a lady who asked me to come in and audition for her. Many other people in the cast knew this lady and what she was about, but I didn’t. Prior to this, I’d received a role in another play, so I told her that I was a bit tied up and didn’t know that I could fit it in my schedule. The director knew this lady and said, ‘Fred, if you give up this opportunity, you will regret it for the rest of your life.’ It was kind of eerie, so I said okay, and I met with Carolyn Spedden [Current artistic director for Maryland Renaissance Festival]. I met her on the field and she had me read a couple of lines and thanked me. She then had some suggestions on how I could improve.” Nelson laughed. “I was having an ‘off day’ and I thought I blew the scene. Next thing I knew, she had called me back and asked if I would like to play the king.”

At this time, unbeknownst to Nelson, the former performer who played the King had passed away tragically in 2001. “He was being mourned by an entire community who honestly didn’t want to see anyone else in the role. He had done it for such a long time that people didn’t want to see another king. I had found that our community of fans were very organized online, even back in 2001. Before rehearsals, long before we opened, I reached out to them online and I said that I had been cast in this role and I had no idea the gentleman before me had passed away and was so beloved. I told them I was genuinely nervous to take over the role. I truly believe they took my trepidation and nervousness at face value and the first day when I showed up they were there to support me.” Nelson is very aware and enamored to the fans who attend the festival each year. “We call them ‘play-trons’.” Nelson laughed. “That’s because they show up every weekend and in costume. They helped me ease into this lifestyle.”

Nelson says he enjoys playing King Henry VIII because the character is so multifaceted. “It’s an opportunity to become not only one character that is very different for me as a person, but being at the festival allows me to become several different characters, as well. There is the King Henry VIII version that appears during the court shows. That version of him is very dramatic and very historically accurate. He can be a tyrant and he does have the problems with the wives. What was happening in 1527 is very good for storyline purposes. A lot of good historical figures meet, and as a performer you can really dig your teeth into it.”

“Then, you get offstage and you become almost like Mickey Mouse in Disney World, for a lack of better term. You become a street character that interacts with patrons at the festival. We all do a lot of work with children and families out on the streets of the festival. Those are the crowds you don’t want to bring the heavy drama into play.” Nelson joked, “I mean how do you talk to four-year-olds about divorce and adultery? When we get into the street, we play a different sanitized and clean version of our court. So, we get out on the street and deal with the boys who want to see valiant knights and girls who want to see princesses. There are also Shakespearean shows that go on in the street, as well. You get to play another character, entirely. I’m not only doing the king, but at one point in the afternoon myself and others approach a group of patrons and we all whip off our hats and become different characters. Playing King is fun, but there are so many different facets during the day that makes it interesting.”

While the Maryland’s Renaissance Festival is all about the 16th century, reality today inevitably filters through. “I heard that from performers on the weekend following 9/11. It was absolutely difficult because the actors were in shock. It turned out that weekend was one of the best attended for the festival in years. It’s different stuff for different people, but overall, it’s an avenue to escape. It’s time to put the devices away, get back into the woods, and enjoy a whole world of pirates, knights jousting, court intrigue, and marvelous fun.”

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