Friday, August 18, 2017

Renaissance Festival: A Revel for Everyone

Written by  Frankie Kujawa

Travel back to the 16th century through drama, song, food, and magic

The sound of merriment once again returns the 27-acre village of Revel Grove in celebration of the 2017 Maryland Renaissance Festival. A crown-jewel of Maryland, the festival begins on August 26th and runs Saturdays and Sundays (and Labor Day Monday) through October 22nd.

“The festival is currently in its 41st season,” explained Artistic Director Carolyn Spedden. Spedden, who recently chatted with Baltimore OUTloud, is responsible for the creation of the annual storyline and scripts for each season. “With respect to entertainment, there are our independent acts such as the variety acts, musicians, and street performers. Then we have the acting company, whose actors come from the Washington and Baltimore region and form an ensemble who perform Shakespeare, original scripts, and improvisation.”

Spedden works tirelessly each year to create entertaining work that is also historically accurate. “One way I keep the show fresh each season is choosing a different year in the reign of King Henry VIII. I do intense research into both what was happening politically and personally in the king’s life, and also what was happening in England during that time for the common person.”

Once the current Renaissance Festival is over, Spedden begins her task of compiling information for the following year’s theme. “I begin researching the show immediately following the festival. I spend maybe four months reading and researching, then devise a story. For instance, this year we are doing 1527. It’s a very tumultuous year in Henry VIII’s reign because it sets into motion his quest for an annulment to his first wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon, and his pronouncement of his love for Anne Boleyn.”

Finding a happy medium between old and new is one of the challenges. “A tricky part of my job is keeping a balance between bringing back familiar entertainment favorites and presenting new shows. Many of our patrons visit us every season. While the first question is “What’s new this year?” It’s immediately followed with, “But I hope you have my favorite act– you can never change that!”

Spedden isn’t just responsible for designing what palace intrigue happens in King Henry VIII’s court. “On the village side, we have the competition between two villages – our own Revel Grove, and their nemesis: the village of Tiddington – which is a real village in Oxfordshire, by the way. This year there is dispute on who actually owns the land. Plus, we have a story which delves into some of the rich folklore and superstitions of the time. Also, we have the beginnings for the rumble of witchcraft hysteria, which would increase through the decades and is known to most Americans later in its manifestation in the Salem witch trials.”

Many of these stories are told in stage shows and improvisation in the pathways during the day. Spedden continued, “In addition, our busy actors also participate in STREETspeare, which is a program I developed last season. All through the day we present very short scenes by Shakespeare and other period writers throughout the village. The Shakespeare fans in the crowd can even visit our customer service and receive a STREETspeare playing card – not unlike a bingo card – and as they see each scene the actors will stamp their card. People really loved it last season and enjoyed trying to catch all of the scenes for a full card.”

Spedden’s work with the Renaissance Festival began immediately after college. “I began as an actor. I had always been an Anglophile, so the event blended two things for me – my love of England and acting.” Spedden continued, “I started as an actor, then slowly began directing. First the Royal Court, then some shows. The former entertainment director was leaving the festival and I put my hat in the ring for the job That was more than 25 years ago, and both the show and my duties have grown throughout the years.” Spedden was able to incorporate all of her interests into her profession. “When I was in college my only interest was that of being an actor, but slowly I found great satisfaction from creating, writing, directing, and planning events. The festival allows me to pursue all of these interests.”

Spedden believes that the Maryland Renaissance Festival has a charm whose spell is cast on all who attend. “I often have people tell me they love to people-watch at the festival. And one reason for that is the diversity of the crowds. Most shows and events – be it the opera, sporting events, or concerts – have a core demographic who attends. When we say there is something for everyone here, those aren’t empty words. You see families with young children, LGBT and straight, young and old, blue collar and white collar, symphony lovers and rock-and-rollers. There simply is not one demographic for our event. And everyone gets along and has fun. The festival is a welcoming environment that allows patrons to step into another time and place. It is a much-needed vacation from the real world. The second element is the connection many people feel to the event itself. We have patrons who come to visit every 19 days of our season. Others visit at least several times. Because we are now in our 41st season, we see patrons who were here as kids returning with their grandchildren. We are an event where the focus is on people, not rides or technology. That connection runs quite deep for many of our patrons.”

For more info on the 41st Maryland Renaissance Festival, visit MarylandRenaissanceFestival.com

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