Sooooooo I went to a Renaissance Faire.
Surprised that a horror-movie-loving, theater-adjacent, theme-park-mad Midwestern sissy like me had never been to a RenFaire? I kind of was. But lo, somehow I had managed to avoid the sun-soaked, leather-scented annual tradition, as well as its countrymen: the Live-Action Roleplay, the Star Trek convention, and Medieval Times. (Okay, I did go to a Star Trek convention once, but it was only to get Rene Auberjoinos to sign my original Eyes of Laura Mars poster, so that doesn’t count.) But after I lost my Medieval Times virginity earlier this summer thanks to a well-timed Groupon, I figured, screw it – may as well get this over with.
So last weekend I traversed the left armpit of New York State with my husband and a quartet of friends and family to the opening day of the New York Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo Park. Tuxedos were the last thing I was expecting – I was braced for a day full of blacked-out teeth, mud, and turkey legs the size of border collies as I desperately tried to dodge fake-accented community theater actors on wooden stilts as the cruel August sun beat down on a shantytown of rickety tents. A Hooverville of Dungeons and Dragons geeks in sweaty wool tights. An episode of The Tudors where everyone is out of shape and named Carl.
What I found, however, was something entirely different. Something… delightful?
Nestled in the Sterling Forest, the Faire is essentially the crossbreed of an amusement park and a fly-by-night carnival. The facilities themselves are actually quite impressive: a semi-permanent, sprawling village of shops, pubs, shops, stages, kiddie rides (all man-powered, for authenticity), shops, restaurants, more shops, and arenas. I took note of the lush vines growing over the arbor over one of the walk-up pubs – a good ten years’ worth of growth, by the looks of it. I’d been expecting a fairground, but this was a legit theme park.
The staff, by contrast, was as far from Disneyland as you can imagine. This is partly because, much like carnival folk of old, many of them travel from state to state working at various faires and have a well-traveled look and air about them. But it’s also partly because they’re filthy. Not physically, mind you (although a few of them did seem to be a bit Medieval in their hygiene and grooming) – I’m referring to the persistent sexual innuendo and double entendre that made up most of their speech. I am of course mentioning this not out of disapproval, but rather out of intense admiration.
In fact, there was something quite bawdy and more than a bit queer about the Faire. I noticed this early on, when I spotted a car with a Bear Pride flag bumper sticker in the parking lot. And it became even more clear when, after only 10 or so minutes in the park, a man in costume grabbed me by the arm, whispered, “Come with me…” with a twinkle in his eye, and tried to drag me off to God-knows-where. I stammered… “But… I need… to see… the owls…” (we were en route to the Birds of Prey demonstration). And aside from that I don’t think my husband would have approved. I made a mental note and moved on.
Not long after, we stopped by a pub and bought ales and meads and things of that nature from a twinkly-eyed gent sporting a pointy, devilish Van Dyke and an impressively fitted pair of tights. I tipped him, and he cried out at the top of his lungs, “HE PUT A DOLLAR IN MY BOX!” Okay, I get it. He then added that had I wanted to, I could have put the money “under his cock.” I looked at Andy and mused, “Something to keep in mind when we get a second round!” and then turned back to see the barman point to a large chicken sculpture on the bar. Got me again. He added to no one and everyone in particular that people had been shoving things in his box all day. I told him, “We should all be so lucky!” and we were on our way.
As we wandered about, agog at the number of vendors (selling everything from period dress to puppets to incense to swords to pot pipes), I began to adjust to the surroundings and pay more attention to the other Faire-goers. Many, like us, were not dressed up for the occasion. But many were – and in impressive costumes that must have cost a pretty shilling. One young man looked like he shared a tailor with Littlefinger from Game of Thrones – he was definitely sporting Cenobyte Casuals. I wondered what these people looked like on a Monday morning. Were they laced up in suits for boring desk jobs? Were they teachers? Stay-at-home moms and dads? Local government?
Everyone had smiles on their faces and spring in their leather-strapped steps. I was particularly interested in the couples where one member was in period dress (typically the lady) and the other in street clothes. Did they not discuss this ahead of time? Are they living out some time-travel fetish? Or does one of them just not want to have to change clothes in the car before running off to their shift at Petsmart? The imagination runs wild. The one group that stood out more than anyone else were the band of four women in classic Star Trek costumes. It looked very out-of-place. But then our friend Eric pointed out that in the Star Trek universe time travel actually is possible, so technically the crew of the Enterprise could have been in a village like this. We applauded him for stepping up to the nerd plate.
As far as Faire fare goes, I avoided Steak on a Stake, Cheesecake on a Stake, and Fowl on a Stake. (I did try Fried Mac-and-Cheese on a Stake, and it was… a mistake.) My brother, bless him, ate anything he could find with a stick jabbed through it. The funnel cake defied physics by retaining several gallons’ worth of vegetable oil in one quarter-pound plateful of dough. Andy drank mead. It was fun.
After enjoying chainsaw jugglers, magicians, and marauding bands of teenagers with bad British accents attempting to engage visitors in street theatre, we made our way to the jousting grounds. There they did a little scripted bit about queens and rights to thrones or something, and then trotted out four knights on horseback for the joust. But here’s the thing – one of the knights was a lady! A very handsome lady, I might add – and to be perfectly honest, with her short hair and the armor, half of the crowd probably thought she was just a high school tenor. Nonetheless, I thought it was pretty awesome in a gender-nonconforming way… especially when our very own Brienne of Tarth won the joust. Girl power, Renaissance style! Standing under the blue sky amidst the rustling trees with the sounds of fifes and laughter in the distance, I took a moment to wonder how a place so dedicated to escaping the present could be so wonderfully forward-thinking.
Then we got the hell out of there, because the only thing sadder than glitter on a Sunday morning is a parking lot full of tipsy wenches trying to remember where they parked the Corolla.