Magic Of The Renaissance by Tom Crowl
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 1997)
I attended my first Renaissance Festival, more commonly known in the trade as a Ren
Fair, about a dozen years ago. I had a great time and haven't needed to go back since.
Ren Fairs are to medieval history what EPCOT is to foreign countries—overpriced
pretend versions of the real thing that only seem authentic the less you know about the
genuine article—preferably nothing. My favorite part of the day was seeing the
mudeaters' show. They didn't really eat much but they took a long time getting around
to it, and it did entertain me.
But despite lousy costumes, broken Olde English, and other exercises in bad ersatz
medieval taste, the Ren Fair circuit has, for probably close to 20 years, provided a
lucrative market for many magicians and other variety performers, all of whom can
always use as many venues as we can get our hands on. There are, according to Tom
Crowl, over eighty such fairs throughout the U.S., although these are of varying size and
duration, and there are in fact probably not more than 30 major ones. Like so many
other markets—be it cruise ships, trade shows, comedy clubs, or bar mitzvahs—this one
has its share of both opportunities and constraints. And, as with any other market, some
performers have worked them successfully for many, many years, while many never
escape to other markets, even though they might like to.
Mr. Crowl is apparently an experienced Ren Fair magician—although he fails to mention
how experienced—and has provided a basic primer for those with an interest in breaking
into this market. The Ren Fair market is competitive these days, and as in so many
markets, income has dropped with the increased competition. However, the author
makes some good points on how to find and create opportunities to enter the field,
especially this: "Find what they don't have, and become that." While I imagine that
those presently entrenched in the field will be less than delighted by the author's easing
the path of entry for others, nevertheless he quickly makes it clear that one needn't be
intimidated by the imagined need to learn accents or design costuming or create an act
that is in any way remotely authentic. In fact, it becomes quite clear in these pages that
these events might be more appropriately called Anachronism Festivals. Basically, wear
clothing in muted earth tones, buy a silly hat, learn to say "See thee anon" and "My lord,
by your leave I shall make my way to the privie," and you've achieved all the authenticity
you need to sucker the rubes.
The book includes some material on working up your character, "external presentation,"
"internal psychology" and "history." This may all seem daunting at first blush, but any
concerns are quickly dispelled when you note the fine print: "If it takes more than three
sentences to sum up your character, then you may have done too much work."
So in other words, the real work of working Ren Fairs is just like the real work of most
other performing; namely, learning to entertain your audience. In this market, you must also be able to work long hours outdoors, deal with plenty of children in the crowd and
lots of competition for your audience's attention. You may in many cases need to learn
to "pass the hat," which might loosely be called an art in itself, and while there is an
efficient page of basic rules included here to get you started, the author admits to
knowing very little about the subject, a specialized skill that can take years to master
(and many never do). Make no mistake, Ren Fairs are hard work, and a book like this
can only give you a few of the simplest business guidelines to introduce you to the field.
If you're an established street performer, then you're probably a natural for this market.
If you've been working corporate cocktail parties or children's birthday parties, this may
not be the place for you. But if you're curious, then this book, despite the minimum of
literary style or organization (how hard is it to include page numbers in a table of
contents anyway?), is certainly worth the asking price, given its inclusion of a source for
a published listing of all the Ren Fairs presently in operation, along with a source for
period and custom leather goods that could come in handy. (The handful of photographs
are unusually well reproduced, however.) Although there are three close-up tricks with
medieval themes included, don't expect any useful platform magic here. In fact, the
author provides virtually no meaningful or specific examples concerning so much as his
own character, much less his act. (For example, a sample completed character sheet,
even a made-up one, would no doubt have been invaluable in explaining the author's
points to readers.) But Ren Fairs were good enough for the likes of Penn & Teller and
Harry Anderson at one time, so they might be right for you. Fair thee well!