Like Night and Day

“Last year sucked!  Who cares about last year?”

– Jim Greene, instructor and independent act

Well, *I* do.  At least I did.  I mean, my 2016 season with the Sterling Renaissance Festival was great – I wouldn’t have exalted it with an entire blog post if it weren’t – but if last year were a full meal, then the 2017 season was an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Because I’m unimaginative and terrible with transitions, let’s talk about my living situation.

Site Life

When the creative director was sending housekeeping e-mails to the 2017 cast this spring, he asked for everyone’s living preference (i.e., onsite lofts, offsite housing, indifference).  I made the naïve decision to forsake all sense of adventure and voice my desire to live off site as I did last summer, citing convenience of shopping and household amenities as my chief reasons.

The decision was ultimately up to the director, however, and he countered my request by assigning me to a loft at the Armoury.  He was right.

Living on site was the single most important change from my experience last year.  What was lost in the convenience of Walmart just down the road and the kitchen mere feet away from the bedroom was more than recompensed by a firmer connection with my castmates and with the playing space we would call Warwick.  I finally could state truthfully that Warwick was my home, a claim to which I was not entitled last season.  Such a bond with my people and my space provided the groundwork for more effective improvisation and street-work on my end.  More on those later.

Still, where I had good fortune, I remembered.  I harboured limitless empathy for the five who lived in the offsite housing, especially the three among them who were virgin to the Sterling experience.  Despite our best efforts to reach out to them and include them, they were, at times, cut off from the rest of us, often missing out on the more impromptu cast gatherings or plans.

I shared the Armoury attic with four other men.  My loft was actually quite nice – I daresay superior to my pathetically small room (which was more like a glorified closet) in the city house last year.  In my loft, I could put all my clothes and other belongings into various shelves and drawers, freeing up an immense amount of floor space for walking around and changing garments.

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My loft, facing inward.  Note the draping mosquito net.

Living out of a loft was nothing like my preconceptions of it.  It might have helped that Armoury lofts were arguably some of the finest on site, at least in terms of size and privacy.  Each room had a proper, functioning door and was enclosed by complete walls; I had envisioned flimsy, rotting plywood separating the chambers and hanging cloth where a door might be.  I had plenty of electrical outlets and a good main light.  These lofts were less like cabins in the woods and more like gently furnished, low-rent apartments.

My biggest fears about living in a loft were relieved swiftly; there were no leaks, there was a privy (restroom) directly next to the building and bugs were not nearly as significant an issue as I had predicted – besides a few wasps over a ten-week period, insects and the like were virtually nonexistent – the ant infestation in the offsite house last year proved to be a far greater threat to my comfort than anything I encountered in my loft this year.

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My loft, facing the doorway.

There were two major drawbacks of onsite living.  In addition to longer grocery trips, we also needed to travel to do laundry.  The cast’s (and many of the independent performers’) preferred laundromat in Fair Haven was only about a five-minute drive away, but, man, did it make you bleed quarters.  Even more if you didn’t bring detergent.  At least the place had air conditioning and free Wi-Fi.

Then, there was what one cast member called the “dance of the kitchen” – the charlie-foxtrot of three dozen actors trying to evade one another to access their respective cabinets and refrigerators in what was maybe a 10′ by 20′ food preparation space – a dance I avoided by waking with the small 6:00 early breakfast club, but a tango I had no choice but to learn during the cast’s lunch break every June rehearsal.  It was as much a lesson in trust and cooperation as was anything we did during our ensemble-building exercises.

The Ensemble

How’s that for a transition?

Maybe it owed to my living on site; maybe it was an inherent respect that came with being a second-year Wyldewood Player; maybe it was simply the luck of the draw.  I will not mince words here: this year’s ensemble felt warmer, more together and absolutely more welcoming to me than last year’s did.  And I wasn’t the only returning cast member to sense these things.

I felt comfortable speaking with everyone in the cast, and it seemed like anybody could jump into and from any group conversation in the kitchen.  Cliques existed, sure, as they form naturally in any large group of people, but the key difference this time around was that these subgroups were not as potent – that is to say they lacked the exclusivity that last year’s had.  This year, there appeared to be an inviting atmosphere with every social outing and gathering, and I never felt bashful or ashamed to join up with any particular set of cast members.

Furthermore, the tone of this season’s ensemble, to me, was more laid-back than last season’s – in a good way.  While the work produced by the 2016 cast was unquestionably magnificent and inspiring, I can’t help but feel in retrospect that everything seemed so damned serious far too often.  The 2017 cast had a temperament that beckoned me to loosen up, let down my hair (sometimes literally) and play, the last one being the core of our show at the festival.

Rehearsals

Rehearsals were more or less identical to last year’s.  Morning warmups (physical and musical) followed by hours of various workshops in improv, imagination, styles/language and character development.  Not much to say here that I didn’t already cover in my first Sterling blog post.

Nay, instead, the change came from within – from the way I approached rehearsals.

During dialect workshops, I toned down greatly on my inclination to jump in and give unwarranted explanations of various rules and concepts.  I restrained myself this season and deferred always to the several instructors thereof, despite language being my domain.  Though holding my tongue was often frustrating, I found a sort of relief in embracing my subordination.

In improv, I retained the techniques I picked up last season and went forward with a no-fucks-given mindset, knowing that something is always better than nothing and that, even if you have a less-than-adequate scene, people generally will quickly forget about any embarrassing missteps you may have made.  My equipped, unbound mind yielded me much greater success during rehearsals and proved my viability in the discipline of improvisation.

This was a Joseph Scott that those who knew me last season did not recognise.  During a first-impressions exercise in which everybody revealed to every other person in thirty-second sessions how he/she initially perceived the other, all the staff members and cast veterans said something similar to me – they all seemed to note a confidence in me that was lacking last year.  One described the change as “like night and day.”

Side note: Wisdom is the child of hardship.  I learnt from my mistakes last year and brought plenty of warmer apparel for those cold rehearsal days in June.  The first week was brutal this year.  Also, rain boots were easily my smartest purchase all summer.

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Faire Days

At the heart of the Sterling Renaissance Festival’s entertainment is interactive theatre, conducted by the actors, the Wyldewood Players.  The actor’s job on a faire day is to, in character, find problems and activities and solicit the involvement of patrons and other characters.  The goal is immersion – to fill the space and make it truly seem like a bustling English town in the year 1585, inhabited by a host of wacky denizens who all have relationships with one another.  There is a specific interactive technique we actors learn in rehearsal and utilise every faire weekend.

Overall, my work in the lanes (the paths that patrons take on faire days), or street-work, was objectively better than what I did last season.

One of my biggest hangups last season was language and dialect.  My obsession with having impeccable grammar and with staying outside the realm of linguistic anachronism (using words/phrases/ideas that were not used in Elizabethan England) often inhibited my improvisational potential on the street.  I discovered this season that, in relaxing my language somewhat, ideas for street bits suddenly started flowing more rapidly and I was able to maintain patron attention much better.  It hurt my soul a bit to be so lax, but perhaps this was a necessary trade-off.

My street-work improved also because I finally understood how to throw an extraordinary offer/assumption at another character – and to do so confidently – in order to ignite some sort of meaningful interaction, or encounter.  And, when all else failed, it was quite fun to spew the first thing that came to mind.

Finally, some of the greatest rehearsal advice I employed on faire days was the notion of permitting my character to get involved with other characters’ problems – that any character, regardless of social station or personality, can and will, under extreme circumstances (meaning an encounter’s stakes have been raised appropriately), perform some action that he/she may find unpleasant or out of character.  I began to realise that the characters in Warwick were not designed to be two-dimensional archetypes of their occupations, but full, real people.  For example, the barber surgeon is a middle-class fellow who deals with medical issues primarily, but that does not and should not preclude him from being dragged into helping, say, a lower-class washer wench with a laundry-related problem or some non-occupational encounter like picking flowers for a bouquet.

Similarly, a lower-class beggar could be seen in the company of a member of the Queen’s court, doing things not typically associated with begging.

Speaking of which…..

The Sailor, not the Tailor

When I learnt that the two other beggars from last season would not be returning, any doubt that I would create a new character was removed.  I wished to embody a wholly different person to exist alongside and play off the likewise different persons my new “mud brothers” would generate.

Much to my surprise, my beggar character, William “Will” Taylor, was green-lighted by staff during rehearsal.  I feared that he would resemble too closely the namesake on whom I based him, the titular character from the folk song “William Taylor,” whose opening lyrics are, “William Taylor was a brisk young sailor, full of heart and full of play.”  I later found out that this very song was played by one of the festival’s musical acts on faire days.

William was much stronger a character than the one I developed last season, Peter.  Will’s choices were more playable to audiences, his nautical backstory more easily related in conversation, whereas Peter’s convenient amnesia was an unwise actor choice.

I made sure to distance William from Peter in almost every way conceivable.  His voice tended to sit in the chest, his lower, neutral growl much more biting than Peter’s shy, bouncing cadence, even decaying into the sarcastic on occasion.  Will’s movement stemmed from his forehead and right breast to contrast with Peter’s right knee-led gait – a change perhaps corresponding to the actor behind the characters as he evolved from one of insecurity to one of confidence.  While Peter’s vestments were a potpourri, Will was accoutred specifically to reflect his nautical background, complete with a sailor’s hat and spyglass.  Finally, Master Taylor had different motivations, goals and habits, which meant stick-collecting and leaf-munching had to go.  Will was headstrong and ambitious and had little time to devote to such petty diversions.

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Photo credit: Andrew Lesny

William’s passion (character’s driving force in life) and foible (trait that interferes with the character’s attainment of said passion) were clear and identifiable where Peter’s were, at best, vague and nebulous.  It was visible that Will was out solely for thrills, at sea or otherwise, while his pride often kept him from achieving his short-term goals, begetting other foibles such as forgetfulness and obliviousness.

I also added some other character minutiae to Will that, while not necessary for playing in the street and creating encounters, helped flesh him out and made for humorous moments upon their invocation.  The two main flourishes were his probable homosexuality and his recently-acquired fear of birds; not being seduced by the singing of Sirens and cowering before the festival’s trained hawks and other birds of prey were recurring gags this season.

Just Add Water

Mud is mud, so no updates there.  “Ye Mudd Pitt” required the same maintenance it did last summer, the most notable change being that the dirt came from a different supplier this year and required us to sift through it before we could dump it into the pit.  Another difference was that all three beggars lived on site this time, so we didn’t have to make special trips out between faire weekends to maintain the mud.

We turned to ancient Greek myth for our newest mud show, basing it on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, specifically the Quest for the Golden Fleece.  The basic plot – that is, which scenes we wished to portray and the order thereof – was a combined effort of the three beggars, while the specific dialogue was written by the director.  He intelligently wrote the script with provided room for variation and jokes we could insert on the fly.

“Myth and Muddy Mayhem,” as it is titled in the festival’s programme, was a longer show that made heavy use of stage properties, called for several important character endowments (like Heracles and Eros) to be hand-picked from the crowd and requested full audience participation during moments where sound effects and scene transitions were needed, filling a void created by the unavailability of the classic “Dante’s Inferno” this season.  I was very pleased with the show we produced.

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Photo credit, clockwise from top: Andrew Lesny, Philip R. Frey, Andrew Lesny

The biblical show the beggars wrote last year, “The Prodigal Son,” returned in all its glory (or shame), still as sacrilegious and scatological as it was last summer, and perhaps more so.  The show continued to grow this season as the two new beggars embraced it and made it their own.  Very proud of my lads.

Oh, yeah – we performed four shows per faire day, eight per weekend, where it was only three a day last season.  The addition of a fourth performance each day at 5:00 proved to be, at least initially, more draining than expected and forced me to manage my voice more wisely – to pick my battles, as it were.  I had trouble speaking every Monday after the first three weekends, but my body eventually acclimated, I’m thankful to state.

What did not change, at least not in great measure, were the size and enthusiasm of the 5:00 crowd.  Most days, it was a mass of miserable, tired people who were simply trying to find somewhere to sit before the final joust, after which they could make their sorry, daunting trek up the hill and finally leave the festival.  It was difficult to incite any spirit in them, and even the funniest, most outrageous jokes in “Prodigal Son” often failed to get reactions.  Perhaps the inclusion of a fourth show was not worth it and the time we beggars took to set up for it, perform it and clean up afterward would have been better allocated to our already meagre street time, of which we had virtually none after 1:15.

Parade bits were a welcome addition to the beggars’ antics.  The first weekend, we three decided to forgo a shower after the second mud show, knowing that taking the time to clean up and change would make us miss part of the Queen’s midday procession.  So, naturally, we walked around completely covered in filth so we could make it to the beginning of the parade in the upper shire in time to greet Her Majesty.  It’s beyond me why we didn’t try this last summer.  We very quickly discovered that our swarthiness was a wide, paved avenue for performing bits, and you had better bet your bottom shilling we rode it every weekend.  Each faire day, we did something different to entertain the parade and the patrons around it, whether it be pretending to be tea-sipping Frenchmen or creating tableaux of various Stages of the Cross or overtly crossdressing as ladies of the court of the washer wench, Nerys, whom we appointed our Fairy sovereign.

Other Thoughts I Couldn’t Find a Section For

Some readers may recall that last year I developed an awfully strange physical intolerance – an allergy, even – for cold water.  I was unable to swim in any body of water – lakes, ponds, wash pits, etc. – cooler than corporeal temperature, lest my skin broke out into what looked like hives (showers didn’t do this to me because I bathe with very warm water).  It was often painful.

Well, I ended up swimming in the “Dunke Ponde” a couple times this summer without such a reaction.  And the oft-cold shower after my 5:00 mud show (no more hot water by the end of the day) didn’t seem to affect me, either.  Fingers crossed, but I may no longer suffer this curious condition.

I failed to maintain my run-whenever-it’s-pleasant-out regimen.  In May, I imagined that I would end most days in Sterling with a solid, hearty run and a refreshing shower.  Nope.  Turns out I befriended all my castmates and found it difficult to reconcile my exercise custom with my busy social calendar.

The final and most important miscellaneous thought I wished to share is my newfound appreciation for poetry and verse, a fondness I fostered with my own authorial contributions.  Two and a half months of living amongst trees, creatures and artistic peers untethered my mind and took it to places it had never been.  I ended up penning numerous sonnets and other poems that are packed with nature-inspired imagery.  While my prose already has a poetic tinge, I loved the challenge of assigning my words to metre and finding novel methods of describing ordinary things.  My sonnets come in iambic hexameter (not sexameter) and classic pentameter, and I even wrote one in octameter (what?).  And I had the opportunity to read some of my works at a couple in-house events held on site.  It was gratifying to know that my poetry was received as well as it was.

But I’m Not Ready to Leave…

You can leave all your “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because happened”s and “You’ll get out of this funk soon”s and “Where one journey ends, another begins”s and other hackneyed epitaphs at the door.  I’m sad.  I’m really fucking sad.

This summer was an absolute privilege and a delight that somehow exceeded last summer.  I’ll cash in my saved-up originality tokens for one trite paragraph and say that this summer was basically a dream.  A bubble where I didn’t have to worry about everything for a little while.  And I’m not wearing my nostalgia goggles – I realised this as the fantasy was unfolding.  Because I experienced that bliss once…and I finally had it again and knew I had to relish every moment.  And then I had to give it up again.  And now I’m back in the crappy real world.  And it sucks.  So much.

Never enough time.

If you’ll indulge my conceitedness once more, I’ll end with the verse I composed for our pub song, “Health to the Company.”  My fellow players already heard me sing it, but I think a reprise befitting.  I meant every word.

Thus to you, dearest brethren, my final remarks:

You forgive me my missteps, to my jests do you hark;

You’ve return’d me my happiness, this virtue been depriv’d;

Never ere has this dead man felt quite so alive!

Also, if you think I waited till September to write this blog post, then you think erroneously.  I didn’t make it twenty-four hours after returning home to start this.

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6 comments

  1. Insightful. I’ve said before how much I admire the work the players do at Sterling. As a performer myself, I’m not sure if I could handle it, though I often wonder about trying and my own work has been trending in the direction of the fully immersive performance.

    It was interesting to see you mention that you felt 2017’s group had a stronger bond than 2016’s. As a patron, I felt each cast had its strengths and weaknesses, but I told people after the first weekend that the 2017 cast was locked in from the get-go, while 2016’s needed tempering before it was firing on all cylinders (about the third weekend). The observation fits in well with your experiences as you describe them.

    As for your own work, I can tell you that one of my weaknesses when it comes to the cast at Sterling (and in real life, if I’m to be honest) is remembering names. Some stick, but most I have to work to remember. (This year’s “Philip” had an unfair advantage, of course.) I could tell that your character this year was stronger, because I remembered the name easily, while I don’t think I would have remembered the name of Peter if you hadn’t mentioned it just now. This year you were distinct. I always knew who you were (and not because I know who you are).

    Thanks for the great post.

    Like

    1. Never knew you performed! That’s very cool! And thank you – the WW/ BTM Players have a rich legacy of outstanding performers and tight ensemble work. Glad to be part of that legacy.

      Your observations about the past two ensembles do indeed coincide with my recollection. I’m not sure how well I can articulate (nor am I sure it is my place to say) exactly what 2017’s had that seemed lacking in 2016’s, but it almost seemed as if last year’s cast had 35 brilliant musicians all playing in different keys, while this year’s cast stayed consistent with each other tonally. And I felt greater connection in general to my castmates this season.

      And, yeah, it was very much a William Taylor thing to do, making sure his name and likeness were known throughout the shire. Definitely a bolder character in every sense of the word. Except when faced with birds, of course. I had a lot of fun with Will this season.

      Thank you for your thorough remarks. And your excellent photography to boot.

      Like

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