Friday, July 2, 2010

A Health to the Company!

When I woke up and came downstairs this morning, my sons were quietly singing this song while they played. That's the power of Mock Faire Day!

The Sterling Renaissance Festival is a magnificent way to spend a summer day. Mock Faire Day is the final dress rehearsal for the Bless the Mark Players - the cast of the festival who perform the roles of Queen Elizabeth, her court, the Town of Warwick notables and the villagers. They present many of the Festival's shows - the Public Execution, the Trial and Dunk, the Mudbegger's Show, and the Washer Wenches, among others. They also perform improvisational street shows throughout the day, usually pulling the faire's patrons into their routines.

They're all professional or aspiring actors and they get several weeks of intensive training from the same folks who have been directing at the Festival for decades. However rehearsing improv isn't easy in the best of cases, and it's worse when you're trying to incorporate audience participants who may be shy or reluctant, or may derail your skit in a direction you hadn't imagined. The partial solution - costumed patrons are invited to join the cast for their final dress rehearsal on the Thursday before opening day, so that the actors have real, live people to rehearse with.

This is my second year attending, and for a fan of the festival it's about the most glorious day ever. There's no musicians (well, very few), none of the "traveling" acts are there, the shops are all closed, and there's no joust. Or food. If you're thinking, "But Mike, those are most of your favorite things!!" you're correct. In spite of all of that, I enjoy it immensely.

One of the main things I like about Mock Faire Day is fairly altruistic - I like the fact that I'm able to support these fine actors by helping them prepare their performances.

The rest of my reasons, though, are purely personal. I enjoy walking freely about the grounds without fighting my way through a throng of other visitors. I like getting an advance preview of the changes that have been made to the grounds and buildings. I enjoy getting to interact one-on-one with the actors. And, best of all, I like the added visit to the Festival (for free!) because there's simply never enough time to see everything when you go. It's painful to have to choose between a "Bless the Mark" show and one of our favorite musical acts, for instance. By attending Mock Faire Day, we get to see eight or nine of the BTM shows all at once. Then, when we go for a "real" faire day, we don't feel as torn up about having to miss one of those performances.

So yesterday the kids and I packed ourselves a lunch and a whole lotta snacks and drove on up to Sterling. My sons are getting older, but they're still very young and I wasn't really sure how well they'd handle Mock Faire Day. Quite well, as it turned out! We were there from the opening ceremony to the final pubsing and they had a great time. Granted, they got a bit cranky during the last hour when they were cold and tired and bored (there was a lengthy break before the final pubsing, since no BTM player performances are scheduled during the timeslot just before it), but otherwise they were excellent and seemed to really enjoy the performances.

My older boy even came away with a piece of Festival history. I was taking pictures of the kids in the fancy wooden lion-carved chair outside the costume shop when the operator came out to see us. She said, "Oh, I have a doublet that would be perfect for this lad!" and began to rummage in a large bin of fabric marked "Free, please help yourself!" It turns out that it was full of older, somewhat worn costume pieces that were being retired after many years of service. She emerged with a lovely green-and-yellow doublet that did indeed fit my boy perfectly, and matched his yellow shirt and general coloring marvelously. She said that it had once been worn by one of the actors and had gradually moved into the rental shop and been sized down over the years. In my mind's eye, I can almost picture the actor wearing it when it was new, as I'm certain I must have seen it then. Anyway, my son and I were both excited to get it and we're grateful to the woman and her expert eye for picking it out for us.

Overall it was a most excellent day. We talked with many of the actors, in character, of course, including the German Landsknecht in red (Doug Keyes, I think), the Sheriff, the Astrologer, the Poet, the Mudbeggers and the Thieves. One of the thieves even serenaded my daughter and one of my boys on his lute before tragically dropping the old instrument. It was a terribly gentle mishap - one you never would have expected to cause damage - but the lute's neck snapped in half just below the nut. It was heartbreaking, but there was considerable optimism that it could be repaired.

We saw the Mudshow three times, the Pirate Show, the Trial and Dunke, and the Washer Wenches twice. We watched one Public Execution (I even danced a jig) and then sat for a verbal-only walkthrough of a second, as the Execution stage was being painted. I think the kids actually enjoyed that one more, as the actors were very relaxed as they sat around a picnic table and recited their lines. At one point, Joseph Regan, the Executioner, placed his hat over his axe and used it to perform his role as a puppet show, which was very funny.

At long last, it was time for the pubsing. The pubsing is a grand finale in so many ways. During the run of the festival, it represents the end of a long day of hard work for the actors and, on Sundays, the end of a hard weekend. On August 15th, the final pubsing will be the very, very last performance of the entire season.

Yesterday, though, the pubsing was the final performance of the months-long audition and rehearsal process for the cast. It was their "graduation" ceremony before the gates open on Saturday morning and they "go live" at last. There was some ad-libbing from the Queen, the Master of Revels, and others that I don't expect we'll hear on Saturday. They commented on the Queen's new gown, on the Merrymaker's experience over the last three summers (which was very heartfelt and emotional), and on the joy and pleasure they take in working with such a terrific cast of actors. You could really feel the depth of feeling they conveyed in songs such as Auld Lang Syne and Health to the Company. It was a privilege for us to be there to share it.

And then it was done. The actors trooped out the front gates and formed "the gauntlet" outside. They got some final instructions from the directors and then streamed back inside. Several of the actors as well as assistant director Doug Kondziolka made a point of thanking us for our help. Which, considering how much we'd enjoyed it, was humbling and a bit backwards indeed. It was our pleasure. A health to the company, indeed!

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