Jousting Online: With Carolina Renaissance Festival Canceled, Performers Turn To Web
If you've lived near Charlotte for any amount of time, you've probably heard of the Carolina Renaissance Festival. Each fall, the 25-acre village mocked up like a 16th-century European marketplace comes alive with pageantry, fair food and the occasional falconry demonstration.
The Huntersville festival is open rain or shine on weekends in October and November. But for the first time since 1994, it’s not happening this year. Like essentially all other events that draw big crowds, the Carolina Renaissance Festival is falling victim to the coronavirus, something organizers announced last month — along with plans to return in 2021.
Matt Siegel, director of marketing and entertainment for the festival, says staff watched as other large events and Renaissance fairs shut down and saw the writing on the wall. Even if state safety restrictions eased up slightly by October, it would be impossible to recreate what Siegel calls the “immersive” experience of the festival — kids posing for photos with actors, people crowding together to watch performances, browsing small shops for trinkets.
“Ultimately, we decided that we wanted to be part of the solution and not contribute or not have a risk of contributing to the spread of the virus,” Siegel said. “… By not opening, it was the better choice and the right choice for the public’s health and safety.”
That doesn’t mean it was an easy decision.
The festival attracts as many as 200,000 visitors a year. Part of the popularity is escapism: What better way to forget about the modern world for a few hours than walking around a fairytale-like village, interacting with brightly costumed characters from days of yore?
“For us not to be able to offer that during a period of time that has been so chaotic for our country, when people need it now more than ever, that’s definitely one of the hardest parts about all of this,” Siegel said. “We’re not there to be an outlet for folks who want it and need it.”
But the festival’s more than just a place for local families and busloads of school kids to be entertained.
For the more than 1,000 staff, volunteers, performers and artists involved in putting on the two-month event, it can be an important source of income — and for some a way of life.
About 300 people perform at the festival each year. Roughly half of them, like Michael Stewart, live in the region. Folks who’ve gone to the Carolina Renaissance Festival at any time in the last 21 years have probably run into Stewart. He’s kind of a big deal, after all.
“I hold the exalted position of the lord mayor, the host of the show, the guiding light in these trying times and general all-about good fellow,” Stewart said, voice swelling with pride.
Stewart — aka Lord Mayor Bullfrog — and his wife, Lindsay, both perform at the festival — her as a singer. They also run a Charlotte business, Merely Players, acting in costume for events like parties and movie premieres and hosting trivia nights — all things that aren’t exactly prevalent during the pandemic.
“If you’re an entertainer, this is a difficult, difficult time,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s main employer, Discovery Place Science in uptown Charlotte, is shut down to visitors and doesn’t have hours for him right now, either. He’s quick to point out that while they’ve definitely taken a financial hit, they could be in a worse spot.
Lindsay has been working from home, and they’ve both been performing on social media for what they can.
The typically green-clad lord mayor even provides Facebook updates for fans.
“I posted a video of the lord mayor having to shave himself because the barber surgeon’s not coming around these days,” he said late last month.
The Stewarts aren’t the only people in the Renaissance fair community turning to modern technology to entertain fans and help make ends meet.
“It’s a whole new world we’re trying to navigate,” said Matthew Mansour, who Renaissance fair audiences across the country might know better as Sir Maxmillian the Jousting Earl.
Mansour’s part of The Jousters, a troupe that supplies one of the main spectacles at Renaissance fairs — knights in shining armor atop speeding horses, squaring off with lances in front of roaring crowds. The company typically does five fairs each year, and that just about fills up a full year.
They were at the Arizona Renaissance Festival near Phoenix when it shut down a few weeks early in mid-March as the coronavirus began to spread widely in the U.S. And that’s where several of them still are, camped out in RVs on the fairgrounds and taking care of eight horses.
“They’ve allowed us to kind of wait out the storm, which is super generous and awesome of them,” Mansour said. “We have our full stables here. We have an arena to keep the horses in shape and trails that we can ride.”
The Jousters started something of a sponsorship program via the website Patreon. Fans who want to get a behind-the-scenes view of how jousting works can go online and spend virtual time with the troupe.
"We've been doing skilled competitions and jousts and also a glimpse backstage of how we do everything, like how the armor works,” Mansour said. “So that's been very successful."
So successful, in fact, that Mansour says they might keep it up once things are back to normal.
Performers aren’t alone in having to adapt. Renaissance fairs are prime spots for vendors to sell arts and crafts. Arleen Miller and her husband own Broomhilde. They’re based in upstate New York, but much like The Jousters, they travel the country year-round, selling custom walking sticks, wands and brooms at festivals.
In a normal fall, Miller says, they’d make at least 1,500 sales at the Carolina Renaissance Festival alone. Broomhilde’s shifted its focus to the web with an Etsy shop, but sales are down dramatically.
“It’s about 10% of where we would normally be in a year,” Miller said. “It’s pretty intense.”
And she doesn’t foresee any in-person opportunities until 2021.
Still, Broomhilde has managed to scrape by and keep its full-time employees. Miller knows they’re more fortunate than some. That’s why she helped start one nonprofit, Renaissance Catastrophic Assistance Foundation, to help members of the festival community get financial support.
Another nonprofit, RESCU Foundation, helps community members with medical expenses, and a Facebook group called Faire Relief 2020 has amassed more than 40,000 members as a way to connect folks with artists, crafters and performers. That support means a lot.
“Knowing that other people are willing to wait it out with us, that we’ll see them on the other side, it makes a huge difference, feeling like we matter,” Miller said.
But, of course, money isn’t everything.
Mansour and The Jousters are able to stay afloat right now, too, but there’s something else missing. Normally, Mansour would be in Wisconsin right now for a summer fair, and in October, he’d be in North Carolina, where the Jousters add a Halloween show to their repertoire.
“You know, we are all performers, and it’s very difficult not to be performers,” Mansour said. “It’s taken away who we are.”
A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.