Actors prepare old-world festival
Scene four rehearsals open as lovers Hermia and Lysander, from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," run away into a forest infested with fairies.
In between lines, calls of directions can be heard from the entertainment director that sits on a bench in front of the unfolding scene. Across the front-gate courtyard, the gypsy boys with tambourines in hand rehearse a synchronized dance routine as drums keep the beat behind them.
When the scene comes to an end, the actors are called forward and listen as the stage manager reads off a list of mistakes to fix, changes to make and compliments for lines that came off perfectly. The brief huddle ends and the actors and director take their places to start the process all over again.
This is the activity taking place at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival Fairgrounds two months before the festival's front gates are opened to the public. But it is also just a fragment of the work that's been taking place since January to prepare for the day when the 16th century "town" of Canterbury, England, comes alive.
"It's certainly a huge show," said Jim Stamberger, the Renaissance Festival entertainment director. "We'll entertain 180,000 people. Some Broadway shows can't even say that."
Getting into character
Starting in January, Stamberger plays host to recruiting parties throughout the Kansas City area to attract new performers and talent, which are followed by auditions in April. Once actors are chosen, the lengthy work of character development begins.
In May, Stamberger requires that the actors attend acting classes to perfect vocabulary, accents and character history. This happens even before the scenes are rehearsed, lines are memorized and the script is physically acted out. To Stamberger, this is the most important part of the whole process.
"Unlike regular theaters, we have to go one on one with the audience," he said. "At a normal performance, you walk on stage for two hours, walk off and you're done. We're performing 100 percent of the time, 8 hours a day. It's the lives of the characters that make Canterbury come alive."
Staying in character while interacting with patrons is not an easy task. There are seven scenes that will pop up all around patrons throughout each performance day, which Stamberger said are meant to come out of nowhere and then disappear in the crowd.
These "slices of life" as Stamberger refers to them, draw audiences into the story, but don't end when all the lines are recited. It is the actors' jobs to communicate with patrons throughout the day and in between scenes to make sure everyone is up to date on how far along the story has progressed that day.
"We want to capture their imagination," Stamberger said. "We want them to want to see what happens next and ask where the next scene will be."
For first-time Renaissance Festival performer Nick Kledis, of Kansas City, Mo., the character development process has been the most challenging compared to the theater he was used to.
Kledis had attended the Renaissance Festival for many years before deciding to get involved himself. He auditioned and was given the part of Puke, the fool and right-hand-man of the King of Shadows. Kledis' role allows him to act goofy and silly, but the carefree attitude has come with a lot of hard work.
"We have to stay in character from the morning until the time we leave," he said. "I think (patrons) would be very surprised by how much thought goes into that."
Actors have completed a survey of the history of their characters that can be viewed online by fellow cast members and soon-to-be patrons. For Puke, a little known fact, but yet something that makes the character who he is, is his love of pie. Such information will come in handy come August when characters stand trial.
To ensure the actors are truly ready to take on the task of staying in character for an entire day, Stamberger has developed a test that places each character on trial for murder. As director, Stamberger prosecutes the characters making up lies and trying to prove their guilt. The actors must maintain their accent and use special vocabulary and, hopefully, not break under the pressure.
"It gets them to react under pressure and see how they'll respond," Stamberger said, pointing out that interacting with an audience sometimes bring forward some high-pressure situations. "They have to maintain the truth of their character and not lie, and we determine if that really is the character or just that actor's response."
Dressing the part
With the character development well under way, third-year veteran Renaissance Festival actress Bailee Platt, of Overland Park, is no stranger to the preparation process.
She said what keeps her coming back each year is the fun of working with the thousands of patrons who come to see her perform. She said it was the most rewarding part to see or hear someone say that the trip to the fairgrounds was worth it.
While the Renaissance Festival is passion rather than a job for Platt, who works for an advertising firm in Lenexa, that doesn't mean it doesn't come without cost. Each actor is required to obtain their own costume for their character. After the fabric and tailors are all said and done, actors can end up spending anywhere from $20, if he or she plays a beggar, to $2,000 for a role such as the king or queen.
"It's a big investment," Platt said, "but totally worth it."
There is strict costume jury that each actor must get approval from every step of the way, which Stamberger said is done to place an emphasis on true, authentic period clothing. The actors are taught about period fabrics and how to fake them in this modern age. Before a seam can ever be sewn, a jury must approve the fabric choices. The actors then have the clothing made and have to bring back the semi-finished costume for a second inspection. A final inspection is done after the costume is finished and accessories have been chosen.
The world of Renaissance costuming has changed, however, as the Internet became more mainstream. For Stamberger, who has been part of the fair for 27 years, the Internet has not only made finding fabrics and accessories easier, but also allowed actors to find more authentic pieces.
Bringing it all together
While Stamberger and the actors work to perfect the performances, other Renaissance staff is just as busy working other aspects to make the experience enjoyable for all the patrons.
In the crafts department, staff is organizing more than 160 crafters from all over the country. The stores in the Canterbury town must be sold to the crafters, and then another jury panel must approve the wares they plan to sell. The staff also has the task of finding accommodations for the crafters during their two-month stay in the area.
In the food and beverage department, staff is busy trying to place orders for the items that will keep the period feel but still be enjoyed by the modern-day patrons.
"Lots of beer, turkey legs and meat," Stamberger said. "Meat is very important."
The staff also has to hire help to serve all the delicious meals. This becomes tricky, Stamberger said, because the festival wants the servers, who are generally not actors themselves, to maintain the period feel. Once the servers are hired, he said they are handed over to his department for a boot-camp character-training session to bring them "up to snuff."
While all this takes place, the promotions department is working tirelessly to get patrons to the event. From setting up TV and radio commercials to scheduling special appearances, they are doing whatever it takes to get people into the front gates come Labor Day.
A passion for the show
So with all that it takes to get the festival up and running, it's easy to wonder why the organizers and actors would put themselves through all that work.
"I ask myself that every day," Stamberger said. "It's just a passion for the show and for the people. You meet cool people and watch kids grow and change. It's a safe environment to be creative and try things and not be made fun of."
Stamberger has three goals when it comes to every performance: entertain, educate and make someone feel good about themselves.
"If our time with the audience doesn't do one of those three things, then it was a waste of time," he said.
Stamberger said he wants his actors to not only light up the faces of children, but also adults. He said patrons should be given attention that shows their time is appreciated.
"It's important for them to feel that," he said. "There's not enough positive in this world. We want them to let go of the troubles of their world and enjoy our world for the afternoon."
The Renaissance Festival this year runs every weekend from Aug. 30 to Oct. 13 at 628 N. 126th St., Bonner Springs. For more information about the festival and for ticket prices, visit the Web site kcrenfest.com.