- There’s more sales, design, and content involved in Renaissance festivals than you might think.
- Underpromise and overdeliver is a time-tested technique of client relations that is put into practice at Renaissance festivals.
- Face-painting reflects cultural trends.
When you go to a Renaissance festival and find people dressed as centaurs, robots, or astronauts, your first thought isn’t that there’s a clear intersection between the medieval spectacle and content. But when you pull back the layers, you’ll find that there is much more there than you realize.
“There’s definitely a Venn diagram of people who come to the Renaissance festival and all other nerdery.”Elia Albarrán, COO at Four Kitchens, and second-generation Renaissance festival face-painter
I like that everything at the Renaissance festival is designed to completely immerse you in the experience and help you forget about the outside world for a moment. The wooden gazebos and medieval tents and everyone in Renaissance attire lends an air of authenticity to the surroundings—even the face-painter’s wooden sign that has all of the designs to pick from. But Elia says that behind the sign is a modern-day sales principle.
“As people approach my booth and read my sign, they’re looking at my price range. At the very bottom of the board is, of course, your lowest-cost item, mainly because your smallest customers will be at the bottom. Little kids are more likely to just point at the one thing that they can reach, so I want to give them something accessible.”Elia Albarrán, COO at Four Kitchens, and second-generation Renaissance festival face-painter
I wouldn’t have thought that face-painting requests could be a cultural bellwether, but Elia knows they are. She had a lot of requests for the Mike Tyson, mostly because of The Hangover movie, and there are many requests for Disney’s Frozen character, Elsa, right now from little kids. And when Elia was a kid, her mom painted a lot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle faces—eye-bands, green skin, and all.
I appreciated Elia’s discussion of the content of subcultures and immersive experiences. It was amazing to hear how immersive experiences happen in real life and not always via virtual reality, apps, and digital platforms.
Elia Albarrán is the COO of Four Kitchens and a second-generation Renaissance festival face-painter.
Stream Episode 24 now, or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform below.
Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!
Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. On this podcast, we explore content, its creation, management, and distribution by talking with the people who make content possible. Our goal is to learn from diverse perspectives and industries to become better creators. The Future of Content is brought to you by Four Kitchens. We design and develop digital content solutions that get results.
Todd: Today I’m joined by fellow Four Kitchens Web Chef, Elia Albarrán. Welcome to The Future of Content, Elia.
Elia: Why, thank you. So nice to be here.
Todd: Yes! So, you are our COO—Chief Operations Officer. What does that involve?
Elia: Wow, what does that involve?
Todd: What do you do around here? What exactly do you do?
Elia: What do you do here, yeah. Really glad we’re recording this right before a holiday break. I feel super safe.
Todd: Better than right before a performance review.
Elia: That’s true. Being COO basically means that you have your eyes and ears on everything at the business, um, so I oversee all of our major functions, you know, business development, administration, and client services. Making sure that those pieces of the business are integrating with each other so that we can achieve your vision, Todd.
Todd: Oh, well thank you. But we’re actually not here to talk about operations or Four Kitchens, or even websites. We’re here to talk about face painting. So you are a multi-generational Renaissance Fair face painter. Checks a lot of boxes.
Elia: Wow. I feel like I need some new business cards made when you put it that way.
Todd: So let’s break that down. So multi-generational?
Elia: I’m a second-generation face painter. Umm, my mom has been face painting at Renaissance festivals since I was born, and I grew up travelling around the country with her, moving every couple of months to a new state and travelling what we call
“the circuit” on the road, so vagabond lifestyle.
Todd: And so these Renaissance festivals happen pretty much year round and you probably, I assume, travel with like the seasons, so where the climate is kind.
Elia: That’s true. My mom likes to call that “following the sun.” So our route when I was growing up, we would start in Arizona in February, when it starts to get warm there, and leave just about when it starts to get too hot. And then you would go to the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, which is outside of Dallas, perhaps you’re familiar with that.
Elia: And we’d be there from April until May, when it really starts to get hot at the end of May in Texas. We jumped up to Colorado, where it is beautiful in the summertime and we would spend June and July in Colorado and leave for Minnesota in August, and um, a couple of weeks travelling up there because there’s quite a bit of time between the Colorado and Minnesota Renaissance festivals. And then we would spend August and September in Minnesota and just as it starts to get really cold there, you’d come back to Texas, come back south for the winter. So, all year long, we would be travelling about 10 months out of the year and then we’d have two months between the last show of the year and the new show at the beginning of the year.
Todd: And the last show of the year, is that the one outside of Houston?
Elia: It is. It’s called the Texas Renaissance Festival. It’s the largest Renaissance festival in the country—probably the world, let’s be honest. Everything is bigger in Texas. I think they just had, they just had their season, yes, mid-pandemic, and I think it was their forty-fifth season? I might be exaggerating. Definitely, I think, at least 40 years.
Todd: Wow. So what exactly— I’ve been to a couple of Renaissance festivals. In fact, I came and visited you once at the Texas Renaissance festival. For those who have never been, what is it? What’s it all about? What do you do? What’s the point?
Elia: Oh, man. I don’t know that I’ve ever actually had to explain it to anybody. This is a real test. Uh, well, a Renaissance festival is like a large outdoor theme park except the games and the rides, they’re all a bit medieval, so there’s not a lot of like, technological advances, you know? You’re not going to see big roller coasters and stuff like that but there’s like a swing ride and you know, things like that. I think that, once again, I don’t know how big the Texas Renaissance festival is outside of Houston, but I think several hundred acres. So it’s a very large piece of property. Wooded, beautiful, and there’s a lot of permanent structures that are built to look like medieval booths and homes, and then there’s also a lot of temporary structures. Big colorful tents and things like that. And there’s artisans, vendors, lots of food, shops, and entertainment. There’s live shows and street performers. So it’s a festival, a Renaissance festival. What do you mean, what is it?
Todd: And there’s like, there’s an arena where there’s jousting and –
Elia: Oh, how could I forget the jousting?
Todd: Right. And there are people dressed up like, some people get really into it and they turn themselves into centaurs.
Elia: That’s true, absolutely. Not only the people who are working at the Renaissance festival who are dressed up to like, bring you into the kind of past that we’re trying to recreate, but then also, people who come and visit the Renaissance festival get dressed up as well. And sometimes, those are even more over the top outfits than the people who work there. So yeah, there’s a lot of that and of course, you know, eating turkey legs and drinking mead, you know, the usual suspects.
Todd: Suddenly the nation’s mead supply just plummets every time a Renaissance fair rolls into town. So I imagine that the people who attend these, they’re probably on a spectrum of the really immersive diehards. So these are the people that have a centaur body that they attach themselves to and drag around on wheels behind them, which I’ve seen, and you too, I’m sure, many times. There’s probably like, that guy, right?
Elia: There is that guy, yeah.
Todd: Yeah. And then there are people who are just going for the weekend and they’re in I guess, civilian clothes, street clothes. I have to admit that one year, I was probably on the far other end of that spectrum, which is people who go there to deliberately troll. This is back in our college humor publication days. We decided to do an episode about robots and astronauts going to the Renaissance festival.
Elia: That’s right.
Todd: So our entire staff dressed up like robots and astronauts. And the thing that we learned was that what we were doing was not original and not funny to anybody there. It was not canon. It was anachronistic. It wasn’t entertaining in the slightest, but we did get a cover shoot out of it.
Elia: I mean, you know, those things are slightly entertaining. There’s often, I think, you know, there’s like a Renaissance treasure hunt, Renaissance bingo type of thing that the participants play, and one of those is always like, a stormtrooper in a kilt or something like that. There’s definitely a Venn diagram of people who come to the Renaissance festival and then, like, all other nerdery and there’s definitely a lot of that overlap.
Todd: Okay. So the stormtrooper part is more about, like, pan-nerdery.
Elia: Yes, exactly.
Todd: Intersected with some kind of, like, European, I don’t know, ancestry or something.
Elia: Sure. Yeah.
Todd: Okay, yeah. Stormtrooper in a kilt. A utili-kilt, I’m sure.
Elia: No doubt. A black one, probably.
Todd: Yeah. It’s got all kinds of blasters and I’m putting on a voice as if I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about. Ok, so there’s this audience that shows up, there are these different booths and activities and vendors and shops and things happening, but there’s an economy that’s happening in this world, and it’s kind of rarified. You and your mom are examples of people who just travel the circuit. They follow the sun, they go from fair to fair. I assume there are a lot of people who do this kind of thing and you run into people a lot. There are probably some locals that only do the local fairs, and people that follow certain legs, or the whole thing, or whatever. But there are businesses within this economy, and your face painting was one of these businesses. So how did you get a booth or a business in the Renaissance festival? How does that come about?
Elia: Well, every Renaissance festival is owned independently. There are a few groups that own several festivals throughout the country, and there is a festival in almost every state in the United States. Texas has three, for example, and there are, I think, a couple of other states that have multiples. New York has a couple. Ohio has a couple. So to get into any one of the festivals, you apply, and each festival has sort of a jury system or a way that they kind of look over applications and decide who’s going to be accepted. And usually, once you get accepted into a festival, you don’t have to reapply every year. It’s sort of like, at the end of the year, you get an opportunity to sign a contract for the next year, and you’re in. So, you know, my family has been doing –
Todd: Once you’re in, you’re in.
Elia: Once you’re in, you’re in.
Todd: As long as you don’t—
Elia: —You know, don’t screw it up. Can we say that on the podcast?
Todd: Yeah. You can say “don’t screw it up” on this podcast.
Elia: Right. Don’t screw it up. So yeah, once you’re in you’re in. And my family has had, you know, a shop at several of the Renaissance festivals that we have gone to. I listed some of them at the beginning of this conversation. And we’ve been going to those festivals for thirty-five years, and the contract has been, you know, maybe passed on to me, and then passed on to my younger sister once I, you know, started working full-time at Four Kitchens. And it stays in the family pretty much.
Todd: So how does face painting differ at a, because we’ve all seen face painting at, like, a carnival or, you know, or a state fair, or at, you know, a birthday party, something like that. How is it different at a Renaissance festival?
Elia: It’s more expensive. No, I’m just kidding.
Todd: That’s fair, I mean, when you’re at a place like that, you expect a markup of course.
Todd: Turkey legs don’t really cost $10.
Elia: They don’t. Or they shouldn’t, that’s for sure. I think, you know, how it differs, you know, I haven’t seen face painting at, well, I know they have face painting at Disney World and places like that but I haven’t been to a Disney World. I know, shame on me. And so, I know that the face painting at those festivals is very well done at those events. Like, I’ve seen very high quality face painting on pictures and things like that. I think that probably one of the biggest differences maybe between, like, birthday parties and what you would get at the Renaissance festival is that the people who are giving you a face painting service at the Renaissance festival are probably people who do this for their full-time living, and so the face painting that you’re going to get is, like, probably the best one you’ve ever had. I’ve definitely had a lot of people, you know, when I showed them in the mirror, and I say, do you love it, and they’re like, this is the most beautiful face painting that I’ve ever had in my life.
Elia:That’s a good feeling, right?
Elia: Whereas some folks who, you know, some folks who do birthday parties, not everybody. There are a lot of people who are professional birthday party entertainers who, you know, dress up as, like, a princess or something, and show up and paint faces and tell stories and things like that. But there’s other people who might just do it for fun, you know, as a little, like, side hustle, and they might not have the breadth of experience that somebody who does it every weekend for 35 years will have.
Todd: So, paint the picture for me. So, I’m at the Renaissance festival. I’ve got a turkey leg in one hand, I’ve got my mead in the other. I’m dressed like a robot, I dodge a street performer. I look up and I see, what?
Elia: Well, that depends, where are you looking?
Todd: I’m looking at you.
Elia: You’re looking at me. Okay.
Todd: What do I see?
Todd: You’re at your booth, you’re ready to do a face painting, what am I looking at?
Elia: You are looking at, depending on the festival, either a small wooden gazebo painted in beautiful colors, or a nicely designed medieval tent also in bright beautiful colors. There’s banners, large banners hanging across the booth that say, you know, face and body painting. Of course, I’m standing there full dressed in Renaissance attire, probably also some beautiful colors. Really just all about bright colors at the face painting booth.
Todd: Of course.
Elia: And then, there’s usually a large wooden sign standing near the shop, and that has all of the designs that you can pick from. And so they range in color and design choices, etc. So you’d walk up to the booth and I’d say, how are you today? I probably wouldn’t say it in an old English accent because I’m terrible. This is why I don’t do it anymore. And you know, chat you up a little bit. Are you having a good time, you know, what have you seen today?
Elia: And then I’d, you know—
Todd: So you’re instantly selling.
Elia: Instantly selling. Always be closing, right, Todd? And then, you know, somewhere in there, I just ease into the conversation. I can see what they’re looking at, you know, because I can see where their eyes kind of are on the board. And they’re pointing at different designs, and you know, you just kind of start validating their perspective. Oh, the rainbow, what a beautiful choice. Very popular.
Elia: Or, if they’re looking at a design that you can customize colors, I can paint that in any color that you like. I can paint it to match your outfit.
Todd: Ah, ok. So there is some bespoke quality, too.
Elia: There is.
Elia: You kind of remind them, like, oh, they call come with glitter, you know. Of course, an important thing.
Todd: Of course. So when I’m looking at the board and I see these different designs, are they arranged in any particular kind of way that sort of like, maybe anchors a price point for me or something like that?
Elia: Absolutely. Yeah. Without a proper design board, you would be lost. So, they—
Todd: So this is the ultimate sales tool.
Elia: It’s the ultimate sales tool.
Todd: Is the design board.
Elia: —Is the design board, yeah. Because at that point, if somebody has walked up to the booth, chances are they want a face painting. They want one. And so, you have to just—
Todd: They don’t walk on the lot unless they want to buy a car.
Elia: Is that how it works? Kind of true. And, so at that point, they’re just, they’re trying to decide which one. And they’re trying to see, you know, what’s in my price range that I’ve kind of given myself. And, at the very bottom of the design board, is of course your lowest-cost items, mainly because your smallest customers will be at the bottom.
Elia: And so if they’re going to point at a design you kind of want it to be something less expensive. Because parents are more likely to say, like, yeah, great, go ahead Billy, get the spider, you know. Whereas if you put, like, the huge dragon at the bottom, that might scare people away. Little kids are likely to just point at the one thing that they can reach, so give them something accessible.
Todd: Okay. And how much does the spider cost as opposed to a dragon?
Elia: Umm. I used the spider, that was a bad example, actually. Because the spider’s not—
Elia: —The spider’s not at the bottom. The smallest items start at, I think, $10 now, so you—
Elia: We’ve had some inflation, of course.
Todd: Right. Oh, inflation.
Elia: In 30 years, since I was a kid. But a simple design starts at $10 and they go all the way up to $30, $35 depending on how large and intricate the designs are.
Todd: Mm-hmm. I’m sure you have all kinds of stories about people who wander up to this booth, so let’s take a short break, and when we return we’ll get into some of the stories as well as, um, the other kinds of content you see around a Renaissance festival
Hey, everyone. Todd here. We’ll get back to the episode in just a moment. I wanted to quickly tell you a little bit about Four Kitchens. You probably know that Four Kitchens creates websites, but we do so much more than that. Our team of webchefs can help you make better use of your content, scale your web team, and create world-class digital experiences. Most importantly, we get results. We’ve helped public broadcasters increase donations, we’ve helped media companies streamline their streaming platforms, and we’ve helped universities enroll more students. To find out how Four Kitchens can help, visit us at fourkitchens.com. And now, back to the episode.
Todd: Welcome back to The Future of Content. Our guest today is Elia Albarrán, COO of Four Kitchens and second-generation Renaissance festival face-painter. So when you spend decades at a Renaissance festival and you’re painting faces all day long, you probably run into all kinds of situations. What are some of the like, most common requests or um, interactions that stray away from just the design board, just the menu that they’re given?
Elia: That’s a good question. It kind of depends on what’s going on in popular culture at the moment, like that’s definitely one thing. Like, for example, the Mike Tyson was super popular for a while.
Elia: So, getting your face painted as if you had the Mike Tyson face tattoo. Yep. That had its moments.
Todd: This was probably because of that movie, The Hangover.
Elia: Yeah. Yes, it absolutely coincided with The Hangover.
Elia: When I was a kid, I remember that my mom would paint a lot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle faces, so like, all green and—
Todd: The eyeband.
Elia: —And then the eyeband, yeah. Yeah.
Todd: Wow. The whole face.
Elia: All the way.
Todd: What does a whole face cost you?
Elia: Something simple like that, probably, probably $20.
Todd: Because it’s just a lot of green paint.
Elia: It’s a lot of green paint but it does take time. You have to use kind of a special paint that, yeah, you have to like, dab it on, and you want it to be even, so it takes a little bit of time, but something like that, probably about $20.
Todd: Okay. Okay.
Elia: And then, you know, some evergreen things, um, especially at the most debaucherous festivals near the end of the day when there’s like, gaggles of bachelorette or bachelor parties, you know, wandering around. You know, you get some inappropriate requests that I always politely decline and say, you know, I want to keep my contract, I want to keep my job, you know, I can’t do that for you, thank you. I’d be happy to do this, you know, kind of redirect them to the board.
Todd: A dragon.
Todd: Would you like a Mike Tyson face tattoo?
Elia: Would you, I, exactly, they love the Mike Tyson. That’s a good alternative. So it kind of depends on the time, the decade, you know. Right now, with the little ones, Elsa is very popular, from the movie Frozen, so we’ll do, like, kind of a decorative eye design with some snowflake type of stuff and lots of glitter, so. People, you know, just depends on what movies are popular and things like that.
Elia: Way back in the day, what’s that movie with Kevin Costner?
Elia: That’s the one. Yeah, yeah. So like, the all blue tribal-like, really like Braveheart-y look was very popular.
Todd: And also on brand.
Elia: Super on brand, yeah. That one was actually appropriate. You’re like, oh, I can see it, yeah.
Todd: Oh, man. So, when you sit down and you actually do the face painting, I assume that, that, this is a fairly intricate, detailed thing. You’re working on a living canvas. What, if somebody were to say, alright, I’m going to have to do face painting for six hours a day, eight hours a day, ten hours a day, what would your recommendations be to produce a quality product, to get through it, you know, to not get exhausted?
Elia: Wear comfortable shoes, for sure. You’re going to be on your feet a lot.
Todd: Good life advice.
Elia: Good life advice, true. And, I mean, make sure that you have the right tools. I think that’s always true as well, but for me, that means getting, you know, getting to my booth early, setting up my paint in a very specific order, a very specific rainbow in my palette, because I want to –
Todd: What is that?
Elia: I want to be able to dip from color to color quickly and mix where I want to without having to, like, mix colors inappropriately, so I start my palette with yellow and I move through the warm tones, like light to dark, light, dark, and then I end with green. So that as I’m mixing throughout I can just take, like, little dabs of things, and it’s not going to like, mess up my colors completely.
Todd: Got it.
Elia: Of course, having good brushes, having a clean rinsing cup or mug, like I have a large cup where I rinse my brushes, and of course, creme-de-la-creme, I have a personal glitter blend that I put together.
Todd: Oh. The signature.
Elia: The signature glitter blend, yeah. One glitter is not enough. You have to have like, five different glitters.
Todd: Of course, of course. So when, you mentioned earlier in this conversation, when you hold up the mirror to somebody, you say, is it “do you love it?” Or “how much do you love it?”
Elia: I say, “do you love it?”
Todd: “Do you love it?” Okay. There’s some salesperson-ship in that, too. It’s never, what do you think, an open-ended question.
Elia: No, no, no, no, gosh no.
Todd: It’s, do you love it.
Elia: I think my mom might have taught me that. Everything that I know, I learned from my mom, for sure. She, I think, that’s her move, you know. You show them in the mirror, and maybe even it can change. Do you love it, or, don’t you love it? Like, don’t you love it?
Todd: That’s great. I love it, don’t you love it?
Elia: Yeah, I love it. Exactly. And most of the time, they do anyway, but it’s a nice way to end the moment, you know. They get up on the chair, you ask them what design they picked out, you ask what their favorite color is, you know, you do the design. You always do a little bit extra than, like, what’s on the board. So, you make your board design kind of as simple as you would want to make them if you were slammed. So, if you had a line of fifteen people, you want people to be happy with what they got and not feel like they got less than. But if you’re not as busy, you can give them a little more.
Todd: Under promise, over deliver. Always.
Elia: Classic. Yeah.
Elia: Who knew?
Todd: It’s incredible. Time-tested techniques of client relations. So there are, there are lots of other businesses and vendors and booths and there are lots of opportunities to be separated from your money at a Renaissance festival. You also had a different job, briefly, at a Renaissance festival. What was that?
Elia: I’ve had a lot of jobs at the Renaissance festival, Todd. I’ve been working since I was 10 years old at the Renaissance festival. Um, I think you might be referring to my worst job.
Elia: Yeah. Okay. I’ve been lucky enough in my career overall to have a lot of jobs that I really enjoyed and to work for a lot of people that I really liked working for. But my worst job, the only job that I only left, like, walked out, you know, no two week notice, like that night, I was like, I’m not coming back next weekend, and that was what we call a twirl girl. Um. Yeah. Which is just, everything about that phrase, I hate, like in general. Why not a twirl person?
Elia: But, uh, there’s a clothing shop at the Renaissance festival that sells, that sells, sort of like gypsy costumes, and there’s a job, which is kind of like a hawker, like if you’re familiar with, you know, when you go to the Renaissance festival, there’s all of these hawkers, and they’re saying, like, come get your mead here. I’m going to just [inaudible] myself for that. And, everybody’s trying to get you to buy something.
Elia: And the twirl girl is like a more subdued version of a hawker for this, for this costume shop. And your job is to dance out in front of the booth with like, a scarf, and this costume on that you have from the booth. And like, you don’t have to really talk to anyone except, you know, as people walk up, you know, maybe smiling and greeting them nicely. But basically your job is to just, yeah, twirl around and gather attention to the shop.
Todd: Sure. Movement catches the eye.
Elia: Movement catches the eye. Yeah, oh, what’s going on over here? Yeah, so, I think I did it for maybe one weekend. Definitely, I can’t imagine that I did it more than one weekend. I think that it was like, the first opening weekend, and like Sunday night, I was like, there’s no way I can do this. I hate this job. I wanted to be, yeah, I wanted to be selling. I wanted to be, like, in the shop, talking to people, and like, keeping customers serviced and um, I just, I hated it, and there was like, this hierarchy, you know, in the business of like, the first one in is like, twirl girl, you’ve got to like, work your way up, and I was like, there’s no way that I can stand seven more weekends. I can’t do this.
Todd: So that’s just one example of many, like, little mini narratives that you run into at a Renaissance festival, so there’s, whether it’s somebody you know, whether it’s a hawker or somebody who’s, you know, making and preparing food, or just street performers, there’s all kinds of stuff happening. What are some of the more interesting little interactions or scenes or characters that you really appreciated in that immersive world?
Elia: Well, as a kid, I can tell you that I just had a huge infatuation with the Queen, um, specifically the Queen at the Scarborough Renaissance festival. She was, like, a real-life Queen to me. And I adored her. She was always, she was a great actress, you know, a great, she played it up, of course, and I would often, I would bring her gifts, like, I remember I got her like a bell, with like, it was a glass bell, and the bottom of it was like, a large court dress, like, as if the bell was the queen and the bottom was, like, a large skirt.
Todd: So you’re, okay, let’s back up a moment, because first of all, there is a Queen at the Renaissance festival. So there’s somebody whose job is, you’re the queen at the Renaissance festival, right?
Elia: What a job, right?
Todd: Right. So you wander around and be regal.
Elia: You wander around and be regal. I mean, the court, there is a, yeah, there’s an entire cast which is like, the court. And each festival has, of course, it’s own cast. Most of the street performers end up being local actresses and actors, um, so those aren’t necessarily people who travel around doing many festivals.
Todd: I see.
Elia: They’re usually, yeah, local thespians as we say. Um, we being you and me. And—
Todd: Not you, dear listener. Don’t worry. We’re not lumping you into this mess.
Elia: Don’t worry. And they not only wander around looking regal, but they also have, depending on the festival, a set like, schedule of events. So at one festival, the Queen might hold like, a Queen’s tea, and festival goers can buy a ticket to go to the Queen’s tea. At other festivals, there’s like, a court dance. And so, the whole court, you know, gets together and they do dances that have been around, literally, since the Renaissance festival, which I think is, that’s actually one of my favorite things, is that this content, since we’re talking about content, is something that has been passed down for so long for so many generations and can still be enjoyed. So, old songs, early music, these dances that are you know, they’re not taught anywhere. They’re just passed down through communities, and I think that’s a really special thing.
Todd: And even some instruments that you don’t commonly see as well.
Todd: So there is content that is centuries old that largely exists through, you know, taught or oral tradition that is now found in these, in Renaissance festivals, and maybe some other little corners of medieval culture.
Elia: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
Todd: That’s fascinating. But what was interesting about your story about giving the Queen a gift, is that even within the world of an employee of the Renaissance festival, kind of, you are a business owner within a federation of people who also own businesses at the festival but you’re in a way, like coworkers, right? I mean there’s equal footing in that sense, yet still, the feeling that—oh, the Queen.
Elia: Well, keep in mind, I was like probably 6 years old at the time.
Elia: So to me, I probably understood that she was like, I don’t know. I probably understood that she wasn’t like, really the queen, but I was still so enamored with her. Like, she wore this beautiful dress, and she looked like a queen to me. She looked like the queen and I treated her like one.
Todd: Wow. One of the aspects of the Renaissance festival that I always really enjoyed were some of the street performers, especially the ones that are really part of, like, the deep, deep fabric of like, the immersive experience. So there’s street performers, like, there may be people, I’m making this up but I assume it’s true, like, maybe doing some fire juggling, you know, or something like that, or fire swallowing, you know, something like that. But then there were people like, there were some folks that would play like, I don’t know what the right word is, but like, sort of like a beggar, or, you know, somebody who’s just sort of hanging out in the corner and they sort of, like, surprise you or they have some like, really cutting remark that they throw your way as you walk by. It’s those folks who always really impressed me because, first of all, they’re really good at what they do. And secondly, they exist purely to immerse you in the moment. There isn’t a performative aspect like, look, I can swallow a sword, or like, look at my incredible costume. It’s not that kind of performance. It’s just there to make you feel a certain way in a moment. What is their role in, like, where do they come from?
Elia: That’s a, yeah, I hadn’t thought about it like that. You have to keep in mind that I’ve never been to a Renaissance festival as somebody who’s experiencing it from the outside looking in. Like, I was born into it.
Todd: Ah, okay. You’re always on the inside.
Elia: Yeah, I love that perspective, of how that makes me feel. I have a couple of family friends who are those kinds of street performers that you described. One of them actually played a beggar for close to 30 years and then he changed his character and now he plays like a, an old English poet, and he writes, like, really dirty poetry. You should have him on the podcast. And those characters, I think, you know, thinking about the sort of hierarchy of folks who work at the Renaissance festival whether they are full-time Renies, so to speak, as we call them, or locals, you know, people who are just there on the weekends but have normal jobs. A lot of those performers who get really deep into their characters are actually full-time Rennies—people who make their living doing that. And they really go deep into creating their narrative and their character to the point where it does pull you into that immersive experience, you know, because they are so much that character, you can’t see how they could be anything else, you know?
Todd: Yes, and I can tell you that, as a visitor, you honestly wonder, did somebody wander into the Renaissance festival, like, should this be happening right now? You forget that, like, absolutely everything is intentional.
Elia: There’s also another character at the festival, who, I don’t know if he’s still doing shows, but he was certainly a mainstay when I was growing up, for a long time, whose character was called Seamus the Insulter, and his character was literally, he would wander around, and you could pay him to insult your friends.
Todd: Oh, awesome.
Elia: Anywhere from, like, a dollar, to hundreds of dollars, and the more that you paid him, like, the more in-depth the insult would be.
Elia: Really [inaudible].
Todd: Seamus the Insulter.
Elia: An excellent character. And like you said, a really, I think even for the people who work there, it creates an environment that feels different. Like, even those of us who work there, sometimes you would send somebody an insult, or he would do compliments as well, like on birthdays, you know, things like that, you could, like, send a compliment to your friend across the way and he would go deliver the compliment, you know. There are things like that that create this, it is a different world and economy, like, even for those who know that it’s for play, and that it’s, you know, fun.
Todd: Right. All right. Well, I want to make sure you have an opportunity before we leave here. Is there any particular story or like, moment, or something about the Renaissance festival that you feel captures that experience, that those of us as outsiders maybe haven’t been privy to or wouldn’t notice or haven’t heard?
Elia: Um, I, this isn’t necessarily something that you wouldn’t be privy to as a patron. At the Scarborough Renaissance festival they have an end-of-day pub thing. And it’s open to, you know, it’s when the festival is still open and it sort of is the last thing of the day. It’s probably at 5:30 or something like that, and after the pub thing, there’s like a parade from the pub thing to the front gate. And so it’s sort of a like—
Todd: Get out.
Elia: Now we’re going! But, like, even as somebody who has been to, you know, dozens of Renaissance festivals for thousands of hours of my life, the pub thing still really, like, gets me, because I think that it’s that moment that I was talking about, where it’s like these songs that are old traditional songs and people are singing together, we’re in this experience together, I think, I find it really beautiful. So if you’re ever at the Scarborough Renaissance festival, go see the pub thing at the end of the day. It’s worth it.
Todd: Good advice. Thank you. Thank you for joining us today. This has been fascinating. I love hearing about the content of subcultures and immersive experiences and sometimes, immersive experiences happen in real life, not necessarily things like virtual reality and apps and digital platforms and things like that. So, thank you, Elia.
Elia: Yeah. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Todd: And to everybody listening at home, or wherever you are, I can’t wait to see the content that you create next, so please feel free to send it my way via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to me at @focpodcast on Twitter.
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