I'm squashed into half of a two-person seat on a bright yellow
- EARL IN THE HEAT : Rydell Downward portrays the Earl of Leicester at the Central Coast Renaissance Festival. Many of the event's organizers say they used to play nobles, but turned to peasant costumes because they're more comfortable in the heat.
I'm dressed like a pirate. And I'm not the only passenger struggling with a 16th-century wardrobe malfunction. Most of the crowd is wearing shorts, T-shirts, and sunglasses, but a goodly few are decked out in period garb. There are tall boots and floppy hats and a woman or two busting out of a tightly laced bodice.
I'm on my way to the Central Coast Renaissance Festival. We all are. My car is behind me, parked in a lot at Cuesta College my wife is next to me, dressed like a peasant of some sort and the fictional Elizabethan market village of Donnybrook is ahead of me, temporarily rising out of nothing to fill El Chorro Regional Park like San Luis Obispo's own Brigadoon.
My wife and I have visited several times before, almost always in costume, so we're no strangers to the scene. In fact, once we get there, I almost immediately recognize a bare-chested guy though I think he had fangs last year.
The path we follow meanders purposefully between alehouses and vendor booths, gaudy stages and small petting zoos, food stalls and guild encampments. A few days earlier, this was a large, bare swath of browning grass punctuated by playground equipment and a couple of large climbing rocks that look like a rudimentary attempt at a mini Stonehenge. A few days from now, the park will return to its original state a mite trampled, but free of tents and structures.
But for now, the air is charged with music and voices. The scent of sizzling meat mixes with the pungent aroma of live goats and from a distance horses. Passersby nod at each other. Gangly pre-teens gawk at glittering daggers. A man shackled to a tree growls and lunges at people as they walk past. I remember him, too I think his chains are a gimmick to get him free beer. Then two women strolling arm-in-arm catch my eye. They were here before, but maybe in different costumes?
The familiar faces get me thinking: What drives people to come in character to the faire year after year, braving the late-July heat and sometimes puzzled stares of khaki-shorts-wearing visitors? I know why I come, or at least I have some idea. It's fun to every once in a while throw off my everyday work clothes and slide on a puffy shirt and rough leather vest, and thereby slide into an alternate reality. I've been known to dress up to see the occasional movie (including life jackets for Titanic), but some of these people have been drinking out of pewter tankards and adding letters to words like "goode" and "olde" for two decades or more. I wear a costume and all, but many of the regulars have full-on alternate personas with richly developed histories, elaborate outfits, and scores of friends who meet regularly to develop new characters or further embroider old ones.
A seed of an idea is planted in my head, and it germinates until now, July of 2007. Who makes this all happen? What brings these hardest of the die-hard re-creationists back year after year? What drives them to not just dress up, but literally live for a couple of days as earls and fishmongers? And what's the deal with that guy's fangs?
Rick Smith is one of the faire's original founders. His volunteer organization ran the annual event for eight or nine years, until "the wheels started coming off," he says. "We didn't want to do it anymore, but we didn't want to see it die."
- CHEERS : Michael Teubner plays the character of Winston Waters, a former sailor who sings and interacts with visitors to the Central Coast Renaissance Festival.
# Enter Larry Gunn and Mickie Perez. As the local faire producers were running out of steam, Gunn and Perez were incorporating History Revisited, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching history in a way no classroom ever could. They bought the faire and have been running it with lots of help ever since. Gunn produces the faire and is president of History Revisited. Perez is chair of the History Revisited board and the faire's entertainment coordinator. Most of the rest of the board, the coordinators, and the officers live in SLO County. Smith agreed to handle the faire's publicity for a year, and is still doing it 15 years later.
"It's like my baby," he says in a phone interview. "I have a hard time letting go."
Each year, Gunn and Perez both retired from the building inspection department in Contra Costa County show up a week or so early to start the construction and be sure the faire is up and running by the third full weekend in July.
This year, I drive out to their campsite in El Chorro Regional Park to catch them before the hammers start pounding. Their home away from home is a Dodge Pleasure-Way van and a blue E-Z Up awning a far cry from the canvas walls and fluttering pennants of the faire itself.
Gunn meets me and soon has a beer in hand. He's a large man with a mustache, a jovial personality, and a lot of hats literally. Throughout his time-traveling life, he and Perez have visited, participated in, and/or dressed up for Dickens fairs, Old California events, Civil War re-creations, and of course Renaissance festivals.
"Any of these period events, it gives us a chance to escape reality and go into another world, how people used to live," Perez says.
Their main event, though, is the Central Coast faire. They also put together workshops so kids can learn about Renaissance life.
Now, Gunn is sporting sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and a Hawaiian-type print shirt with wine bottles instead of flowers or hula dancers. He looks relaxed, but keeps jumping up to answer his cell phone or tweak the campsite to make it more comfortable. The first of the volunteers are rolling in, too.
"We have 800 participants," Perez says. Gunn explains that volunteers get into the faire for free, though many of the helpers who create the temporary market village are members of guilds formal knots of people who cooperatively pretend to be members of a particular social group or culture. There are peasants. Nobles. Scots. Gypsies. Merchants. Militarists. Italians. Take your pick.
Perez, in a vivid blue shirt and hoop earrings, explains that they try to keep the history depicted at the faire as authentic as possible though the edges of reality sometimes get fudged for fun.
Take the Scots. They weren't even around at the time this festival is set, Perez points out, but still, "everybody wants to be a Scot."
"We have to limit them here," she says, noting that History Revisited allows two Scots groups to participate, but there are more than a dozen waiting to get in.
Gunn says that administrators, doctors, lawyers, and the like tend to gravitate toward acting in the lower classes. Burger flippers, garbage collectors, and members of similar professions don outfits that inspire groveling. As for themselves, Gunn and Perez play a variety of characters that span the socio-economic spectrum. They used to regularly dress up as full nobles.
"But you know, you don't want to be a noble in San Luis Obispo in July," Gunn says.
He's been the mayor a couple of times, but he and Perez often choose peasant personas now. The limiting factor is the heat, which is a bit of an anachronism itself one that mercilessly beats down on the velvet-draped, multiple-layer-wearing upper class. Renaissance England didn't see Mediterranean summers, but the faire is when and where the faire is, and History Revisited can't control the sun. Thus, you'll find monstrous sno-cone-style ice-slush creations for cooling off at the festival another out-of-period allowance, but one that not many people argue against. Huge turkey legs don't raise much of a fuss either, despite the fact that mutton is a more appropriate choice for the era.
While we're on the subject of wrinkles in time, I ask about the fangs. Perez nods with sympathy. Pointy teeth were a fad at the faire one year, she explains. It was horns another year. And wings sometimes make the rounds. Fantasy fans who quote Tolkien while playing Dungeons and Dragons are an obvious presence. It's unavoidable, but there's no harm, no foul. There are still plenty of authentic blacksmiths and weavers and unchoreographed full-contact jousts this year from the Knights of the Crimson Rose, Perez says. There are also historical standards with which guilds must comply, but the board is less concerned with becoming a sort of timeline Gestapo and more concerned with keeping the event out of the commercial realm, which has taken over some other faires we won't mention. In other words, History Revisited isn't into selling T-shirts or hats or little plastic knight figurines.
I have more questions, but to learn more about the guilds themselves the dramatic DNA of the faire Gunn suggests that I visit Thursday night Farmers' Market in San Luis Obispo.
I'm looking for the Liar of the Shire.
- A KNIGHT OUT : The Knights of the Crimson Rose that's Sir Tyler on the horse will bring full-contact jousting to the faire this year.
# Gunn told me that I would find the leader of the local Peasant Guild at the market. So I stalk up and down Higuera, brightening when I glimpse some out-of-place costumes only to resume my search when the group bursts into a rousing rendition of "I Won't Grow Up" to advertise Kelrik Productions' staging of Peter Pan.
Eventually I find the people I'm looking for, tucked between Democrats seeking new voters and a bright booth advertising some feature of EOC Health Services.
There's a man leaning on a walking stick, politely nodding to passersby. There's a woman sitting to one side munching on clam chowder in a bread bowl. Capped heads are bobbing to music from the nearby Soulamente, which is belting out a particularly rousing "Lady Marmalade."
I pick out a man I recognize from visits to faires past. He's got long hair, a full beard, and a wooden sign around his neck that reads "Lord Mayor."
I clear my throat and deliver what feels like a secret password, one that will open doors to me, doors that lead into other eras, other timelines, other worlds: "I'm looking for the Liar of the Shire."
The man fixes me with an intent gaze and flips his sign around to reveal the title I'm seeking. He's busy drumming up support for the faire and his guild, so I take a business card from him ("Do you know somebody that is just aching to dress up in funny looking clothes in front of faire customers and hang out with the coolest group of people?" it says) and make plans to meet him at the faire site on Saturday, a week before the gates open.
The weekend rolls around, and I return to El Chorro park. I see a car with a "Pirate Girl" sticker. I notice a higher percentage of men with ponytails and bristly facial hair than I might on an average city block. Volunteers have stretched hundreds and hundreds of feet of burlap around the park, creating tan walls that enclose the faire and keep out the modern world.
Gunn is there, raising poles to create the mayor's tent with a couple of other men. One of them is Michael Teubner, his long hair tucked into a gray Nissan Altima baseball cap.
Teubner sometimes goes by the name of Winston Waters. He's the peasant I found at Farmers' Market. Winston, Teubner explains on a break, used to be a sailor. Now the English peasant sings and drinks and entertains the crowds at the market faire. His fellow guild members are all English peasants. They sing, stagger though the streets, play games, hold parades, and make rude sheep sounds at the Scots. Teubner explains the peasants as the "real people" who live in the fictional village where the market is set up.
"Everything we do is part of the act," he says. "It's a lot of fun, especially if you are really into history."
Teubner speaks from experience. He's been attending faires since 1981, and came into the local peasant guild through his daughter, who, as a minor, needed to be accompanied by an adult. She's no longer in the guild, but he's still around, plus he's on the History Revisited board. And he's the Peasant Guild's guildmaster.
"I've been doing this faire as an actor, a participant, for 12 years," he says.
Amy Underwood, another peasant helping to set up the faire, explains that years of guild activities require ingenuity.
"You come up with new ideas, new things to do," she says.
At one time, the Peasant Guild would attend 10 faires a year. Now they're down to two or three, including an Ojai pirate faire some of the peasants do double duty as seafaring plunderers.
The Peasant Guild averages between 35 and 50 members, with a core group of about 15 or 20 that's practically a family. They lose a couple of people each year, but they tend to gain a few, too. Teubner says that guilds are a good fit for historical enthusiasts, budding actors and performers, and introverts who want to be extroverts.
There are a lot of computer geeks, too, he says.
No matter the reason, the whole experience, Teubner says, is to get away from everyday life. In fact, guild members have a term for un-costumed customers who visit the faire: Mundanes. Then there are the people who wander the stalls dressed as Klingons.
"And they thought were weird," Teubner says.
Bottom of the class
Like most of the faire folks interviewed for this article, publicist Smith mostly plays a peasant.
"I used to be the queen's master of revels," he says. "That's a higher-class costume, and it's not as comfortable When we started this faire, I was the Earl of Leicester, the queen's right-hand man."
The bottom rung of the social ladder seems to be where the comfort-seekers settle. Maybe it is the heat. Or maybe it's the fact that you can get away with more if you're not royalty. One year, Smith walked around trying to sell rotten rutabagas and cabbages. Other years, people would offer fish or sheep's heads.
"It adds authenticity," Smith says. "Where else in your life could you walk around with a plate full of entrails and try to sell them to people?"
The answer is obvious: Nowhere.
"Most of us have pretty normal lives, but for one weekend, you can go out there and put on a costume and be someone else," Smith says. "I think it's kind of healthy for most people.
"The more we can make it real the more fun it is for the participants, too," he continues. "You can feel it when you've got somebody caught up in the fantasy."
And that fantasy extends beyond what the public can see. When the gates close and the last bus takes the last of the Mundanes back to their cars, the illusion of a 16th-century market village fills the growing dark.
"A lot of them don't take their costumes off on Saturday night," Smith says of the guild members and other participants. "Once the public's gone, it's like their village. People just wander around in their cloaks and night clothes and pretend it's all real. It's magical."
Even as a casual visitor to the faire each year, I can sense that slightly
supernatural element. It's a little intoxicating, a little tempting. Sure, I pull on boots and wrangle a wayward sword at my hip each year, but I certainly don't have an alternate persona. I can put on whatever costume I want, but I'm still technically an outsider. A visitor. A Mundane in pirate's clothing.
Do I have what it takes to make that extra step, that move from observer to participant? A few of the peasants I talked to for this story think so. They can see me teetering on the edge, they say. Just a little push, and I'll land with both feet firmly in the 16th century.
We'll see what ultimately happens, but it sounds like a goode idea to me.
Get dressed: The Peasant Guild of San Luis Obispo is looking for actors, singers, and all-around fun people to participate. For more information, call 466-9436 or e-mail email@example.com.
Hear ye, hear ye: This year's Central Coast Renaissance Festival is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on July 21 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on July 22 at El Chorro Park on Highway 1, across from Cuesta College. Tickets cost $14 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $8 for kids, ages 6 to 12. A two-day adult pass is $22. Parking is $1 per vehicle, and guests get a free bus ride from the parking lot to the entrance gate.
Editor Ryan Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.