Every spring I trade my work attire for corsets and billowing skirts and spend my weekends working with birds of prey as an assistant to the Royal Falconer at the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire for two months.
During faire season I eschew weekend cocktails with friends and lazy beach trips in favor of hard labor and 12 hour days in the sun. By the end of the weekend my feet are aching, I’m covered in a layer of Faire dust so thick that I look like I’ve gone in for a spray tan, and I’ve inevitably been bitten or scratched and pooped on by at least one of the birds I’m working with.
Rain or shine, no matter how busy and stressful the work week was, I get up, lace up my boots and corset, strap my hawking bag over my shoulder, and head off to the Faire with a smile on my face. It’s the highlight of my whole year.
If you’ve never been to a Renaissance Faire (also known as a Renfaire), this probably sounds completely insane, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything, because Renfaires are special.
Anyone who loves historical romance can understand the appeal of jumping into the pages of their favorite adventures and becoming the protagonist of their own lavishly costumed tale for a day.
But more importantly, in a time when many fans are finding their love of stories co-opted for profit and cosplayers are realizing that their hobby has been soured by the constant pressure to “win” at the social media game, Faires offer a more authentic place for people to get together to express their love of escapist fantasy.
At heart, Renfaires are a celebration of play. Adults (and teens and kids – because while there is racy humor aplenty at the Faire, employees are extremely conscious of shielding children from things they should not be exposed to and as such, Faires are actually quite family friendly) put on costumes, occasionally adopt a character, and spend a day eating, drinking, shopping for handmade goods, while experiencing the arts and crafts that have been entertaining humans since the dawn of time.
There’s an implicit permission to be your most authentic self at a Faire. People wear whatever they like, with patrons indulging in both anachronism and perfect historical accuracy with equal dedication and glee. People from all different walks of life and in all different romantic situations mix and mingle without a worry that someone is going to make them feel like they do not belong. The only people not welcome at Faire are those who ruin the fun for others.
When you step inside the gates of a Faire, you leave your real life worries and problems outside and find yourself in the embrace of a world that is 100% serious about being 100% ridiculous fun. The Faire employees – called “Rennies”, a play on the word “Carnie” for someone who works at a carnival – work hard to create a space that makes every single attendee feel special.
Regardless of gender, race, or physical appearance, members of the cast will flirt with you, flatter you, try to entice you into playing their games, watching their show, or engaging in witty banter. If you wear a costume, the fun will only increase, as the cast members will treat you as though you are one of their own.
You may find yourself being swept away on the arm of a lord to have your tankard filled with mead by a pretty ale wench. A whole troupe of musicians might suddenly appear to serenade you with a song, staring an impromptu dance party inn the middle of the street. (Both of these things have happened to me at least once.)
The Faire also offers countless opportunities to make the sort of special memories that become your favorite party stories for years to come. The falconry show that I work for is especially rich with those moments.
The look of joy on the face of an audience member when one of our Harris’s Hawks flies low enough that their wing feathers brush the top of their flower crown or the collective gasp of awe when our massive Eurasian Eagle Owl, Cleo, first launches herself into the air as she wings her way to the stage is the sort of thing that I hold tight in my heart when my day job is grinding me down.
After all that’s the point of Faires; they are escapism at its finest. And even though I’m there to work, I’ve found that the magic still extends to me as well.
This year I found myself being courted by the Faire Constable. He wooed me with flowers and ye olde clever pickup lines. He strolled with me as I wandered the Faire with one of our falcons perched on my glove and kissed my hand when we had to part ways. As a jaded millennial, exhausted by the drudgery of online dating, I was definitely charmed!
While I spend a relatively small part of my year at Faire, my work there is a very important part of my identity. So I was suitably excited as both a Rennie and a romance fan to learn that there was a new show coming out made in part by someone who once lived the Rennie life herself; Jamie Denbo of GLOW and Orange Is the New Black fame.
American Princess, the new scripted rom-com drama series from Denbo and Jenji Kohn, debuted its first two episodes on June 2nd and I devoured them in a single sitting, giggling and clasping my hands to my cheeks in delight as the mere sight of the perfect costuming and spot-on set dressing took me instantly back to my favorite place on earth.
The show follows the chaotic and troubled Amanda (played by Georgia Flood) as the picture perfect wedding she’s been planning and preparing for for her entire life falls apart around her ears. Amanda catches her fiancé in flagrante delicto with a sex worker and in a drunken panic she stumbles into a Renaissance Faire. After some soul searching, a fight with her family, and more alcohol, she decides that instead of returning to her Upper East Side life, she’s going to stay at the Faire, with the quirky cast of characters who had looked after her in her time of need far better than any of her supposed “real life” friends.
American Princess is an offbeat, awkwardly hilarious, occasionally painful examination of the realization that happiness and belonging don’t always look the way you think they should.
Though I’ve never been a jilted bride, I am the daughter of an upper-crusty, traditional family. I too have always struggled to justify my life and choices to my relatives and to live up to the expectations they set for me. I could empathize with Amanda’s pain and her feeling of directionlessness after the thing she was supposed to want turns out to have been built on a lie.
Watching Amanda hit rock bottom and subsequently decide to make a much-needed change in her life was cathartic in a way I hadn’t realized I was craving until I saw it.
The show is not perfect – there are places where the humor falls flat or the pacing feels strange, but these flaws read more as the growing pains of a fledgling show than the markers of poor writing. And while aspects of Faire culture have obviously been exaggerated for TV, the show never strays so far from reality that it totally enters the world of fantasy.
The heart and the dedication to authenticity – I could easily pick out the real life counterparts for many of the acts depicted on the show, and each ah-ha! moment made me grin from ear to ear – make this show something special. It’s a loving depiction of a frequently misunderstood subculture that celebrates it, instead of looking down on it.
For me, the Renaissance Faire has become a place of pure happiness. An event that I look forwards to all year round and it’s my hope that American Princess may encourage people who otherwise might have turned up their noses at the concept of attending a Faire to give it a chance.
There are Faires all around the world and each one has it’s own unique flavor and feeling. The website The Renlist has a comprehensive list of US Renfaires and I would highly encourage anyone who is curious to look up their local Faire and make a day of it. Put on a costume, tuck into a turkey leg, grab a tankard of mead, and step into another world for a while.
Who knows; maybe you too will discover that the thing you’ve been looking for all along is only a few miles away and several hundred years in the past.
American Princess is currently airing on Lifetime on Sundays at 10/9 Central and episodes are available on demand on the network’s website.