You never know what you’ll find out about your colleagues. Take Jack Lepiarz, who gets up at 2 a.m. to write newscasts here at WBUR. For two months each fall, he performs at King Richard’s Faire, New England’s largest Renaissance festival.
The Faire stretches across 80 acres of cranberry country in Carver, Mass., and includes more than 100 performers, all in Renaissance-style garb. There are jugglers, fire-eaters and jousting knights on horseback.
And the performers aren’t the only ones in costume. It’s not uncommon to see patrons, or “playtrons” as they’re called, dressed in full suits of armor. Visitors can watch mud wrestling and belly dancing, play games of skill, eat giant turkey legs, and drink mead.
We asked Jack to take us to the Faire, where he’s known as “Jacques Ze Whippeur,” to give us a sense of what he does and why he does it.
Jack also spoke with Rachel Lee Rubin, professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her new book is, “Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture.”
If you’re in the area of Carver, Mass., you can catch Jack at the Faire’s final weekend, starting Saturday at 10:30 a.m. For more information, visit kingrichardsfaire.net.
Jack Lepiarz On Renaissance Faires
It’s Saturday morning at King Richard’s Faire, and while most of my colleagues at WBUR are sleeping in, I’m warming up a crowd.
It’s one of five shows I’ll do today as my alter ego Jacques Ze Whippeur, a wise-cracking Frenchman with a painted-on mustache and a big whip.
Actually I use a half dozen whips in my show. My father taught me how to crack a whip when I was 7. He was a clown with the Big Apple Circus and did routines with bullwhips and throwing knives.
My father left the circus when I was 6 and started working at King Richard’s Faire — a very different venue from the circus. It’s an open-air show, meaning no center stage to serve as a singular focus. At any given moment, two or three entertainers are competing for the eyes of the roving audience. On one side of me there’s a juggling duo, on the other, a carnival sideshow.
Wanting to learn more about Renaissance faires, I spoke to Rachel Lee Rubin, an American studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
She literally wrote the book on the Renaissance faire. It’s called “Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture,” and it traces the first festival back to Laurel Canyon, Calif., in the early 1960s – a fundraiser for Pacifica Public Radio.
“New vaudeville was the term that [New York Times theater and movie critic] Mel Gussow used because he felt that the kind of acts, the kind of stage skills that had flourished on the vaudeville stage were now being reinvented – with a big difference that the humor of it all was not dependent upon racial stereotypes and ethnic stereotypes,” Rubin said. “And there might be sexy jokes, but they were perhaps less sexist.”
Ruben told me about the first known “Ren faire,” as they came to be known, which a few hundred people attended.
“The person who had the idea was a schoolteacher named Phyllis Paterson who had a sort-of theater class for children in her backyard and then had an idea of, ‘What if we had a whole faire? What if we did this?’ So she was able to work it out with very talented neighbors, some of whom were available because they were blacklisted Hollywood people during the Red Scare,” Rubin said. “They were all very surprised that it lasted, but it did.”
Today, events like King Richard’s Faire – now in its 31st season – draw as many as 12,000 people a day.
Longtime performer Richard Weber has been at King Richard’s Faire since day one.
“It was a bunch of hippies in the woods,” Weber told me.
Weber has made a career out of traveling the Faire circuit, working as a performer, costume designer, even entertainment director for the Florida Renaissance Festival.
“It just took off,” Weber said. “I think right from the beginning we saw that kind of potential.”
Toning It Down
Weber told me that today’s Ren faires are a far cry from the originals. What were once run by artists and performers are now run by lawyers and accountants, more interested in the “business model.” And as a result, he said the content of the faire has been toned down.
“We cannot do the things we used to do. We were much bawdier,” Weber said. “I mean we still do things, like our cleavage contest — it can be filthy. But we have disclaimers. ‘This is for adults only.’ Of course, once they’re in there, all sorts of marvelous things happen.”
Escaping From The Real World
Weber told me Renaissance faires are unique, in the way they let entertainers and audience members mingle.
“The people who come to Renaissance faires really want some kind of immersion. They want to know you. They fall in love with the character that they see on stage, but all of the sudden they can talk to you. You can’t just walk up to Hamlet and say ‘Make up your mind!’ But here they can,” Weber said. “It is a complete escape when you’re doing it right.”
And a lot of people who come to King Richard’s Faire do come to escape. Men who wear suits to the office show up in velvet tights and frilly shirts. Women don elegant bodices, talk in dialect, and try to forget the real world.
“Engaging the audience in that manner is so rewarding and so magical,” Weber told me. “I really think that what we do is of such great benefit to the audience members who do want to engage with you that way, because they are connecting with another human being with a depth that they can’t in their normal life.”
That’s a sentiment a lot of my coworkers share. Etienne McGinley is a juggler. He’s worked for Ringling, on cruise ships, done street shows, and now, he does Renaissance faires.
“We perform because we deeply love it. That’s a fact,” McGinley told me. “There’s a euphoria of that kind of getting up in front of an audience, and you just make everyone there laugh, cheer and get excited over cracking a whip!”
Validation From A Hurricane Victim
I remember talking with a musician who had worked the Louisiana Renaissance Festival just after Hurricane Katrina. He talked about the record attendance that year, people desperate for some escape.
And he told me about a patron who gave him a $1 bill covered in black mold from the storm. The musician had it laminated and carries it to every show. He told me it was validation for what we do.
Like my father said when he gave me my first bullwhip, on my 18th birthday: I give you this whip not to bring fame and glory upon yourself, but so that you might bring joy and happiness to others. And when it comes down to it, there’s not much more satisfying than getting paid to make someone laugh.