Thursday, May 31, 2012


First impressions count, and the entrance to the Faire is where you get to set the stage for anything and everything that comes once you’ve passed through it. More importantly, the entrance is the departure point, where guests leave their 21st century lives, and their cars, behind and travel back in time. The entry gate is a time machine, and it is the very first moment you get to confirm to your audience that they aren’t in Kansas anymore*. There are lots of ways to construct this entryway, but my personal favorite is those gates that allow costumed actors to greet approaching guests from above. Although this may be impractical all day long, it is the perfect location to create an elaborate opening ceremony to mark the beginning of the day. Building anticipation, pointing out people in the crowd, and suggesting the wonders just beyond the gate is the perfect way to begin any Faire day. Since the Faire is all about arriving “just in time” for a celebration, this is the point where the celebration begins. Walking under that gate changes your audience and suggests that once through this threshold, it is time to get down to some serious Play!

When you are making your initial investment in a new Faire I always recommend that a large amount of your budget be spent on making the entrance look its best! Even though your guests will only experience it fleetingly, the quality of your entrance is what will set the tone for the experience within. A poor first impression is very hard to scrub away, but a good one will bolster up expectations and create a lasting impression as your audience exits again at the end of the day.

*Alright, unless you are at the Kansas Renaissance Festival

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


As the owner, creator, and promoter of your Faire, you are also responsible for creating the framework that you will be populating with the booths of those participants that will constitute the bulk of your event. The success or failure of your Faire will rest on your ability to create the thematic structures that will set the tone, and inspire the quality of the structures and graphics that will make up the rest of your Faire. At a minimum you will be building a front entrance, ticket booths, stages, information booths, and ale stands (if you choose). Every one of these structures will be looked at as examples of the quality you expect from your participants. If you scrimp on the appearance of these buildings then you only have yourself to blame if the rest of your event is shabby or half-heartedly constructed. This means that your structures will need to be ‘period’, well constructed, and display the very best graphics you can afford. Inspiring by example is the rule for all great Faires, and this should be foremost in your thinking as you build your event. The good news is that all other themed structures can come later, with each year adding to your growing store of buildings, graphics, and booths.

In the following pages you will find descriptions of the structures you will be designing and building, and their importance to the overall success of your Faire. Many of these buildings can come over time, but their role and influence are describe in detail.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Time was that a photo taken while on vacation ended up in a drawer, but today we live in the world of Facebook and Flickr, and more often then not images taken in the morning are posted all over the internet by that evening. The ability for people to find, share, comment on, and repurpose images taken inside your event has never been better, and let’s face it, people love getting their pictures taking in front of stuff! This means free advertising for you, and if the stuff they are taking pictures of themselves in front of has your event’s logo on it, all the better. Whenever you build any large prop or structure for your Faire, think about how your guests might interact with it. Better yet, think of how they might take a picture of themselves next to, on top of, or inside of it. This is free advertising for you, and added experience for your guests. It doesn’t get better that. So if photos of people sitting in the Queen’s sedan chair (when she is not using it), or single handed killing George’s Dragon show up on the Internet or YouTube, this is great for you and your event.

Monday, May 28, 2012

If Your Design Depends on Someone Else Doing Something to Make it Work, You Have Already Failed

This is a design principle that I have found to be universal, no matter the size of the project. If you design something that will not work without the efforts of another, then you can guarantee that it will never work. My experience with this design principle occurred as part of a request to solve a design problem inadvertently built into the Northern Renaissance Faire site.

The Main Stage for the Faire site was located in a perfect natural earthen bowl, which made for a wonderful theatrical experience, but the entrance to the area was easy to miss as you walked by. We would periodically hear complaints that guests could not find the stage to see the main Queen’s show, so we knew we needed to build something that would draw attention to the entrance. While at Disney a budget for a project might be 100 million dollars, at the Faire my per-Faire expense account was usually closer to $3000. I was asked to build a barker’s platform, or a small tower that I was promised a paid actor would stand upon all day and call passersby to the stage. This project ate nearly my entire budget and it generated a huge, heavy, but OSA safe platform for an actor to climb and stand upon. The morning of the first day of Faire I wandered past the stage and saw that the tower was completely missing! After hunting around I discovered that the ice delivery truck crew had dragged the tower (no small feat) and tossed it back stage. The tower was in their way, so, they moved it. After much scolding the tower was replaced, and as far as I can remember I never once saw an actor stand upon it and do anything. I did however see that a participant was stationed at the base of it all day to keep drunken guests from climbing it and falling off on their heads. Although built with all the best intentions, the design and purpose failed due to that lack of the actor to make it work as designed.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Assuming you can tie things to or suspend thing from a nearby tree (not all sites will allow this), think of ways to festoon this natural element, like a Christmas tree, with your products, décor, or just fanciful baubles. One very effective decoration is the use of “Rag Rope”. This consists of a natural looking hemp rope with brightly colored torn rags tided and hanging from it in intervals of 1 foot or so. Alternating the colors creates a festive effect that can be draped in and among the branches or be suspended between your booth a the tree. Similarly, multi-colored pennants work well, although they can look a little like a modern day used car lot if they look too new, so use with caution. Also prayer flats are very nice, but only use if there is some reason your wares have some close connection to Tibet, otherwise avoid using them. An international district or world marketplace area of the Faire could be enhanced by the use of prayer flags, as would many eastern mystics booths, but few other places are appropriate. Another variation of the Rag Rope are Rag Hoops… like the rope, “Rag Hoops” are just like they sound, a round wooden hoop, roughly the size of a Hoola-Hoop, with colorful rags tied at intervals, also suspended from tree branches look fantastic and greatly enhance the overall look of a Faire.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


These are fancy ways of saying, “Clever ways to keep people from getting lost”. Signage that informs your audience where they are, and how they can relate to an area, is vital to the success of your Faire. Signs are your way of tell people where they can go to find what, but it is also a way to tell them how they can “play” in each area.  A sign that points to Gypsy Camp is one way, but if the sign looks like gypsies actually made it, then this does even more to communicating what might be experienced once you arrive there. It is also all too easy to get too “cute” with the names of places, or mislead your audience’s expectations. Calling a place “Faerie Princess Wood” is fine, but there bloody well better be Faeries and a Princess when you arrive. The language of the Renaissance is probably the richest in history, so take the opportunity to find clever ways to name things, but be careful, calling something “Potter’s Way” might suggest ceramic artists reside there, but calling it “Potter’s Field” could mean something else entirely.

Friday, May 25, 2012


 If you think of your Faire layout as a Christmas Tree, your graphic and signage are the ornaments you hang around it each year. While craft booths and stages will fill out the body of your event, the hanging signs and graphics will set the mood and help your guests navigate through your event. Signs, whether painted on canvas or plywood, are a growing investment in the look and feel of your Faire as it grows bigger each year. Signs are easy enough to store during the off-season, and easy to hang and remove before and after the event. The more rustic your signs the better, and the hand painted variety will do much more to transport your guests then anything printed at Kinkos. The 21st century offers us the tempting possibility that we could design our signage in the computer and just blow it up, the drawback is that this frequently is exactly what it will look like. Giant glossy banner do little to transport guests into the 16th century and will ultimately erode the illusion you are trying to achieve with all of your other efforts. It is much better to invest in a few hand-painted, beautiful signs each year and slowly add to your collection, then to cover your event with the equivalent of Budweiser banners.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Whether building a booth or an entire Faire you will be a wash in props to help fill out your themed environments. As you go through the expense of creating signs, objects, carts, and furniture for various areas of the event, it helps to apply a Story to it. This can be as simple as who owned it, what it was used (is being used for), and how it relates to other people and objects. This may seem alike a trifle and little worthy of the effort, but objects can have a life of their own and giving them a past helps you better judge where they will go in years to come. Just a bench doesn’t have the same weight as it being Fallstaff’s bench. Having just a cart is not as interesting as it being the “slave cart”, “wench cart” or “dung cart”. Names suggest purpose and in the larger improv environment of a large theatrical event like a Faire, being asked to pick up your mother in-law in the “dung cart” has much more potential then just a regular old cart.


This is a phrase stolen from Walt Disney himself. The “wienie” refers to any theme park architecture or element that helps draw the attention or interest of the visiting guests to move from one area to another. Like a carrot on a stick to encourage a horse to move forward, the wienie is a way to entice your audience to continue moving through a space. The Disneyland castle is the perfect example of a “wienie”. Guests visiting Main Street USA are compelled to move down the street by the promise of the castle that lays at the end of it. This technique works equally well within the layout of a Renaissance Faire.

A quick example… while working on the Northern California Renaissance Faire site I noticed a large Greenman figure tucked in among the trees near the front of the Faire. The figure stood over 16 feet tall and was all but invisible surrounded by the dense forest. I requested that the Greenman be moved from this location to a more prominent area under a huge oak tree at the end of a main walkway. I was cautioned that the Greenman and his location were sacred and that much ruin would fall upon me if it were to be found moved. I decided he was majestic enough to warrant relocation and promised to take the full brunt of the ill will, if there was to be any. As the Fair opened the Greenman began to evolve as little ribbons and offerings began to appear at his feet, up his arms, and inside his wooden ribcage. Rather then criticism I received countless message of praise for having finally given the Greenman a location worthy of his stature in both the Faire and hearts of it participants. What I had really done was moved a Story rich monument to a place where others could layer their Story upon him. There is nothing I could have done that would have brought more value to have much loved figure, and I created a powerful centerpiece or “wienie” to boot.

Friday, May 18, 2012


Avoid using modern material, or if you must, hide the
obvious signs of the 21st century
Another delicate balance when creating a Faire is how to include modern conveniences in an environment that promises to transport you to a time before these even existed. Blacktop parking lots are fine but once you pass through the entry gates of the Faire you don’t necessarily want to see asphalt or concrete again until you exit. This can be hard if you need to include wheelchair ramps, or foundations for your permanent structures, so it rests upon you to hide as best you can these little modern anachronisms. The same is true of lighting fixtures. As a modern audience we are willing to forgive recessed lighting if the tradeoff is that we can actually see the wares for sale in an otherwise dark space. Still, it is important to hide electrical conduit, and avoid modern light fixtures anywhere the public can see. Goose neck lamps light jewelry nicely, but they also yank your audience to a post-Edison era, which is opposed to the reason they came here in the first place. More subtle but just as off putting is the visible use of modern construction materials, like metal joist brackets and the tell-tale punctured appearance of pressure treated lumber. These may just be too convenient to not use, but it rests on your shoulders to hide these modern artifacts from your audience as best as possible. Concrete floors are the way to go for permanent structures, but covering them with wood or stamping them with faux stonework will do a better job of obscuring the fact that Home Depot had anything to do with your Tudor half timbered building.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

BLOCKING the VIEW of the 21st Century

Probably the biggest creative challenge for any Faire is successfully hiding your guests’ view of the outside world. It is no mistake that Walt Disney built a visual berm around Disneyland to keep his visitors from seeing the urban sprawl that is Anaheim California laying just beyond the steam trains and jungle elephants. Finding a Faire site that does not look out on suburban neighborhoods, Fairground buildings, or a sea of parked cars is tough, but high on your to-do list if your period illusion is to be successful. Walls of burlap fence can help, as do booths as a visual block, but great care needs to be taken to make sure that no glimpse of chrome or billboards are visible while you watch a joust, eat a turkey leg, or enjoy a comic re-interpretation of Hamlet. In the end your biggest expense, especially for those first Faires, will be spent on hiding the inevitable view of the “real world”.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Only a slight anachronism can completely throw off the illusion you are trying to create. In the 21st century it is getting harder and harder to remove our various gadgets from our hands and faces, and unfortunately Elizabethan England did not have such sophisticated devices for connecting to their social networks. More then ever before it is going to be especially hard to keep yourself in the 16th century while you work. This holds true for plastic coolers, bins, and other containers. Burlap might hide a laptop but it can’t conceal that blank stare that comes along with surfing the web or playing games, so better to just leave them all in the car. Faire really is a time to enjoy life without these distractions and nothing pops the illusion bubble like have a glimpse of a blue plastic drink cooler or a Big Gulp cup, so take care and keep these items well hidden. In the case of dimly lighted places or night time events, “that little glow” of a cel phone being checked, or used to Tweet what we just had for dinner, is a anachronistic history bubble popper, so I recommend you leave such devices off and away from your person during Faire operating hours.


One opportunity that can be missed by those concessionaires that need to make a profit at the Faire, is that they are just as much an entertainer as the actors that populate the stages and streets. This does not mean you have to establish a full-fledged character, just a willingness to play with your customers a little. Patrons are often shy and don’t necessarily all want to be drug into a public drama, but a little old English flattery, a few “milady’s” and “good sir’s” go a long way. Playing with your customers does not have to be full contact, but you do have an opportunity to add to the collective atmosphere by helping surround them with “the show”. This is especially true when a known hero or villain, pageant or parade goes by, to cheer, jeer, or basically add to the period noise that is enveloping your guests. Playing along will only add to the illusion, and helps draw you into the daily pulse of the ongoing Faire.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


It is also tempting to spread your themeing out over as much of your Faire as possible. It is a basic design rule that smaller clusters of odd numbered items have more appeal then individual objects evenly distributed over a large area. If you are building a stage, booth, or ale stand, cluster your objects in and around it, rather then sprinkling them as solitary props all over the Faire. This will create focal points for your theme, and is less apt to have your Faire items appear lonely and unrelated to their environments.


Whether your audience plans to drink beer and eat a turkey leg, or come completely dressed in period clothing, all of your guests have come here to PLAY. Your job as the promoter or a participant is to bring the event up to the level of the expectations of that audience. Now, there is every possibility that your customers wouldn’t know a Celt from a Roman, or believe that King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth were contemporaries, and that shouldn’t matter. Your job is to know these things and bring that knowledge to them, though the way you dress, speak, behave, and build your booth. Your guests may have never heard of the Spanish Armada, but having it talked about among participants like it was local news will put your audience right in the middle of history. We aren’t forcing history on our audience; we are subtly bathing them in it. Where we fail is when we go to all the trouble to wear the correct clothing, speak the correct dialect, and do it in sight of the guest’s parked cars.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Pieter Breugel the Elder  1525-1569
Dutch Renaissance Painter

When in doubt of what are appropriate colors to wear, or environments to reproduce, it is always helpful to reference the artwork of the times. Remember that apart from chronicling the times they lived in, artists like Bruegel were also painting in the colors that were available to his contemporaries. There were no vinyl signs in the 1600’s, Helvetica has a typeface wouldn’t arrive for 400 years, and neon colors were non-existent. Earth tones were the Technicolor of their day, and no matter how much you like purple, only royalty could afford to wear it.


When you have an entire Faire site to theme it is tempting to try and spread your budget thinly over the entire event. Although that is one approach, another way to think of your Faire is like a Christmas tree. Each year we bring out that box of old ornaments and decorate our tree, and each year we add one or two more ornaments to the collection. Over the years your box of ornaments has grown, and with it the memories as each piece is re-hung.  Your Faire is no different, if you invest in just a few well designed, thoughtful pieces of décor, graphics, or one new environment, your event will grow is size, complexity, and depth over the years. The secret is to make each year’s addition count. Use materials that will last, are easy to store between Faires, and have the most potential of being reused, and not always in the same place. Also instill some kind of Story into each piece. The more depth and history the item, environment, banner, or graphic contains, the deeper the experience of seeing it has for both you and your returning guests.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


When we go to see a theater performance, we quietly agree to leave our daily lives behind and “believe” that what we are seeing on stage is real. The curtain opens, it is day, it closes and reopens and it is night ten years later. We see flats painted like architecture and nature and we can believe that in the context of the story we are witnessing unfold that these things are real. One of the reasons we can do this is because the actors on stage believe they are real for us. They are in a house, on a country road, in a space ship, all because they say they are. We are no longer in a building downtown, only yards from our parked car, we are inside the universe created by the artists that are puting on this play. A Renaissance Faire is no different. The success of your guests experience depends on how much YOU believe it is real, and how willing you are to avoid references to that world they left behind. A Renaissance Faire is a “pop-up” city that does its very best to surround its audience in the illusion of another time. All participants are actors in this unique setting and their willingness to play along will encourage their customers to play with them. This isn’t real history, it is pretend theatrical history, but the more your participants know about the events and realities of the time they are portraying, the easier it will be for them to broadcast that to their audience.


Not all Faires do this, but I would argue that it was the “secret sauce” that made the Renaissance Pleasure Faires such a success over so many decades. Workshops are most often offered during the weekends prior to opening. This is a time when many crafts and concessions owners are present erecting their booths, and performers rehearsing their acts. These workshops are mandatory, but can be a fun way to get your head into the time period you are agreeing to participate in. These are often short, cover such things as a quick history lesson, basic steps in country dance, and a few rules for how to speak convincingly with a “Basic Faire Accent” or BFA. As you can imagine with the energy and effort everyone is going through to get their piece of the event up and ready, taking time to take a few workshops can receive a fair bit of push back, but I believe that these little refresher courses really do add up to a much better event. If nothing more it reassure that cowboy leather craftsman that merely saying “Good day good sir” and “May I help you mistress” are often enough to get by. It also makes it easier to relate to the events unfolding around you if you know whom the players are and what their roles are in the time period. At one time my wife and I booed a participant we thought was dressed as a Spaniard (the bad guys), only to later find out he was actually Sir Walter Raleigh (not a bad guy). Blush.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Renaissance Faires can be complex and overwhelming events to undertake, but as far as the design is concerned a lot of what makes for a successful event depends on just a few rules.


This may sound simple, but the most important part of any good Faire is the shared agreement betweens it’s many participants. Your Faire is many things… entertainment, food, crafts, but ultimately it is a vehicle for transporting its audience into a realm of fantasy. For the few hours they are visiting, they can leave the 21st century in their parked cars and soak up this pretend world with as few reminders of their daily lives to interrupt their experience.  Having all of your participants promise, willingly, to support this illusion is key to its success. If all of your participants are willing to play this role, so your audience will be.

Each Faire determines the dress code of their event

Since the roots of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire were firmly planted in the desire for historical recreation, the choices of what people wear, sell, the music they played, and the way they spoke were equally planted in a specific era of history. Although there were concessions to this rule, on the hole the desire was to recreate a place in time with all the demands that puts upon its participants. This hasn’t been true of all the Faires across the country as each defines their level of faithfulness to history. For some the broad brush of “The Renaissance” includes fairytale princesses, mythical beasts, and the occasional Star Trek away team. There is no right or wrong way to define your own event, and in the case of audiences’ expectations, if characters from computer games and Vikings are within the bounds of the Story being told by the promoter of the event, then all the more power to them. For this book I am sticking with a more historical example, partially because I am most familiar with it, and also the stricter rules of a more historical event tend to make it easier to get everyone participating on the “same page”, and dispels the argument that Dr. Who’s Tardis is not necessarily appropriate for this particular event.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


If your Faire is lucky enough to be set amongst trees, and if you have the good fortune of having trees adjacent to your booth or stage location, then you can consider the clouds have parted and heavenly light is shining upon you. Nature is the ultimate backdrop to a successful Faire environment and will only enhance the appearance of your event. Apart from adding shade, trees, both large and small can add charm and authenticity to the mood you are trying to create, and should be taken full advantage of in your Faire designs. The most important thing to remember is that you do no harm in your partnership with the trees that make up your event or booth. This is a relationship you hope to continue to cultivate over time. Nailing into, cutting away from, or otherwise abusing the trees in and around your event will assure they are not there the following years. In the case of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire sites in the 1960’s thru 1980’s, all the trees on their property were protected Oaks and very clever ways were devised to allow coexistence between booths and trees. Despite the extra effort, it is arguable that these oaks were as much a character in the atmosphere of the Faire as the Queen’s procession and the daily jousts. Take care of your trees and police how your participants use them, and you will be assured a beautiful Faire for years to come.

Monday, May 7, 2012


The basic building blocks of any Faire
Renaissance Faires are THEATRE set in the woods. Your goal is to transport your audience back in time but often with only a small budget and the reality that most, if not all of your structures will need to be temporary. There are few Faires that have the luxury of a permanent site where they can leave their main structures up all year round. This means that every building will need to be transported in, erected, and then removed at the end of the event. One thing that you can say about the building materials in Elizabethan England was that they were anything but portable. Half-timber buildings with thatched roofs and stone foundations don’t transport well, and trying to fake these can be tricky if not done artfully. As large-scale outdoor theatre, you are basically creating an enormous stage set, but you are asking your audience to suspend their belief just enough to imagine that these structures are “real”. Your guests will arrive wanting to “play along” but their imaginations are only just so elastic and can be snapped by the sight of too many anachronistic elements and details. Your goal as the designer of the Faire is to balance these budgetary, safety, and building codes, within the period illusion you are trying to sustain. In the end, your allies will most often be plywood, burlap & hay bales. All of which can be configured to represent almost all of the environments you are trying to create.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


There is no “golden” Faire layout, so no rules to how an event must be constructed, but there are several elements that have proven to work, and depending how they are implemented, enhance your Faire experience.

The entrance to your Faire is by far the most important piece in the entire layout. The entry is where first impressions are made and where the expectations of your guest will be set. Apart from being the mechanical door that determines who will enter, it is also the place where you can greet and prepare your audience for just what lay ahead for them. The entry gate will very likely be the most important, and expensive, first investment, but a vital part of your success. Once you have established an entryway worthy of the Faire you wish to build, all your other structures, and those of your participants, will look to it as the bar in which to reach. Chain link fence covered in vinyl tarp will do you no service, and it will lower the expectations of your guests, some of whom my turn on their heels and head back to their cars without purchasing a ticket.


Although not a prerequisite, creating a winding path at the opening of your Faire has the duel function of slowing the progression of guests as they arrive, and giving them the impression that they are exploring the streets of an actual village. Serpentine layouts, viewed from their entry point have the visual effect of layering booths into the distance. This creates a sense of depth and complexity that suggests that there are an infinite number of things to do and see at your Faire. Serpentines slow the inclination to rush into the heart of the event, and it is the perfect place to locate crafts people who sell large or heavy items that customers might wish to wait to purchase as they are heading back to their cars. A serpentine layout sets expectations in the minds of your guests that the Faire is a place to explore, while still insuring a linear path that leaves no booth unvisited. Many craftspeople covet this location because they know they have twice the chance of grabbing the spending money of any Faire visitor.

Once out of the serpentine a Crossroads is the perfect place to allow for your Faire to branch out. Crossroads are the natural meeting place if members of your party get separated, and the perfect location for street theatre. Often the washing well, with loud cat calling and wet laundry flinging about, are located in crossroads like this. Crossroads are also a great way for visitors to get their bearings and help them better understand where they are within the layout. Crossroads are a perfect place to invest in some sort of monumental structure as well. Having a large Market Cross, a giant Greenman figure, or even a majestic tree with branches filled with color ribbons or lanterns will make for a memorable meeting place, and a landmark that is easy to find if you were to get lost.

Branching Off

Crossroads are the perfect place for your layout to Branch Off in different directions. It is important that the each choices be clearly marked with an archway or other iconic graphic. You need to broadcast what your audience is about to encounter if they choose one path or another. Having a Faire offer multiple places to explore makes for a more dynamic experience, but you don’t want to have too many outlets for exploration for fear that an audience will miss something, or more dangerous, will “feel” like they are missing something. Failure to thoroughly marquee the entrance to a offshoot or separate avenue risks the possibility that entire areas of your layout will be missed. This is especially disastrous for those craft and food booths that will loose business because they are either too hard to find, or they happen to live along the road least traveled.

Thematic avenues or neighborhoods are a powerful way to inform your guests about what they might experience or be able to purchase when visiting one specific area or another. Although some craftspeople might argue that they don’t want to be placed in an area that has wears that are too similar to theirs, worse yet that they be so tucked away that no one can remember where they were. Threadneedle Road, or Jeweler’s Court say a lot about what you might expect you will find within them. Witches Wood paints a different picture then Pirate’s Keep in the mind of your guests, and it will do you good service to populate these areas with the crafts, food, and entertainment that support that theme. In the end you want your audience to “own” their experience, and you do that through making it easier to know where they are and how they can relate to each environment. Make it easy for them to find crafts and entertainment that they desire, and best of all, return there if at the end of the day the have finally decided to get that Tarot Card reading, or Pirate sword. You want them to get back there quickly and intuitively.

Food Vendors
The location of Food Booths is often dictated by their proximity to running water and the ability to transport supplies and remove waste water (gray water) and trash. Your local health department will have a lot to say on this subject, so it is best to listen to them. Food vendors will also have particular requirements and desires, as will craft vendors who might not want Turkey Leg fingers handling their jewelry. It is suggested that food areas be adjacent to stage seating as it is the perfect place to gather and retain an audience. Food booths are also a great tool for moving guests through your layout since, like a stage, interest and hunger will pull them to wherever the food is located.

Stages As Anchors

As a rule, “All Roads Lead to a Stage”. Like the anchor stores in a Shopping Mall, stages are the perfect draw to pull people through your Faire’s layout. With your audience referring to your Faire’s Map and Schedule, they will be planning what shows to see and activities to participate in. Having show venues at the end of the branches of your layout ensure that they will go places they might have otherwise missed while merely exploring. The theme for each stage can reflect or dictate the theme of the area. The Gypsy Camp Stage suggests something very different then The Madrigal Stage, and those booths set around it should help support that theme. A stage can be as simple as a platform and a cart, or as grand as a multi-story structure. Variety is best and different stages will dictate the kind of entertainment that might be scheduled for it. Stages will also have to compete with ambient noise, so avoid placing loud game booths or vocal barkers near a Stage location.

Saturday, May 5, 2012



By far the biggest challenge when laying out a Renaissance Faire is the site you build it on. In 1989 the Renaissance Pleasure Faire lost the ability to hold it’s event in Agoura California at the now preserved Paramount Ranch and was forced to look for a new place to erect their Brigadoon-like village. For months we visited and reviewed potential sites, finally landing in the Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore California, just outside of San Bernardino. By the end of this process we had tried to squeeze the contents of our Faire into every possible location, with the exception of a Walmart parking lot. The truth is, a successful Faire, both aesthetically and financially depend on several specific factors all coming together:

If you have the luxury of having lots of them then you are already half way to having a fantastic event. Building in a forest allows for shade, ambiance, and potentially a scaffold for your booths and stages to build off of, and around. The alternative is a lot of structures and shade you and your participants are going to have to build yourself. Trees come with it concerns about the conservation of the environment around you, so more care needs to be made when building around them, but the results are definitely worth it.

If your event is popular you are going to have to have a lot of flat ground adjacent to your Faire for people to park on. This will have to be a place that is easy to get in and out of, from roads convenient to nearby highways and freeways, without creating a nightly traffic nightmare when your event’s guests are stream home after a long day. Parking also needs to be on a surface that won’t immediately turn to mud if unexpected rain appears to dampen your event. Nothing says nightmare like thousands of stuck vehicles. Few forested areas have adjacent blacktop parking lots so more often then not you are parking on a farmer’s field between crops, and applying lots of water to the surface to keep the dust down during the day.

Your event needs to be as close as possible to lots of people. The fewer miles they have to drive the more apt they are to come visit your event. The obvious drawback is that the closer you get to populated areas, the fewer natural settings there are to host your event. Ultimately you would love to have your event adjacent to a busy freeway exit, and yet nothing says anachronism like seeing and hearing semi’s driving by your Elizabethan village.

Friendly Neighbors
Although you might not first imagine it, having neighbors that “get” what you are trying to do is key. Not everyone sees Renaissance Faires as wholesome entertainment, and there are those that take a “not in my neighborhood” stance when they hear a promoter is considering land near their homes and towns. During our search for a new Faire site in 1989 we were actually driven out of one perspective community because the local newspaper suggested that the coming Faire would bring with it, “hippies that would feed marijuana to their cows”. It is a rare rural community that easily accepts such an event, and that is exactly the people you want most on your side. Fostering a strong relationship with your surrounding communities, all year round, is vital to the continued success of your event. Ultimately, we want your neighbors to have a sense of ownership in the yearly party, and be willing to fight to keep it, if for any reason unforeseen circumstances threaten its right to be there.

Friday, May 4, 2012

CHAPTER THREE: The Basic Philosophy


I grew up with two street artists as my parents. Summer weekends were often spent in a park or on a street in and around the San Francisco Bay Area selling art in various street art shows. During that time individual crafts people were on their own to design and build booths to not only display their work, but easily fit into a trailer or Volkswagen van to cart it from fair to fair. With the invention of the inexpensive pop-tent awning, it has become much easier to throw an entire booth in the back of your car and easily erect it anywhere. This has had the added effect of creating fairs and festivals that have a uniformed and similar look. A sea of white tent tops against a green backdrop has become the signature look of most art shows and festivals. Although handy, it does mean that one fair looks very much like any other.

A Renaissance Faire is actually attempting to do the very opposite of this. Uniformity is a byproduct of a post-industrial world. Right angles, synthetic materials, and PVC pipe are conveniences that just were not available to craftsman of the 16th century. Imagine any movie depiction you have seen of a medieval or Elizabethan village and you will see a meditation on asymmetry and earth tones. Booths in the past were sturdy affairs, covered with materials heavy enough to keep weather off their wares, and definitely sported no vinyl banners or signs. The only concession we will make with our period booths is the introduction of a more vibrant, but not exactly non-period color palette.


This is a good question, and one to think about before you jump into the deep end by participating in a Renaissance Faire. Traditional crafts fairs are a known entity, and they are relatively inexpensive to participate in. Apart from your entry fee and a potential percentage of sales, you arrive with your white tent and wares and are ready to go. Renaissance Faires make many more demands on your time and money. Booths are never standard, and demands on what you wear, how you speak, and how you spend your weekends before opening are many. For this expense there is no guarantee that you will necessarily break even… so why do it? Well, having been a craftsperson I can tell you that there is nothing quite like the larger community that participates in such Faires. You aren’t just appearing at a venue, but being adopted into an extended family. Your booth, apart from being the place where you sell your products, is a private living room facing the biggest party of the year. While seeing to your customers, you are also host to your own friends and acquaintances as you invite them behind your counter or into you “Hooch” (back room). Time at a Faire ebbs and flows with each hour bringing festivities, parades, and just plain silliness that are as distinct from each other as the seasons in a year. What is happening is bigger then any one participant, and the love for it gets into your blood, and once infected you find your year is in a state of anticipation of the Faire’s arrival or dread that it will soon be over. Faires change the people who take part in them, this has some participants living the life of a gypsy as they travel all over the country doing what many call “the Faire Circuit”. It is far from an easy, or necessarily financially rewarding life, but damn it if it isn’t food for the soul. If this sounds like too much work, you are right it is, but what things worth having aren’t.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


As you can imagine Renaissance Faires have existed long enough now to create several generations of participants, each having defined their own eras within the genre. For older participants some believe it will “never return to anything that resembles the innocents of those early years”, while newer generations are working to redefine what a Renaissance Faire can be. I personally have my own memories, but I think that what we all hold on to are our own collection of rich intangibles. A Renaissance Faire is as much about the heat, the smell, and the tastes, as it was what we saw, wore, or whom we knew. Unique friendships arose within this mini universe, all squeezed into a few weekends a year. For some a Faire is a job, but for others it is a lifestyle, and an annual oasis in the middle of our technology filled lives. It is common to hear that the Faire allowed individuals to “find themselves” and shape the choices they would make later in their lives. The Faire didn’t start out this grand, but was born from the minds and imaginations of two people.


It is impossible to begin any discussion of Renaissance Faires without first talking about its roots.  Renaissance Faires, as we know them today, started out humbly as a class activity created for her students by then school teacher Phyllis Patterson. In early 1963, Phyllis ran a miniature period fair in the backyard of her Laurel Canyon home in California. Later that same year a larger one weekend event was organized as a fundraiser for the radio station KPFK. Nearly 8000 people attended the event which consisted largely of reenactments of historical activities including a printing press and blacksmith. There were also crafts and food merchants, each required to demonstrate the period making of their wares. Volunteers were required to take workshops in language, history, and appropriate costuming. These groups were organized into Guilds, consisting of actors, musicians, military, peasants, clans, and others. Phyllis’ passion for teaching and Ron’s skills as art director, and self appointed “Master of Revels”, were the foundation of what would become a new form of entertainment. Modeling the event on a 16th century english country fair they created the context for hundreds of participants to joyfully improv history, making it one of the largest examples of outdoor theater. What many veterans of these early Faires will tell you, is they also succeeded in creating a giant extended family who’s year pivoted on the weekends these events were held.
During the founding years, the Faire was held as a springtime event at Paramount Ranch in Agoura in Southern California, later to include a fall harvest event held in Novato in Northern California. Christened “The Renaissance Pleasure Faire” the events have spanned a half a century and have been entertaining multiple generations consisting of millions of guests and participants. “Faire” is for many not just a festival, but a lifestyle, with some vendors and entertainers traveling year-round from one Faire to another, doing what some call “the circuit”. For those lucky enough to be there in the beginning, they can rest on the knowledge that they were witness to the birth of something quite unique.

The Patterson family no longer holds ownership of the original Faire, but they have raised a family of teachers and entertainers that are taking this unique art form into new areas. Phyllis and Ron’s eldest son Kevin and wife Leslie are the proud presenters of The Dickens Christmas Fair, an annual holiday event held in San Francisco, based on a winter event of the same name, created by Ron & Phyllis as a way to keep staff and crew employed between Renaissance events. The Dickens Fair has grown to prove that the lessons learned and the techniques used to create the yearly outdoor events work equally well for indoor venues. If you ever wish to experience the energy of one the the very first Patterson Faire’s, I highly recommend you find a way to be in San Francisco at least one weekend during the holidays.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012



I joined the Faire much like anyone else. My wife and I started as weekend visitors, worked our way into becoming servers in one of the many food booths, started our own crafts booth, and ultimate I was hired as the resident designer of the Faire. Each step of the way I was driven by a passion to participate ever more in the workings of this unique event. Mere visitors can become infatuated by the energy of a Faire, wanting to experience more, and finding ways to more deeply connect to the larger community that grows around an event like this. I was no different, having tasted the thrill of being a part of this 360 degree theatre, extended family, and antidote to the bustle of the modern world, I set my calendar year around those rare few weekends when I could leave my life behind and live for a short time in another world.


My wife and I arrived in the middle of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire’s history. By the time we set foot on the Faire site, the event was celebrating its 20th anniversary. We were not pioneers in this form of entertainment, but a next generation picking up and running with an already established and thriving community. I was not there inventing the experience, but learning from it. The Pleasure Faire had created a framework for how a historically themed Faire might be run, and already there were other successful Faires establishing themselves all over the country. Inspired by the original, each Faire has made up their own rules, and have created for themselves their own dedicated followers.

 For each Faire there is an army of participants that love their event just as much as we loved ours, and they have every right to assume that theirs was the best. I was honored enough to be working with the creators of the very first Faire, and it is worth talking about those initial sparks of inspiration that brought this art form into the world, before discussing the physical mechanics of creating one for yourself.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Congratulations, you are one of the two people to read this Blog! Really, this is such an obscure subject to write a blog about that I am just so happy that it landed in your hands. As for that other person, you really ought to get in touch with each other; I bet you have a lot in common!

Writing a Blog about designing Renaissance Faires is not something anyone has attempted before. Each Faire has been responsible for creating their own internal bibles for explaining the rules and techniques for running and working within their event, but there has never been one source that collects all those small details that many Faires have in common.

I am proud to say that my roots as an artist begin as an art director for the Living History Center’s Renaissance Pleasure Faires in Northern and Southern California. My experience later expanded to include designing for the Disney theme parks as a Sr. Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering. Over the years I have designed attractions, video games, theatre sets, and 3D virtual worlds, all the while building on those very first lessons I learned as the designer for the Faire. I can now safely say that many, if not all of the principles I learned in those early years designing outdoor events has influenced and aided me in the design of everything I work on today. Whether it is building with concrete or polygons the basic rules of entertaining people through the creation of theatrical fantasy environments holds true to this day.

This book has been quietly simmering in the back of my mind for years and only now comes to the surface through multiple conversations with other past and present Faire folk that are seeking a source of information on the guidelines for designing and participating in a cohesive themed event. There are enough Renaissance Faires throughout the world for it to be presumptuous of me to suggest that I have all the answers for every event or audience demographic, so I offer my comments and suggestions as merely food for thought.

Renaissance Faires represent an ever growing and evolving industry, and are very often formed by the organic love and energy put into their creation. There are no set rules as to what does or does not constitute a good event, but there are some principles that do work if applied with focused intent. My goal is to layout some ideas that work, not just for Renaissance Faires, but for all variety of themed environments.  I will go over subjects that include laying out a good Faire, explore challenges that are unique to this form of entertainment, and offer tips on making choices that will help make your event not only more beautiful, but more profitable as well.

Have a look through the following chapters and see if there are tidbits that are specific to how you participate in the creation of a Faire. Whether you are the owner, promoter, or one of thousands of participants, there should be information specifically for you. A Renaissance Faire, as with any themed event, is grounded in a group agreement about the style, era, and ultimate goals of the show you are trying to produce. An event will succeed or fail based on everyone’s wiliness to focus their efforts to this shared vision. Building a truly immersive environment depends on the time, energy, and financial commitment of everyone involved, and this I guarantee will far exceed the efforts and capital investments necessary to pull off something like a more traditional crafts fair.

Lastly, this is a love letter to not only the Faires I grow up attending and participating in, but to all those friends who’s lives were equally changed by this shared experience. I have talked with enough of them over the years to realize the impact of those years spent “Playing Faire”, and hope that the notes held within this book will act as a beginning blueprint for future Faires, and help them to build their own unique events upon.