EMINENCE — The year is 1306.
Robert the Bruce has come to Briarwood, a small village in central Scotland, to meet with other nobles and clan chieftains to consolidate his power and plan strategies for the war against England. During his visit, he is crowned king of Scotland in an elaborate ceremony.
Briarwood has everything your typical village might: nobles, merchants, peasants. A town drunk. A village idiot.
And it's about a 90-minute drive from Lexington.
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Nestled in the farmland of Eminence is the Kentucky Highland Renaissance Festival, where more than 30 hard-working actors play out the coronation of one of Scotland's most famous kings and fill the colorful lanes of the imaginary town of Briarwood for six weekends every summer.
A Renaissance faire — organizers generally prefer to use a more archaic-looking spelling of fair — is an outdoor event that focuses on reproducing key elements of Renaissance history in a festival setting, with patrons often donning their own characters and costumes to participate. Like most Renaissance faires, the Eminence festival features an abundance of costumed entertainers, musical and theatrical acts, art and craft vendors, and festival food.
Most similar events are set during the period of Queen Elizabeth I or King Henry VIII, but the Highland festival's founder and general manager, Ed Frederick, who is active in area bagpipe groups, decided to set his faire in Scotland to reflect his family's Scottish ancestry.
Steadily growing since it opened its gates in 2006, the Highland festival now draws about 50 independent vendors and more than 2,500 visitors each weekend.
That's a lot of folks for 34 actors to entertain.
It might sound like easy work, dressing up and pretending to be someone else for the day, but being an actor at a Renfaire is a grueling affair that requires months of preparation. By the time the gates of the faire open, the hard work is just beginning. Ten hours of solid work lie ahead, and the actor must remain "in character," interact on the fly with patrons and keep moving forward with the general creative outline of the day's events, rain or shine.
Every October, the cast director, Carolyn Cook, begins sending notices to theater groups and drama teachers in Kentucky and parts of Indiana, hoping to attract a good crowd of actors to audition in mid-winter.
The first part of the audition is simple. Make it to the grounds.
The bulk of auditioning actors come from Louisville, Cincinnati and Lexington, but others drive from farther away. Cook must make sure they understand the time commitment that is required come faire time. Driving several hours both ways every weekend for six weeks is a serious commitment, especially after a week of full-time work. Most company members are not professional theater artists. They have ordinary day jobs, transforming into their characters on the weekends, often logging more than 20 hours of work in two days.
At auditions, Cook asks for a monologue and a song, and she looks at their improvisation work, a major component to "working the lanes," an insider term for the daily slog of inspiring patrons to interact with the characters.
Many interested actors come with an ideal character in mind.
"People tend to choose characters that amplify their own personality," Cook says. She and other veteran cast members (some roles are pre-cast from year to year) work with new talent to develop that character, be it a noble, a washerwoman or some oddball character, like Baalfor MacYewin, the town's "evil genius maniacal shepherd."
Many troupe members have some theater background, but Cook is happy to foster new talent.
"If you are committed and want to learn, we will work with you," she says.
Once the season is cast, the troupe begins rehearsing.
Beginning in March and continuing to the June opening of the faire, the company meets every weekend to work on character development and improv technique. They play-act games such as "two in, one out," in which two characters meet and greet each other, with one finding an exit as another character enters. Another exercise, "Yes and ...," teaches fledgling performers how to keep a scene going as long as possible.
This is further practice for life in the lanes, where the onus is on the performer to get patrons involved.
Each cast member also spends a significant chunk of time researching history and developing an extensive back story for his or her character.
What begins as a four-hour rehearsal in March gradually builds in duration and difficulty until early June, when the company is used to and ready for the 10-hour days that accompany the faire's opening weekend.
At last, all of that creative work is put to the test.
Living in Briarwood
Company members must be in character and at their posts by 9 a.m. each day of the faire. They also must have a series of roughly sketched-out events that they must play out that day. There is certainly a loose structure to every day, but no one can predict where the day's scenes and interactions will take them.
Dieter Zimmerman, who plays the town drunk, Philip McGuinness, describes the unique challenge of working the lanes.
"Your interactions with people tend to be extremely short," he says, "usually a couple minutes at most, and often just a few words or less. Your character has to be immediately identifiable. The patrons need to be able to figure out the gist of your character pretty quickly because you don't have time to tell them your entire back story."
Karl Licht, who by day is a project coordinator for a health insurance company in Louisville, turns into King Robert the Bruce each weekend. Even kings have the same challenges as peasants when working with patrons.
"You can have a scene all planned out, but as soon as the first patron gets involved, it goes where it goes," he says.
That's where all of those months of preparation come in. Successful actors know how to start a scene, carry it along its natural course and then exit quickly and gracefully.
When asked about the biggest challenge of working a Renfaire, many company members cite Mother Nature. The faire goes on regardless of the weather and can be a muddy endeavor after a downpour. Wearing a heavy layer of period clothing in the summer heat is no picnic either.
But for these enthusiasts, it is all worth it.
The reward for such hard work and long hours is one thing both the town drunk and the king can agree on: making people smile.
Licht, who has played the king since the role originated in 2006, is most fulfilled by "knowing I made someone smile and have a moment of pure joy and fun."
Zimmerman echoes that sentiment.
"When someone tracks you down after the faire is over to tell you how much you made their day," he says, "that's what makes it all worth it."