Role-playing games and live action role play aren’t anything new – this stuff has been going on for decades.
Every spring, 16th century English villages pop up all over the country, and one of the largest and most popular is right here in our own backyard. The Scarborough Renaissance Festival, scheduled for April 8 – May 29 in Waxahachie is a role-playing delight.
A 150-member performing arts troupe becomes the characters of the Scarborough village, including King Henry VIII and his sister Queen Margaret of Scotland and Isles. Most people know of the renowned food, fantastic arts and crafts and great live performances, but today we’re going to visit with a few of those charming characters that are the heart and soul of the Renaissance festival: Richard Patterson (King Henry VIII), Janna Zepp (Queen Margaret) and one of the most beloved characters “Boomer,” known in real life as Robert Kowalewski II.
The veteran actors have five weekends of intense 8-10 hour rehearsals before the festival starts, and eight consecutive weekends of grueling 10-hour days when the festival is in action, no matter what the weather is. Spring in Texas, as we all know, is to say the least, unpredictable, so it could (and has) snowed during opening weekend, and the season can (and often does) end with a 90-plus degree, ridiculously humid Memorial Day.
An actor for Scarborough not only has to be physically fit, but also mentally fit. Patterson searches for new books every year on the 16th century and studies original paintings of King Henry VIII, to ensure his costumes are made exactly to period. He has had a seamstress hand-trim his costume with 10 yards of gold cording to match one of these paintings, and searched for actual material that matches the coat and capes, questing for accuracy right down to the last button. Depending on the role you play, the costumes can cost anywhere from $400 to $1,500. Zepp has 15 different costumes, three to four of which she uses throughout the season.
Patterson says the Scarborough audience is very intelligent. They can, and will, try to trip you up on historical accuracy, and that’s why he studies so intensely. But they all love interacting with the audience, improvising their script most of the way. Boomer, who gets his name from the role he plays as head cannoneer and weapons master, is a Scarborough favorite as he integrates a lot of humor in his act. He loves teaching the kids how the weapons from the time period were used, and he even created the noon show to let them learn how to fire a cannon (without actually firing it, of course).
The actors relish the memorable experiences they have had with the audience. The first day of Zepp’s first year performing, a woman asked Zepp to have her picture made with her husband. The husband was dying of cancer and wanted pictures with characters at Scarborough to take with him into hospice for his final memories — an experience that 20 years later, still chokes her up.
Patterson loves to egg a non-responsive audience member over a small thing like saying “good day” until they are acting like King Henry VIII themselves. He says the children are the best because they know how to play. When he knights the kids, he gives them a task to find things that need to be done to help people, and to report back to him. And they do. One father told Richard that he didn’t know what he said to his child when he knighted the boy 10 years earlier, but the boy took it to heart, and every year he wanted to report back. That year the father brought Richard a picture of his son because he had just been deployed to Afghanistan.
Everyone who attends or works Scarborough has a favorite food there. All the actors are very proud that the food is made fresh on-site.. Boomer likes the Far East Stir Fry, the King prefers the famous turkey legs that are roasted with special Scarborough spices (available for sale at the Faire) and takes a few home to freeze for later in the year. Janna agrees with Boomer on the stir fry, but she is also a big fan of the fried mac and cheese.
Zepp said her favorite thing about playing a Scarborough character is interacting with the audience. She says there is a heart and a kindness that an actor gets to experience with the audience in a Renaissance festival. “There’s a joy here that I don’t think any other actor in more traditional forms of entertainment could experience. We deal in making an audience forget about what is going on outside those gates. It’s kind of a therapy for some people. I defy Helen Mirren to have that.”
Scarborough Renaissance Festival Info:
Just 30 minutes south of Downtown Dallas/Fort Worth in Waxahachie
April 8 through May 29
Saturdays, Sundays & Memorial Day Monday
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