By BOBBY MCMAHON
CROWNSVILLE (October 8, 2009)—The economy is in shambles. A new and terrifying disease is spreading throughout the area. People are making the most of tough times.
Welcome to England, circa 1543.
Now in its 33rd year, the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville is bringing people from across the area together for some good very, very old-fashioned fun. The fair is open weekends now through Oct. 25.
Despite the down economy, attendance is on par with past years, with about 14,000 people coming through the gates each day. Many visitors, including Annapolis resident Erin Higgins, consider the festival comparatively inexpensive.
"It's a cheap thrill," Higgins said, dressed for the occasion in a black corset and appropriately antiquated pants. "It's eight bucks more than a movie ticket [for admission to the festival] and you're here all day. And the people-watching is great."
The festival is a time warp back to the days of King Henry VIII, offering all manner of escapes from normal life. Wandering through the 27 acres of woodlands, visitors clap along with fiddlers and other traditional musicians, laugh as jesters in big floppy hats perform, and catch passing glances of men dressed as knights and women in bust-heaving dresses.
Tyler Petrini, a 23-year-old teacher from Catonsville, enjoys the "you-can't-get-this-anywhere-else" experience of the festival, particularly the food.
"There's nothing like holding a turkey leg and drinking mead," Petrini said. "You can't do that anywhere else."
Jules Smith Jr., the general manager of the festival, said turkey legs are one of the most popular food items. To feed the turkey-leg-starved masses, he orders about 58 tons of the popular item in early spring.
The festival also offers a multitude of stick-mounted foods—macaroni and cheese on a stick, steak on a "stake" and chocolate covered cheesecake on a stick. All this food on a stick apparently makes people thirsty, as guests consume 250,000 glasses each of beer and soft drinks, as well as 200,000 bottles of water during a season.
Unusual food is not the only draw for visitors, as actors, acrobats and magicians perform at stages and in open areas throughout the venue. Many shows require a great deal of audience participation, and Carolyn Spedden, the artistic director of the festival for more than 20 years, thinks this full-on experience is what sets it apart from other forms of entertainment.
"We're trying to involve all the senses [with guests], instead of just sitting and visually watching TV or a movie," Spedden said. "I think that is what makes it a little unique"
Also special to the festival, Spedden said, is how visitors develop relationships with performers, as many have been taking the stage for a number of years.
"The closest relationship I can link it to is the way some people feel about their favorite characters on long-term TV sitcoms," Spedden said, comparing fan favorites like "O" and "The Renaissance Man" to characters on "Cheers" and "Friends."
"People feel like they know them," Spedden said. "Our performers get that as well."
Many of these performers—as well as the artists and craftsmen who make the festival run—travel a circuit of renaissance festivals throughout the country, starting in Arizona in February and ending their season in November. Smith said it's the creativity and outdoor environment that draws performers to this lifestyle.
"I know the sword swallower has told me he could be performing in a nightclub, but he'd only see klieg lights," Smith said. "Here, in daylight, in the woods, he gets to see people respond to every nuance he does. Not everybody will catch everything, but he knows the people who are appreciating what he does."
Smith also noted how those who work the festival appreciate the sense of community, a sentiment echoed by Kunji Rey, a henna tattoo artist at the festival and a trained massage therapist based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Rey grew up in the circuit, selling jewelry and making garlands since she was little, and appreciates how she can travel to any renaissance festival and find someone she knows.
"It's an amazing community to grow up in," Rey said. "I've known some of these people literally my entire life."
Rey also said that, for all the uncertainty in the economy and trouble throughout the world, people still need a good time. Walking through the gates into another time, visitors revel in the huzzah-shouting fun the festival provides, escaping—if only for a moment—the troubling world outside.
In planning for this year, Smith and his team were mindful that a constant stream of bad news would make people look for a distraction.
"People are eager to be entertained, looking for a diversion, and that's why our theme this year is 'Escape to the Maryland Renaissance Festival'," Smith said.
Roy William Cox—aka Sir William Westmoreland—a jouster who has been performing for more than 30 years, said that it's very important to put on a good show for an audience in need of escape, particularly when times are worse than they are now.
"When 9/11 happened they thought about closing the fair down, but then the powers that be decided 'no, we're going to go ahead and do it because people are going to want to get away,'" Cox said. "And it was one of best weekends ever ... People want to escape, they want to get away from that. And even in this economy, people save for the year just to come here."
For more information go to http://www.rennfest.com/ .
Capital News Service contributed to this report.