Dickens Fair is in the process of transformation. It is a matter of changing or dying. Times have changed and it is no longer possible or desirable to privilege one group over another, or to deny the needs and chances of people on the basis of appearance, gender, or identification. I hope we make it through.
In the meantime, I have gone back to my roots, remembering why I loved Renaissance and Dickens Fairs so much, and how my feelings have changed. My Bartstationbard.com site has those posts.
I have also gone back to what amounts to an electronic version of the Faire application that used to be the standard. After all the contact and workshop info, we were faced with a blank page to be filled with our character bio.
A couple Dickens back, I tried to go back to busking. My character has a tin ear, and I was tired of playing a tart, so I created another. She lasted a year, I found the new rules unbearable. We were to be confined to one defined spot, and our repertoires were to be cleared in advance. We were carded on a regular basis. My gig became robotic, my mind on whether or not I was boring the boothies I was stationed in front of to tears, and where Security was. It was hard to spark interaction with the customers or the cast tucked away in a corner as I was, and by the end of the run I was through.
Roisin, however, thrived. We talked constantly with each other, and when Fair was over she was happy to go back to busking the transit stations with me. She discovered the Dropkick Murphys and fell in love with punk. She loved the freedom of my time. When we decided to pack it in at the end of the run we planned her exit. Her life had been largely chosen for her. I may have set the parameters, but in my head she told me her story. I have always done my best to let characters, whether written or played at Faire, tell their own stories. Choosing for them either leaves me alone in my costume, or produces a story with the consistency of cardboard.
Roisin’s story was built on my gig, and the what-if of giving it to an Irish girl who had been put into service in London because her parents could not support either her or themselves. What if, after fifteen years, when the Famine came, that family was destroyed, some dying in Ireland, and the rest emigrating to America? What if she lost her place, and met Jeremy?
Believe it or not, after setting her up with that awful situation, she still speaks to me. She quickly made a deal with Jeremy, continued to busk on the same terms the girls had, and at the end of the run, he got her on a ship to Boston where she joined her family. That was all I knew. It was plenty to work with then, and now it is a great excuse to do the rest of the research and tell that story. After all, one of the reasons it came alive so easily is that we have not worked through these issues to this day. All we have done is to cast other marginalized people in the roles. Now that the Irish have become white, it is quite clear what was going on then, and now.
Archive of our Own hosts original fiction as well as fanfic. It’s a great place for us to tell our character stories. When Fair has worked through the issues, we might just know each other better on and off the streets of London.
I unearthed a lot of photos last weekend. The long look back over forty-plus years of Faire was useful. It gave me perspective on the current situation. I had forgotten just how big Faire used to be. I’m not just talking about size, though there was a lot more space, and there were a lot more of us. No, the quality of the spell we cast collectively created an energetic container that we filled with a place that never was, and always will be. Back then we were a community, trusted to play our part in the act of creation. There were fewer rules and more magic.
I was told by a dear friend “If you’re not having fun, it’s on you.” It was meant well, more the Zen master with the rod than Bill Sykes with a bludgeon, and I did try seriously to follow the core of truth in that advice. Maybe it is me. I’m older, and perhaps not as easily amused. My old friends are fewer, and there are new faces among them, but that isn’t it either. I play on the streets, but with the determination of the lone salmon fighting its way to the source instead of the player grabbing an outstretched hand, leaping effortlessly in the dance, trusting the magic will be there to catch me. I even tried creating a new character and going back to busking to see what would happen. There are bright spots. Singing choruses in the afternoons with great and generous people in an environmental area that is open for the public to join us is tasting the past. It’s good to see the friends that are left. It is still possible to catch the edge of magic, and just for a moment lose oneself in Faire. Spirits still move between worlds. I can’t expect things to be the same as they were years ago and they shouldn’t be. Time marches on, change is part of life, but the river flows from the same source.
The magic has been squeezed into such a tiny space! The eyes are always on us. What are we wearing? What are we doing? Must be sure not to step out of line, to draw focus from a performance or break a rule. Above all, if you do, don’t get caught! Now we sit in neat rows in Mad Sal’s, singing along at the right times to prompt the crowd and create the proper soundscape. We take our gigs and conversations outside, the designated place for background color and noise. Living your character all day long is the exception, not the rule, and enough people drop character at the curtain to make it the boundary of the lovely illusion that is only half there as it is. We work Faire, instead of play. Disney has replaced Dickens. Our passes must be shown without exception to pass back and forth past the guards hired for the event. There is no more security and crew, people who knew us, were part of us.
Safety is an issue, I understand that. Trust has long ago been broken. Space is at a premium in a venue we have long outgrown. There have always been broken stairs and differential treatment that mirror the society we live in, but the sharp separation between customer and Faire folk was never so stark, and we looked after each other far more than we do now. The constant carding at the door and in the venue by strangers jerks us back into the present we are supposed to be casting a temporary spell on and we can’t pull the willing visitor into the dance any more.
Faire was always a dance on the edge. We played with time, with language, with the energy. It was never safe, and things have always happened that shouldn’t. Yes, it is past time to change some of those things, but never before were we ever so powerless that our only real option was to strike. We let union be, a song instead of a movement. We were a community, that family that management–for they have become management–keeps talking about.
Faire was a dance on the edge, but it wasn’t just physical. For a few short weeks we were part of another time and place, and the people who paid to get in came to taste it, and sometimes become part of it. You could get in free of charge if you did the thing Faire asked of you that day. Perhaps it was wearing a specific costume or the reciting of a Shakespeare sonnet. You played Faire and were let through the magic door to play your part. There were more participants and more room. Every inch was not sharply delineated for stage and booth and alestand. The village or London Town had twists and turns and places where magic could happen. The streets did not run in straight lines. There wasn’t a microphone to be found on the site and silence was not required at the sharp barrier where street now becomes stage. Players did not demand absolute attention because they knew how to take and hold stage, and when to release it. Our allegiance was to the illusion, not the script. Mad Sal’s roared with laughter and song, and you could play skittles inside, drink and converse in what was for a brief moment a real dockside alehouse, not a stage set with a bar outside.
Faire was always trying to rein us in, but back then they never succeeded. Danse Macabre could get away with tiptoeing across Main Stage and the players adapted instead of objected. A whole procession could disappear into a magic privy because the crew built the privies and one of them had doors on both sides. It was years ago before rented plastic boxes became the norm, before people of color were hired to clean the bathrooms and pick up the trash, no longer part of the crew, part of us. Yes, times have changed, the books balance much better than they did back then, but where is the magic that flowed like water and carried us halfway to Faerie? The ragged heroes have long disappeared around the last bend. The day has died like a rose. The Faire has come to a close.
Times change and so do we, the spirit of Faire a sleeping Beauty lying somnolent in the bed of Procrustes. Black Point has become Patterson Abbey. We are more concerned with the distance between plate and cutlery than we are with the people who spin a continuous reality out of the whole cloth of history. It is more important to have a costume, pattern carefully selected from an ever-dwindling range of years that matches the palette of the show than to wear clothes that suit our characters and their stories. We will be measured and photographed, the garb we provide at our own expense cleared in every detail before it can even be made. A tart may not wear a tattered ball gown she purchased at the old clothes market no matter how careful the research the participant has done to build the backstory. Like goes with like, the regimented sections of the stage will be respected. We will have Fagin and Oliver Twist, but Sikes must not kill Nancy. It’s a family show, after all.