Stepping back in time at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire
Lebanon — Whether you're a princess, a pirate, a dragon or a regular person off the street, you are welcome at the long running Connecticut Renaissance Faire.
The faire kicked off its 21st season Aug. 31 and runs every weekend through Columbus Day. Over the years, it has set up shop at fairgrounds throughout eastern Connecticut, venturing as far west as North Haven and as far north as Woodstock, but its current home is the Lebanon Country Fairgrounds on Mack Road.
It's only 15 minutes off Exit 25 on Route 2, but that short drive takes you back in time past bucolic farms and the town's historic green into the Elizabethan village of Lebanshire.
If you get there early enough, you'll see the queen herself giving the royal welcome to open the faire, accompanied by townsfolk and several members of the visiting French court. While the interactions between the two royal entourages are cordial, something more nefarious is afoot, according to Crown Players actor Patrick Geier.
Geier, a Lebanon resident who works at Electric Boat as an environmental engineer, portrays Bishop Charles de Bourbon, the lead villain of this year's performance. He didn't want to give too much away about the plot but said the bishop "has something up his sleeve" after the French were defeated by the English at last year's faire.
He auditioned for the Crown Players this year on a whim, saying he "wanted to get his feet wet with acting" and felt the faire was a good place to start. He said the role of the bishop was perfect for him because there's a lot of opportunities for him to be sarcastic and devious in a funny way.
Auditions for the Crown Players were held in June, with weekly rehearsals through the summer and weekend-long sessions the last few weeks before opening day. Geier said he was impressed by the dedication and work that his fellow actors and the stage crew put into the production — it's effectively a seven-week run of a play, after all — and said it was easy for a new actor like him to get involved because everyone is supportive.
Martha Brewster, a North Stonington resident and fellow member of the Crown Players, portrays Cordelia Mare, a stable girl on the English side of the brewing conflict. A senior at the Capitol Theater Performing Arts Magnet High School in Willimantic, she's been in school drama clubs since third grade, but joining the faire was her first professional audition and role.
She also highlighted the support she received as a new member of the cast, adding that she had been nervous about getting the part and worried about fitting in. She said rehearsals were a little terrifying at first.
"It's an interactive theater experience, so it's not your normal theater experience. It's not like you're going in, performing on a stage one show over and over again," Brewster said. "When you're first going out there ... you need to know how to interact with the patrons, and you never know how the patrons are going to react to you."
Her role also involves a lot of stage combat — Cordelia fights with a staff, which she had never used before — and she worked extensively with the fight choreographer to break down the moves. She said she was looking forward to performing those scenes with her fellow cast members, and as a former attendee of the fair, she appreciates the amount of work everyone does to put it all together.
When they're not performing on stages throughout the grounds, the Crown Players can be found wandering around the faire and meeting patrons.
The interactivity was a major draw for Amanda and Desmond Wacasey of Mystic, who went to the faire on opening day Aug. 31 with their standard poodle, Luna.
"At this particular faire, the actors really engage," Amanda Wacasey said. "They go out of their way to talk to you and make you feel part of it. And being able to bring the dog is a definite plus."
Dressing for the part
Geier said one of the things he liked about the faire is that it's accessible to everyone, not only financially but also in terms of the casual and friendly vibe; he compared it to something in between a circus, a re-enactment, and a theme park. Visitors don't have to dress up or know all the historical details and lingo to have a good time, he said.
If you do want to look the part, however, there are dozens of vendors offering handmade wares and clothing from hats and horns to bodices and boots. And if you see something you like on a cast member or vendor, chances are good Phyllis Bain had some part in it.
Bain, who lives in Plainfield and is known affectionately around the faire as Mama Fee, runs Emazanti Creations alongside Anita Japp of Montville; she makes the clothing, while Japp makes the beadwork and "bling." They're on the road every weekend from April through October at various faires throughout New England.
Bain said she learned her craft through a combination of working with her mother and grandmothers as a kid, talking to other historical clothiers, and a lot of self study. A retired history teacher with Irish roots, she switches seamlessly into an Irish brogue to greet patrons, chatting with regulars about previous pieces she made for them or telling Irish folk tales to children while their parents shop.
"It is a village, and we're family," she said. "We have a grand, grand time."
When she's not at a faire, Bain's working on custom period clothing for clients ranging from brides to re-enactors; she's made clothing for Plimoth Plantation docents, and her most recent creation was a silk gown that would have been worn in 14th-century Russia and that took about 100 hours of work to complete.
She also collaborates regularly with other vendors on custom pieces, including a gown that included chain maille by The Mad Mailler. Garrett Colberg of New London runs the business with his roommate, Edward Granville, and this year they also worked at the Midsummer Fantasy Renaissance Faire in Ansonia as well as faires in New Hampshire and Maine.
Colberg said he has friends all over New England and the country because of how renaissance faires bring people together, and Connecticut is one of the best faires he attends. He said he loves working with customers to build a full outfit — on opening day, he was working on a set of scale maille gauntlets for a customer's dragon costume — and seeing people at various faires wearing pieces they bought from him in previous years.
Marketing director Eric Tetrault said the organization hopes to keep the faire in Lebanon, their favorite location so far.
"People who have never been to a renaissance faire before come to our show not knowing what to expect," he said. "By the time they leave, they're already making plans to come back for another weekend or two during our run."
"We're here to make the folk out here have a good time, maybe learn a little something about history, maybe learn a little something about some old skills or old trades that aren't around anymore," Bain said, "but mostly so that they enjoy themselves and can immerse themselves in the atmosphere, immerse themselves in the experience."
If You Go
What: Connecticut Renaissance Faire
Where: Lebanon Country Fairgrounds, 122 Mack Road, Lebanon.
When: Weekends through Columbus Day, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; after-hours events for adults include the Queen's Knight at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 and the annual Halloween Party at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12.
Tickets: $15 general admission, $13 seniors and military with ID, $10 children ages 7-15, $5 pets; Halloween Party tickets are $25 and include same-day admission to the faire; parking by donation.
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