A Modest Proposal;
On the Proper Care and Feeding of a Viable Renaissance Faire

"Organization is a good thing."

Cassiel C. MacAvity

      "When doing such an event as a renaissance faire, the several parts of the successful faire rely on experience, knowledge, and people willing to do the work."

Case History------------------------------------------------

      For many years in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as an occasional stutter since the big earthquake in 1989, there has been an event called the Dickens' Faire, its full name, as I recall, being something like "The Charles Dickens' Christmas Holiday Faire".

      One of the most recent stutters was in late 1995 when people who hadn't done a Dickens since 1990---and people who hadn't done one at all---gathered to try to repeat the successes of the past. In many cases, even the people with no Dickens' experience were not walking into the idea of creatively recreating history stone cold. Many, if not most, had previous experience with the Novato Renaissance Faire, with many of the one weekend renaissance faires, and in a number of instances, the Society for Creative Anachronism. As it was, all participants were stone cold anyway by the end of the faire, as it took place on a San Francisco pier, over water, in the latter half of November and through December.

      Of all the different groups, or "Books" that took place that year, two in particular were the recreation of the first and most famous of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carols, and an attempt at a portrayal of Victorian era sailors, modeled after St. Dymphna's, the Seadogs, the guild portraying Elizabethan era sailors at the Novato Faire.

      The Christmas Carol production was assembled during rehearsals, and was directed by a woman who, with her husband, had done the Carol at previous Dickens'. Rehearsals were rehearsals, being one part of a small horde of people trying to remember how to recreate something of which quite a few had no memory. During the run of the faire, the various parts of the book were interrupted for a time by one actor really not happy with what he was doing. However, When the problem wouldn't get solved, the director replaced him with another actor, who worked out fine, and the portrayal of "A Christmas Carol", while in itself interesting, was then one production of many.

      As for those trying to do a sailors' group, the first word that popped out was that, as expected, it was the idea of the member of the Dogs at Novato who had worked a number of Dickens' in the past. The next word was that after he had recruited from the rest of the Dogs for people, he then took off to Ireland as rehearsals were beginning, remaining there for at least much of the run of the Dickens'. By mid-rehearsals, there were at least three in charge, none of whom were agreeing with the other two, and rehearsals were declared to be a nonstop squabble of songs vs skits vs which songs vs what should be done . . . . In time, as Dickens opened and continued on to New Years that year, observers seemed to remember most the strife.


      Clan Iain Abrach has been working Northern California small renaissance faires for quite a few years, being involved with the start of the Scots group at the Novato Faire and then branching out from there. Over the years, a general framework has evolved, loosely based upon historical models, with Iain, the Chieftain, as it's head, with his wife and various support people helping with the logistics and some of the general planning.

      Meetings tend to be broken up into workshops and general decision making, where, given that Iain Abrach is entirely a volunteer organization, the meetings tend to be an announcements from Iain or his wife of "We have a proposal to do something, is anyone interested? No? Fine, we're not doing it. Yes? Fine, we're doing it. Mixed? Fine, you'll need more people, or, if you're going to do it yourself, here's the information."

      Relatively early in the 1995 season, after the Sonora Scots Games, Iain had a stroke that temporarily paralyzed his left side. Iain Abrach's response was to go on automatic. We knew who we were, we had plenty of people with experience, we knew what the schedule of upcoming events was, and Iain's recovery was his problem, not something we needed to worry about. There was much worry of, and lots of confirmation of the latest update, but there were no cancellations, no alterations, and on we went.

      At the Faire Oaks Fair, in Sacramento, Iain was still in recovery, and did not attend. MacClure, the Chieftain of an associated group that had recently spilt off from us, stepped into his place as an interim substitute as the rest of us continued on with what we always did at faires. As I recall, the most difficult questions were the usual "Who's vehicle is going to pull the trailer?" and, as the temperatures climbed that weekend, "Have you had enough water?", which only then was followed by "What Is the schedule for the knights?" as there was a large gig involving a multi-guild knighthood society.

      A little later, at the Valhalla Faire in South Lake Tahoe, Iain was judged well enough to attend, given the orders to all and sundry of "Don't let him do this, that, and the other thing!", countered by his reaction of "Well, every time I go in to get my pipes cleaned I keep telling them to replace with copper, so, since they didn't listen, I'm going to do as I please!" . . generally speaking.

      That year at Valhalla was the busiest weekend I can remember, being almost Nonstop packed with gigs with us and just about every guild that showed up. And by later in the year, we, and Iain, were back to business as usual . . . .


      Almost a couple of centuries back, I was involved with Berkeley,---Not Mt. Diablo Council, California,---Boy Scout Troop 50. We were based out of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, one block below Telegraph Avenue, and about five blocks below U.C. Berkeley's Memorial Stadium, the site of all of Cal's home football games. First Pres has a large parking lot. Our annual fundraisers were to run the parking during those home football games. As an extension of this form of fundraising, unlike what other troops apparently did, we didn't collect dues, newspapers, or aluminum, nor did we sell Christmas trees, Halloween pumpkins, or candy.

      I started with the troop as a scout, and, following custom, was automatically made assistant scoutmaster, ASM, when I turned eighteen. As such did, that involved exchanging the thinking about camping trips and merit badge collecting for the thinking about the monthly Troop committee meeting. This monthly occasion basically involved hearing how many digital places our bank account had that month, and, following a consultation with the hallowed schedule of the U.C. Theatre, a local repertory film theatre, figuring out the upcoming backpacking schedule. Yes, for the record, there were events of the local scouting council which did involve being more boy scout than the next troop, which we seemed to keeping missing out on as we were actually Doing something at those times.

      One of the bigger games of the year is against UCLA, and one year in particular the game was in Berkeley on the same day that I had a workshop in San Francisco, and any other of the ASMs either were out of town, or had little experience in the running of our fundraisers. By command of insurance companies, and as someone to move the cars when we got everything impacted, we did require that someone's father show up for the day, but that was by command of the insurance companies . . . and as someone to move the cars.

      So, that Saturday, I showed up at the workshop, and around ten o'clock there was a break, at which point someone wandered over with a slightly concerned question of "Waitaminnit, I know you and your Troop, today's a home football game, Aren't you supposed to be there??!!!"

      . . . . . . I looked at my watch . . . . Stared into space . . . "It's about ten o'clock . . . At eight o'clock, they parked what'sisname behind his newspaper and opened the lot at five dollars a space. Right about now, they're getting a few more cars, so they just went to ten dollars a space. In two hours, at twelve o'clock, they'll go to twenty dollars a space, at an hour to game time. After that, they'll just need to pack in the last cars they have room for at about one o'clock or so, and then wait for the drivers to come back."

      There were a few jaws that dropped, but everybody else knew better.

      The following Monday evening, I wandered into the Troop meeting, and as soon as everything got started, cornered the scout who'd been in charge; "Ok, what'd we do?"

      "Well, at eight o'clock we parked soandso's dad behind his newspaper, and opened at five dollars a space. At ten o'clock we were getting some more cars, so we went to ten dollars a space, and at twelve o'clock, they started lining up, so we went to twenty dollars a space, and then around one we ran out of spaces and shut down."

      That's my boys . . . . .


      Every Memorial Day weekend in San Jose, historically at the Red Lion Inn, is a Science Fiction and whatnot related convention called Baycon. It was started a number of years ago by a committee of nutcases, uh, enthusiasts, and, many years later, still has one founding committee member who is involved, has an entire structure of people who perform assorted support functions, and, as the refrain often goes, there is at least one person who walked in one year as an absolute newbie, who worked her way up through that structure, and, a few years later, was in charge of the entire convention. As I recall, at last word, she just recently got married and went off to college . . . . *After* being Baycon Chair.

      The second and third departments that anyone encounters at each year's Baycon are preregistration and registration. The first is publicity, often in the form of the progress report, but arguably even in the form of "Hey did you hear about . . ."

      For a number of years, arguably *the* man in the San Francisco Bay Area to talk to about preregistration was a man named Richard Lawrence. Not only did he run preregistration, and, even, registration, doing so for ConFrancisco, which was the World Science Fiction convention, Labor Day weekend '92, as well as quite a number of conventions throughout the year and to follow, but, particularly, did so with a computer program he'd developed himself to track everything from name to amount paid to anything else involved to walking into a convention. Furthermore, as a part of running this program on as many stations as would be needed, four computers, for example, this last Baycon, and . . . quite a few more . . . for ConFrancisco, he would pull strings and call in favors to borrow all the hardware that was needed and be certain that it would run. All the conventions he did this for were quite pleased to not have to worry about this.

      For the '94 Baycon, he was running preregistration, which was not a surprise, and was using his program, which was not a surprise, and was going to bring in his and multiple other computers, which was not a surprise. What Was a surprise was at the beginning of April, just under two months from the convention, when the baycon staff desperately wished that he had not been lacking a second in command, because that wish followed the even bigger surprise when he almost literally dropped dead, suddenly dying, one evening, of a heart attack.

      The head of registration was immediately made head of preregistration as well, as she now had to worry about what people she already had as well as those she would have. Other shuffling around was done to keep up with this, and registration became an immediate convention critical zone.

      I had just been recruited to registration, having only walked into one baycon two years earlier, and worked such a job at a different convention at the end of the previous February. When I came in full time, it was basically the morning of the opening day when I and a number of others walked in and were greeted with, "We got some computers, we can make the database run on at least one, we think we can shanghai the chair's computer, here's a printer, no they're not hooked up yet, we never got to that stage."

      I never did do much work for registration that year . . . Having some fluency in elementary computer, I got rather sidelined in "I think I can figure out how to . . I Can hold that screwdriver, yes." As I recall the final configuration, with temporary badges for miles because of the lack of printing speed---we had the chair's computer providing the database, sitting next to the convention's computer, into which new registrations were being entered, sitting next to the computer of a member of registration staff, on which was played Doom, because we couldn't get it hooked into the net, no matter how desperately we needed another computer for entering names, sitting next to My computer, on which was played Doom, for the same reason . . . .

      We had plenty of bodies, and much understanding of the situation, at least on our side of the tables, but our data and hardware were something amiss.


      The following year, my facility with computers having been noted, it was decided that I should be tech support, so I then determinedly yelled about having a complete system running and tested Long before May. That didn't happen because someone promised to do a major portion of the organizing of computers, and waited until the last minute to announce "Oh, by the way, I can't be bothered to do this." I can say that, just the same, the responsible people did get the complete installation done before the convention, even if it was the Night before the convention.

      In another department, Programming, there was Not a repeat of what had happened the year before with Preregistration. Personal health and other acts of God being variables, the general committee did at least make certain that everyone had a second this time, and that things could run well that way. However, there was a multiple part screwup in programming communications, and, by April or so, the upshot was that there was an unscheduled---but at least this time there was the mechanism for one---instant change of head of programming, and an absolute lack of program. Programming then became that years' critical department as the realization arrived that 1500 or so people would be arriving for a weekend long party, and so far there was no party . . .

      At that point, the last several heads of programming got called in join the suddenly former programming second to play pin the panel on the schedule. There Were set events for which entire departments did already exist, so many blocks of time and space did get filled up that way, and something did get cobbled together, but things still were slightly . . uh . . interesting . . .


      There are a number of situations which an organization can deal with, and always one point where the organization stops dead in its tracks. Making certain that stopping point is never reached is a matter of having people available to do whatever the work is, having the knowledge and experience to tell what the work is, and the willingness to do that work.

      At Baycon, as an example, the last event before the convention proper is the convention game, which takes place at the last pre- con meeting, one week before the con. All the department heads and anyone else deemed so necessary sit around a ring of tables and field disasters---many of them actual events out of Baycon history. If the person doesn't have an answer, which sometimes happens, one is cobbled together, for the point of the game is to see what the weak points are, if any, before reality arrives and the real test begins.

      Meltdowns can be as memorable as great successes, and often are more so, as enough great successes, while remaining great, become simply what one does.

      In the case of the '95 Dickens' Faire, the differences between the successful show of "A Christmas Carol" and the general confusion attendant to the "we are sailors, we are" society were an interesting show of professionalism, experience, and a willingness to work. In both, there wasn't any overall shortage of knowledge or experience, but the willingness of the respective participants is what generated the varied results.

      In the case of both, being intended parts of a Victorian era analog to a standard renaissance faire, the point was to create from available people and their experience and willingness to work a viable theatrical recreation of Victorian London.

      In the case of the Carol, from the beginning, it was a dedicated, professional level production. The actors were assembled from a number of available people, the script, as it was, was based from the Dickens short story, and costuming and speech patterns were based upon research and was taught in the preparatory workshops. From there, all that was required was the standard study and general rehearsal common to any semi- improvisational presentation. As the faire opened and continued on to its end, the only reported difficulty was the one difficult actor, which sounds like one person's personal problem to me, a problem which the director quickly fixed by getting a different actor.

      In the case of the attempt at sailors, as most if not all taking part had allegedly worked together for at least one run of the Novato Faire, and, as the intent was effectively a Victorian version of what was done at Novato, there should have been an easily formed cohesive whole. On the other hand, in previous years, where the Dogs had been one of the more cohesive groups at the Novato Faire, by the '95 Novato Faire, the momentum from the former Guildmaster, Mistress Morancey, had run out, after which the Dogs made a showing no better than that of an inexperienced gaggle of RenFaire wannabes. This, it would seem, is what carried through to Dickens'. While one of them did have an idea of "wouldn't it be great if", and then left everyone in the lurch by leaving the country, there still should have been more than enough momentum to carry on.

      The best contrast here is the situation where Iain, too, albeit through no fault of his own, left Iain Abrach in the lurch by having a stroke. In that general situation, as with Dogs, we had much experience and time working together, but rather than immediately begin bickering over what we should be doing and how, we continued on with what we had been doing, and that is what worked. As Iain recovered, he did more, and by the time he was well enough to rejoin us entirely, there was nothing that needed redoing or repairing, because there had been no unnecessary changes made. As the would be sailors did not do, and as the Carol cast did, we carried through as we had even with the change in circumstances.

      Again, with the Boy Scouts, things that could have gone wrong included not showing up to run the lot, charging too little, charging too much, spending the money on the spot, and any of a number of other possibilities. None of these happened, as, again like the Dickens' Carol and Iain Abrach, where things could have gone wrong, there were the people who could do the work, they had the knowledge and experience, and they were willing to do the work.

      While being a mix of the above, the same still applies to the two running years of Baycon, uh, hiccups. With the first year, while there was no PreReg second and should have been, experience with registration on the part of several people was successfully pulled in to adapt to the situation and get the problems solved. That the networking of the registration computer system was inadequate is indeed inexcusable, and is a parallel with the wannabe sailors taking the inadequacies of the Novato Faire and trying to carry them into Dickens.

      In the following year, registrations' computer problems were solved by attacking the problem early, even with the last minute flake, much like someone announcing great interest, and then running off to Ireland. When the programming department disintegrated, that, too, was a matter of a core piece dropping out of sight on little or no notice, followed by everyone else first carrying on from experience and willingness to do their required work, Ala Iain Abrach with Iain, and Troop 50, somewhat, with me, and then filling in the missing pieces as needed, as Iain Abrach did by having the MacClure step in as a borrowed Chieftain at the Fair Oaks Faire, as the Carol director did by getting as new actor.


      With the three parts that experience indicates is required for any successful venture, a general disaster can indeed still occur, given something overwhelming, but as long as the people involved are willing and capable of doing what is required, many such occurrences have demonstrated that success can be expected.

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© 1996 Cassiel C. MacAvity