Faire play: On the road with a traveling troupe of pirates, bards and jesters

Pass Four Productions, a comedy stage combat troupe, takes a nap backstage between shows at the Iowa Renaissance Festival, Amana, 2019. — courtesy of Elisabeth Chretien

Spring has come around again! That can mean different things to different people; for me, spring signals the return of Renaissance faire season.

I have been a member of Pass Four Productions since 2014. We are a troupe of actors who perform short, one-act comedy skits with choreographed stage combat at Ren faires across Iowa and the Midwest. Or, as I prefer to put it: I get to hit my friends with swords for applause and tips.

Most people might visit a Renaissance faire once or twice in their life. It’s an enjoyable day of eating turkey legs, watching the joust, listening to some uncommon music and watching a lot of delightfully silly folks in costumes turn a field into a medieval (or fantasy medieval) festival for a few hours.

I still remember my first Renaissance Faire. It was in Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-’90s, when I was a preteen. I clearly recall looking around at all the adults in costumes — adults! in costumes! — and immediately falling in love with the silliness and the spectacle. I thought, “I can’t believe there are people who actually do this!”

For some, those first encounters turn into a lifelong hobby. They spend money on costumes and visit multiple faires in the region every year. They are what is known as “play-trons,” people who come to Renaissance faires in costume and play a part, though they are not officially part of the faire cast or crew. These individuals play a vital role in bringing the magic of the faire to life.

And then there are those of us who take it one step further: the official hired performers and vendors at Renaissance faires. Some performers are hired directly by these festivals to be part of an ensemble cast that tells an interactive story throughout the entire weekend. Others form troupes of actors, musicians, acrobats, dancers or any other act you can imagine and are hired to put on shows on stages at certain times.

That is what I have been doing since 2014, though I also passed through the play-tron stage. Along the way, I have sought to create for others that same magic that first enchanted me. These days, depending on the faire, I step out on stage (often just a roped-off patch of grass) three or four times a day with Pass Four, to perform 20-to-25-minute plays about pirates or Vikings or fairies or Robin Hood or whatever. They all culminate — and often begin — with us drawing our swords and engaging in carefully choreographed combat that we have spent months rehearsing.

For me, Renaissance faires are a natural progression in my performance career. I’ve been on stage since the age of 4 as a dancer, actor and musician. My work with Pass Four is the logical combination of that lifelong hobby and my magical moment of Renaissance faire discovery as a child.

What I didn’t fully expect when I started was the sense of family and camaraderie found among Renaissance faire performers. I think this develops because most performers don’t just perform at one faire a year. No, we migrate.

Some make this kind of work their career, traveling across the country all year with the weather to perform at faires across the nation. Others are weekend warriors like me, holding down day jobs during the week and then morphing into a pirate onstage during the weekend. We’re a community on wheels, coming together in one city for a weekend, going back to our regular lives on Monday morning and then reuniting in a different city a few weeks later.

At our troupe’s “home faire,” the Iowa Renaissance Festival in Amana, we have shared a stage with an improv troupe from Grinnell for many years, and they have become close friends even outside the festival gates. We’re always overjoyed to reconnect with a troupe of musicians — also now friends — from Des Moines. I have a long-standing friendship with a belly dancer from Lincoln, Nebraska, and a newer friendship with a mermaid from Omaha.

We’re also a community forged by the tough realities of performing outdoors in all kinds of weather. I’ve huddled under cloaks with friends during late-spring and early-fall snow; shared water and shade during scorching mid-summer heat; and taken shelter with strangers during powerful thunderstorms. I’ve loosened the corset of a stranger during a 112-degree day. I’ve helped a pirate get to shade and received water from a mermaid. I’ve applied sunscreen to the back of a fairy and brought an inhaler to a knight. It doesn’t matter what city or state I’m in; the story is always the same.

Pass Four Productions and Grinnell-based comedy improv troupe Scenery Changes backstage at the Iowa Renaissance Festival in Amana, 2019. The two groups have shared a stage for many years. — courtesy of Elisabeth Chretien

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it meant that the 2020 Renaissance faire season didn’t really happen. Some events went on, but with reduced numbers of patrons, vendors and performers. I didn’t take the stage at all that year. I didn’t get to see my friends. Even the 2021 faire season was slow to get off the ground, since some faires required commitments from vendors and performers before vaccines were widely available.

My return to performing at Renaissance faires was delayed until August 2021. And, like my very first faire, that took place in Omaha, Nebraska. It was my first time seeing many friends — some who live right here in Iowa City and some who live a few states away — since the end of the 2019 season in Sioux City. There were smiles and laughs and hugs before we rushed away to our respective stages to sing and dance and act and sword fight.

It was a true homecoming, back in a community far from our respective homes, yet a home in its own right.

And of course, that weekend ended with familiar-sounding exchanges:

“Will I see you in Des Moines next month?”

“No, but we’ll be back in Amana the month after that. Seen you then.”

Until next time, my friends.

Elisabeth Chretien is a freelance editor and writer by day and an actor, dancer and musician by night. This season, you can catch her with Pass Four Productions at the Iowa Renaissance Festival in Amana playing both the world’s greatest pirate hunter and a talkative unicorn. This article was originally published in Little Village’s May 2022 issue.

2022 Iowa Renaissance faires

Celine Robins, former Little Village staffer, attends the Iowa Renaissance Festival, June 2021. — courtesy of Celine Robins

Spring Fling Celebration of Mothers (at Sleepy Hollow)
Des Moines, May 7-8
Free admission!
Mother’s Day brunch: $20.99 ages 13+; $15.99 ages 5-12; 4 and under free with adult

Pillage the Village Pirate Fest (at Sleepy Hollow)
Des Moines, May 14-15
$12 ages 13+; 12 and under free with adult

Renaissance After Dark (at Sleepy Hollow)
Des Moines, May 14 at 6 p.m.
21+ only; $27 (includes Pillage ticket)

Midlands Renaissance Revel (spring)
Council Bluffs, 21-22
$15-22 ages 14+; $8-12 ages 6-13; 5 and under free with adult

Iowa Renaissance Festival
Lenox (Amana Colonies), May 28-June 5
$15-22 ages 14+; $8-12 ages 6-13; 5 and under free with adult
Family pack: $80 (two adult, two children, two collector mugs, $20 food voucher)
All current or retired military admitted free with ID on Memorial Day

Midlands Renaissance Revel (summer)
Council Bluffs, Aug. 20-21
$15-22 ages 14+; $8-12 ages 6-13; 5 and under free with adult

The Renaissance Faire at Sleepy Hollow
Des Moines, Sept. 3-18
$19 adult; $8 child

Greater Quad Cities Renaissance Faire
Davenport, Sept. 24-25
$15-21 ages 14+; $8-11 ages 5-13; 4 and under free with adult
$2 discount to military personnel with ID

Sioux City, Oct. 1-2
(tickets not yet available)

Iowa Renaissance Festival
Lenox (Amana Colonies), Oct. 8-9
$15-22 ages 14+; $8-12 ages 6-13; 5 and under free with adult
Family pack: $80 (two adult, two children, two collector mugs, $20 food voucher)