Ohio Renaissance Festival offers historical family fun
By Allyson B. Crawford
Don’t be the village idiot! Get thee to the Ohio Renaissance Festival!
The Renaissance, known broadly as a period of great enlightenment, occurred between the 14th and 17th centuries. During that time, and especially in Europe in the 16th century, scholars embraced new forms of music, art, literature and philosophy. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers came from this time period, including writers like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and John Donne and the philosophers Francis Bacon, Nicolaus Copernicus and Leonardo da Vinci.
Renaissance festivals, or “faires” started in America in the 1960s and grew in popularity over time. For 24 years running, the Ohio Renaissance Festival, located not far from Dayton in Harvesyburg, has delighted attendees with music, theatrical performances, jousting, jokers and general merriment. Renaissance festivals are big business and provide a tax receipt boost for the host city. Running from Labor Day weekend through Sunday, Oct. 20, festival management expects an uptick in attendance this year, estimating that 200,000 patrons will come through the gates and enter into the replica English village. That permanent village is what sets the Ohio Renaissance Festival apart from other like events.
“We are one of the few shows in the country that has such a large, permanent festival site,” Cheryl Bucholtz, vice-president of marketing for the Ohio Renaissance Festival told the Dayton City Paper. “I think that really helps add to the ambiance in creating the English village atmosphere. When the festival started, it was 10 acres. We’ve grown since then to 30 acres at this point in time. There’s constantly new construction every year, whether it’s a vendor building onto their shop or building a new shop or a festival booth being constructed … it’s constantly changing.”
It’s that ability to expand that keeps the festival fresh. All told, the Ohio Renaissance Festival grounds sit on 130 acres, and that means plenty of room to expand when and if the need arises.
“We pride ourselves in keeping entertainment unique, keeping what’s popular here and rotating the artists to keep things fresh,” Bucholtz added. “We do everything we can to give people a quality experience for the price they are paying for admission.”
New attractions this year include the Pirate Comedy Stunt Show, where actors actually perform on a large pirate ship. There’s also a magician and Celtic musicians.
Beyond paid performers like the professional jousters and musicians, the festival has just seven permanent employees year-round to pull off such a massive event. Festival organizers rely heavily on the help of volunteers who come from all over Ohio, including a significant amount from the greater Dayton area.
Bucholtz pointed to the festival’s location in Harveysburg – just outside Waynesville – as a key to its continued success. Being so close to Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus helps the festival draw crowds from all over the state and the greater Midwestern region. Having better talent than the competition doesn’t hurt either. The full-armored tournament joust features actual knights and remains the most popular attraction. The festival boats 11 stages with 100 shows daily.
“The jousting [is] real and from time to time there are injuries,” admitted Bucholtz. “Other shows you find across the country use a more theatrical, joust-based show. The troupe we have is actually rehearsing and practicing while out there every Saturday and Sunday.”
That troupe happens to be the Knights of Valour, owned by famed jouster Shane Adams. Adams is also host of the History Channel show “Full Metal Jousting.” In this instance, Adams actually approached the Renaissance Festival with his troupe of knights, looking for an opportunity to perform. It’s also common for the festival organizers to attend other shows to find new talent to bring back to the Dayton area.
If the extreme sport of jousting isn’t your thing, maybe something a little more romantic might fit the bill. On average, more than two dozen couples a year tie the knot on the grounds of the Ohio Renaissance Festival inside St. Peter’s Chapel. One year the festival celebrated the marriages of 20 couples, a record yet to be broken. If marriage is a little too commitment heavy, male festival-goers can simply learn some tips on chivalry from The Swordsmen, such as the proper way to kiss a lady’s hand.
Beyond jousting and romance, a big draw of the festival remains the theatre. Besides street performers, there’s “The Mudde Show.” Think of it as a sort of mini-Globe theatre. As the name suggests, actors sling mud during each performance. This season, the performers are taking on two classic dramas, “Beowulf” and Dante’s “Inferno” in addition to the original play, “The Viking Show.” If you want to get really muddy, you’ll attend “The Viking Show.”
“You have those die-hard fans that every show they can make it to they are sitting front and center because they want that badge of honor. They want to get that mud on them!” laughed Bucholtz.
Since so many people in attendance want to get down and dirty with the performers at “The Mudde Show,” it’s not really a surprise that a huge percentage also come dressed in period garb. Bucholtz estimates that 65-70 percent of festival attendees actually show up in costume. In addition to costumed guests, the festival has around 150 official costumed characters roaming the grounds. For those worried about walking minstrels wandering around with daggers and other weapons, the festival has a policy in place to keep costumes historically accurate while maintaining safety. According to Bucholtz, the front gate staff check all attendees for weapons. “Whether it is a broadsword or a dagger, they will check that it is first sheathed and then peace-tied.” Basically, this means a person can’t easily access their weapon and endanger others. Security staff also patrols the festival, ensuring that people don’t cut their peace-tied weapons once inside the grounds.
Maybe more than ever, families are flocking to attractions like the Ohio Renaissance Festival to allow their kids to have some technology-free time. After all, smartphones and Facebook didn’t exist when Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet.” Teens especially seem drawn to the fest, and Bucholtz had a theory on that one.
“I think teens may not realize, when coming to the festival, just how out of the box live entertainment it is. Once you get them here, it’s something totally different you won’t find anywhere else. It’s in your face, live interaction.”
Human powered rides teach kids about life before electricity and turkey legs mean eating without forks and knives. This lets kids get a cultural and history lesson … without breaking any of mom’s rules.
Live interaction and a celebration of history isn’t to say the Ohio Renaissance Festival isn’t using technology to its advantage. After all, it’s a business and the festival needs patrons to keep the event going year after year. Festival organizers have embraced social media as a way to market the event and increase interest. “Social media gives us the opportunity to provide our patrons and loyal followers that backstage, in-the-know, behind-the-scenes information,” explained Bucholtz.
Many students, both at the high school and college level, attend the Ohio Renaissance Festival as part of their formal education. Local colleges such as the University of Dayton and Wright State University have planned outings to the festival this fall. Sometimes the outings are just part of student activities, but others are more formalized and a requirement for English or theatre classes.
Music fans may be specially drawn to the Ohio Renaissance festival. A variety of different performers – including the Rogues of Rafferty – entertain with traditional Irish folk music. There’s also a cadre of strolling performers that sing and play various period instruments.
In addition to regularly scheduled entertainment like the musical comedy “The Other Woman” and “The Da Vinci Brothers Comedy Operas,” each operating weekend features a different theme. Upcoming themes include Oktoberfest Weekend, Highland Weekend and Holiday Marketplace Weekend. Theme weekends mean special programming, such as an Ale Toasting contest during Oktoberfest. Holiday Marketplace Weekend is billed as a great opportunity to get a jump on holiday shopping. This year, 135 artisans are displaying at the festival, presenting everything from pottery to leather goods. Some of these vendors also provide demonstrations of certain trades like glass blowing, candle making and blacksmithing.
Don’t forget to yell “huzzah!” after chugging your ale during the pub sing!
The Ohio Renaissance Festival runs every weekend through Sunday, Oct. 20. 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. $20 adults; $10 children; $100 season pass. 10542 E. State Route 73 in Harveysburg. For more info and discount tickets online, please visit renfestival.com.
Allyson B. Crawford lives in Kettering with her husband and writes about ’80s hair metal on her daily blog bringbackglam.com. She’s also a big fan of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” She can be reached at AllysonCrawford@DaytonCityPaper.com.