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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Faire-y tale world

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The New Castle Players brave chilly, wet weather for the first readthrough of the opening ceremony sketch. Last year, the weather was so wet the cast called it the 'Rain-aissance festival," but the show always went on.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves) [Order this photo]
In a few months, Lane Davies and the Tennessee Shakespeare festival folks will be bringing the Bard to modern people with "A Comedy of Errors" in Bell Buckle.

In a few weeks, the folks in Triune will be doing just the opposite. They'll be taking modern people back to the Bard's time at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival. For 25 years now, Mike Freeman has been hosting the festival on his property, just about a mile from the intersection of highways 41A and 96, between Franklin and Murfreesboro. You can't miss it -- there's a perfect replica of a two-towered Welsh border castle on the same property.

For every weekend in May, visitors wander the wooded site, stopping at booths that offer everything from real chain mail armor to honey-roasted almonds. There are games and rides, costumers and fortune tellers -- and lots and lots of entertainment.

While most of the acts are professional groups who tour other faire venues year-round, there is one act that is always homegrown and hand-tailored (literally) to the Triune event -- the New Castle Players.

Jesters and jugglers

These Elizabethan characters, from jesters and jugglers to peasants and peers, wander the festival grounds in full costume. Besides regular sketches throughout the day, such as the human chess match and the jousting, some of the players also perform in an abbreviated Shakespeare play, and all of them interact with the festival visitors.

"We have to stay in character all day long," said Tina Marie Deamon. A third-grade teacher at Smyrna Primary and the mother of grown children, she has been a New Castle Player for 12 years now and loves it. "It is so much fun!"

Fun, yes, but it's a lot of work too. Months before opening day, auditions are held and every weekend thereafter, rehearsals take place within site of the Castle Gwynn. The players learn everything from dialect to dueling. They practice wordplay and swordplay, but above all -- improvisation. Since they never know what the visitors are going to say or do, they have to be prepared to act and react accordingly.

Humming for laughs

"One time, I saw these three military men -- you could tell by the hair and the Army camo pants -- walking along. I read the T-shirt one of them was wearing and I immediately turned around and started walking with them," said Deamon. "I started humming a tune. They would look at me and I would just smile and keep humming. This went on for a while when one of them finally asked me what I was doing.

Kris Nasso, left, lunges at Andrew Allen as they choreograph a fight scene for the human chess match at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival next month.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
"I pointed at the T-Shirt. It said 'I'm in need of a Hummer.' They died laughing. I think that was the best bit of improv I've ever done."

The New Castle Players, about 60 at last count, come in a variety of ages and sizes, but they all have one thing in common. They love the festival, and that's the main reason they're there. Considering the cost of their elaborate and historically accurate costumes and the cost of gas as they make the drive every weekend (One woman comes all the way from Bowling Green) the token payment they'll receive when it's all over is a drop in the bucket.

"It's magic," said Deamon. "I feel like I'm a kid again, pretending we're all kings and queens and princesses."

Getting to invent characters is part of the fun. In the past, Deamon has been Merry Tales, a storyteller with her own show, and Ima Notacook, who badgered visitors for recipes because "Ima Notacook," she said, laughing.

This year, she is May Cleaver, a butcher, with two sons, Wallace and Theodore. (TV Land fans, are you following here?) Wallace has an annoying friend named Edward, and Theodores' talents at catching small animals has earned him the village nickname of Beaver. (Now the light bulb comes on!)

There are lots of playful references in the show each year. The town sheriff's able (?) deputy will be Sir Barney of Fyfe, and two ambitious shepherdesses have the last names of, you guessed it, Bo and Peep.

May weekends

The opening of the festival takes place every weekend morning in May and on Memorial Day at 10 a.m. The first performance of the day, it sets the stage for following events. This year, the story revolves around the French Duke of Anjou and Robert Dudley competing for the hand of Queen Elizabeth. During the day, they will carry the story through until it culminates in the human chess match, with each suitor taking a side.

In between acts, the New Castle players tour the grounds themselves, talking to visitors and watching other performances. Some of them also play dual roles by performing in a Shakespeare play. This year, it is "Twelfth Night," and the rumors are that the Bard himself makes a cameo appearance ...

The players only meet two days a week, but it doesn't take long for them to become a family.

"Last year, when they had the big flood in Nashville, some of them got flooded out of their homes," said Sarah Smith, another player. "They stayed with others. We take care of each other."

Tina Marie Deason, playing the town butcher 'May Cleaver,' makes her own costumes and wears them to her third-grade classroom, where they are studying medieval times.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
Almost all of them joined up because they had come to the festival as visitors and fell in love. Some are in their first year, others have a decade or more of experience. They have all learned about the Tennessee renaissance festival and are quick to brag about it.

"It's unique," said Smith. "The costuming sets our faire apart from other faires."

She said other events like this one don't require the use of ruffs except for the "upper classes."

"But everybody wore ruffs, even the poor people," said Smith. "And we use all natural fibers. We try to make it as authentic as possible."

Making costumes

Some of the players make their own costumes, including the woman who plays Elizabeth and has the most elaborate costumes of all, and some of the players make everyone else's. The accoutrements, from earrings to boots, have to be approved.

Another thing that makes the Tennessee show unique is at the other end of the authenticity extreme. Fairies. Elves. Trolls and Trollops (Which, according to Smith, is the female version of troll). Unlike many of the medieval or Renaissance events held around the country, the Tennessee festival allows fairies to dart through the trees, enchanting visitors.

But the most unique aspect of the festival literally towers over it. The Tennessee Renaissance festival is the only one in the United States that takes place on the rounds of an actual castle, Castle Gwynn (White Castle to those of you who don't speak Welsh or eat at fast food places). When the festival first began, there was only a tower with a crenellated top. Now there are two towers, both capped with copper roofs, and a walkway between them. Tours of the castle are included, along with free parking, in the ticket price for the faire.

For ticket prices, times, dates and more information, visit www.tnrenfest.com, or search for Tennessee renaissance festival on Facebook.

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