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What is the changing role of costumes at the Florida Renaissance Festival?

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Several people who work with Richard Weber the Entertainment Director of the Florida Renaissance Festival had described him to me as “charming, intelligent, witty and talented.” Sitting in his office trailer surrounded by the company’s costumes and the elaborate, highly detailed schedules that are absolutely necessary to give the festival patrons the seamless entertainment experience that keeps loyal attendees coming back year after year and new participants joining their ranks every season, you have the sense that you have indeed encountered someone with a rare combination of talents.

It’s impossible to resist the pun. Weber is indeed a Renaissance man who wears many hats, some he has even designed himself, in his roles of administrator, performer – he is Lord Mayor Percival of the court, and also a designer of high-end Renaissance head-wear.

The interview starts with a deceptively simple question. “What is the changing role of costumes at the Florida Renaissance Festival?”

As Richard points out. The changing role of costumes reflects the entire history of the modern Renaissance Fair experience.

The first Renaissance Fairs were basically community events with jugglers and stilt walkers with maybe some vendors dressing up to get into the spirit of the theme. In the next phase, the Fairs became theater productions. Those were the days when only the performers were costumed. Audiences rarely dressed in costume unless they were avid members of local reenactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism or members of the, at the time, rather small community that were active in early Role Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

As the presence of the Fairs has grown nationally, the position of the Renaissance Performer has attracted a talented and adventurous roster of actors, musicians and comedians who have established followings, many of whom began on the circuit straight out of college, excited to have the opportunity to actually make a life doing what they studied. Now that the role of interactive entertainment is second nature to the generations that have grown up with video and role playing games, performers are playing to fans with whom they have a lot in common and the metaphoric wall between the player the visitor has shifted.

Weber sees today’s visitor, in this time of tough economy and over-scheduled stressful daily lives, as seeking the opportunity to escape daily life and enter into the immersive fantasy of being in another world entirely. When the fair goer dresses in costume it helps take that visitor into another realm. The minute a costumed fair patron steps under the entrance arches of the park, the entertainment staff of the Florida Renaissance Festival, is prepared to ensure that their presence, in the role they have chosen with their costume, is acknowledged and that they are brought into the experience of being somewhere special and memorable.

When I visited the festival two weeks ago for Pirate Weekend I noticed a long line at the window to upgrade to the annual fair pass. With such emphasis placed on the visitor experience I can see why the annual pass is so popular. Further, in acknowledgement of their loyal season pass holders the entertainment department works to continuously improve the annual seasonal experience with, such initiatives as new theme weekends and rotating acts. These factors add work to the planning and scheduling but, Richard points out, that they are well worth the effort.

As I prepare to leave, I ask, Richard Weber, what, in his opinion, is the best function that costume serves in the Renaissance Festival experience? Without hesitation he answers that it’s the wonder in children’s eyes as they interact with the festival entertainers. “That little girl dressed as a Disney Princess, in her imagination, she is a princess and when a knight or prince bows to her and calls her ‘My Lady’ the fact that someone else has also realized that she is a princess makes her whole face light up and in that moment you realize that she’s just made a memory that will last a lifetime.”

Wow, no wonder so many of us come back year after year.

The Festival has three more weekends in Quiet Waters Park then moves to Cauley Square Historic Village in Miami.

Upcoming Costume Theme Weekends.
March 1 and 2, 2014 – Time Traveler’s Weekend with a Steampunk Costume Contest and Fashion Parade.
March 8 and 9, 2014 – Game of Thrones Inspired Weekend with Fight Demonstrations / Battle for Supremacy of the Houses of Westeros.
March 15 and 16, 2014 – Celtic Weekend with the Men in Kilts Contest

Come out this coming weekend (March 1 and 2, 2014) in your best time traveler costumes! As the festival promotion states, “from the "Flintstones" to the reaches of outer space.”

Steampunk is encouraged but all time travelers are welcome.

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