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Social inequality or not, folks at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival know how to throw down

Olde-School party


When: Sunday, May 4, 2014, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Arrington, Tenn.

The sun stings my eyes as I make my way through the noisy crowd. I'm surrounded by families, couples of all ages and a few lone stragglers, many in costume for the occasion. I instinctively reach for my sunglasses, but then remember I don't have sunglasses.

That's because nobody wore sunglasses in the late 16th century, and the actors' troupe I've joined for opening weekend of the Tennessee Renaissance Festival does everything by the book. I've been cast as a peasant, and my costume — boots, tights, pantaloons, a floor-length undergarment, three skirts, a lace-up vest, attached sleeves, a bonnet and a hat — is authentically austere. I'm even wearing a "bum roll" to enhance my posterior, and I'm just thrilled — as any modern woman would be — to see my butt look even bigger.

Being a peasant certainly wasn't my first choice, but that was probably also the case for actual peasants in the late 16th century. Frankly, I wanted to be a knight, if only just to cross "wear full armor at least once" off my bucket list. Yet here I am, a peasant — but who am I to argue with the concept of divine right?

I'm shadowing an actor named known as Pepper the Herbalist, and she's balancing a box of herbs on her head as she gracefully walks through the crowd. I trail behind her, tripping over my multiple skirts as sweat pours down my face. (Did I mention it's nearly 90 degrees out?) She encourages me to interact with the attendees, and instructs that we are to bow to the ground any time we encounter another actor who has a higher social status than peasant, which means everybody except the pirates.

While I'm silently stewing over the fact that I'm not a pirate, somebody important walks up, and Pepper bows low to the ground. I follow suit, crouching down as my knees — thankfully protected by five layers of clothing — dig into the gravel.

As we wander about the "village," I pester Pepper with questions like, "Are you from here?" and "What do you do when you're not doing this?" She gamely responds, yet never breaks character. "Nay, I live near the village of Nashville," or "Aye, I'm an R.N." My British accent slips in and out as much as Madonna's, but I try to keep up.

Pepper demurely sidles up to a cute minstrel and requests a song. He smiles at us as he sings and strums his guitar, channeling Donovan from Jacques Demy's awesomely weird film The Pied Piper. I'm enchanted. When he finishes, I bat my eyelashes and give him my best medieval groupie pout. "May I have a song, too?" I request in a voice that was meant to sound Olde English, but came out New Pirate. Sweat rolls down my back all the way to my bum roll. Charming, I'm sure.

The magical moment is broken when an elaborately dressed couple approaches. Pepper squeals and drops to the ground in an exaggerated bow. I'd met the woman earlier, when she politely warned me that she was going to have to "act mean" to me, so I bow down accordingly, burying my face in the gravel. After we bow down approximately 23 more times before rounding the corner, I start to feel very bad for my ancestors, who were certainly not of noble birth. Freedom isn't free, indeed.

We continue to wander around the grounds, tempted by the scent of turkey legs and funnel cakes from the nearby food stand. I really want one of each, but — as a temporary method actor — decide to remain hungry. I distract myself by bowing to anyone who looks fancy, because I can't tell the difference between the actors and costumed festival attendees. I dance with other peasants, partake in a tortuous ride called "The Hurlanator," and throw axes. Yes, axes.

The ax proprietor, a heavily tattooed man, shows me and other participants — a dad and his two young sons — how to throw an ax. Apparently, the "man" way to throw an ax is one-armed, whereas ladies and children require both arms.

I know we're pretending that it's 1593 or whatever, but I do not like being put in the same category as children, so I throw my ax with one arm to prove that I can throw an ax like a man.

It turns out I cannot throw an ax like a man. Or a lady or child, for that matter. All of my axes end up in the dirt instead of on the target. We move on.

After a quick bathroom break — and by "quick," I mean 10 minutes, since I have to hoist all the layers over my head so they don't drag in the porta-potty muck — we parade down to the tournament field for the Royal Joust. While I stealthily check my phone, Pepper informs me that I'm going to be a cheerleader for the joust.

I haven't been a cheerleader since eighth grade (actually, my Lutheran school cheerleading uniform of a long-sleeved turtleneck and sweater vest was nearly as modest as what I'm wearing today), and my Ren Fest role thus far has been fairly low-profile. For some reason, jumping around and yelling in front of hundreds of people with my Madonna British accent seems much more humiliating than burying my face in gravel.

I timidly take my place in front of a section of bleacher seats in the blazing sun. On each side of me, the other peasants are enthusiastically leading their groups in cheering and clapping routines. I sporadically yell and clap at my people, but spend most of my cheerleading routine kneeling on the grass, pretending to look for wildflowers. Every once in a while I glance up at the other actors, who are having a blast. I'm just waiting for the joust to end, and for my peasant shift to be over.

After the joust, I return to the dressing tent. As I change back into my street clothes, I realize that I fell prey to my own self-consciousness today. I had the opportunity to lose myself and go a little crazy, like the other actors. The ones who welcomed me into their group, even though I behaved like a medieval wallflower. The ones who stood before the crowd, void of any fear or anxiety over what someone else might think of them. The ones who do this because it's fun.

And that is true freedom, whether you're a peasant, a royal, or just someone who likes to dress up and go to Renaissance festivals on the weekend.


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