Minnesota Renaissance Festival: A Retrospective

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A crowd descends upon 16th century England in Shakopee

The other week, I made it out to that dusty, goofy shrine to creative anachronism in Shakopee, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, my yearly visit. It seemed that we were among a great multitude who also wanted to get in to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival on its closing weekend, Shamrocks and Shenanigans. Crowds of men, women, and children dressed in contemporary garb strolled the grounds, drinking beer or pop and chomping into giant turkey legs with abandon. It was a hot, almost stifling early autumn day on the outskirts of the Twin Cities suburbs, one last stand for summer. Yellowjackets patrolled the garbage bags and settled on the backs of the heads of audience members sitting on the rickety benches set up at stages nestled under ancient cottonwoods and oaks to watch performers belly dance or juggle. In all a typical Fest experience, and one that is always fun, if not always surprising.

I have heard that the Minnesota Renaissance Festival is among the oldest, and largest, in the country. I can believe it. My parents took my sister and I to the Ren Fest for years, and I have fond memories to traipsing around the place, watching enthusiastic comedy and gymnastics, becoming confused by random ogres or wizards who ask you if “you can wiggle your horn,” or buying didgeridoos in an attempt to learn to play an instrument. We went to the State Fair as well, but for some reason I do not recall finding it as compelling as the Renaissance Festival. My mom used to get a 70% discount on tickets from her job, but now that she is retired, we have to make do with scrounged up discounts from the backs of newspapers (though the City Pages has some good tips here on how to make it on the cheap). With my background in fantasy roleplaying games and later, the study of early modern history , the fest held a certain amount of interest to me, though I never ended up getting a job there or going multiple weekends. No, my interest remained casual, and throughout my time of visiting, it is nice to see that not too much has changed there as well

There have been rumblings for years that the sand upon which the festival sits is worth more than the festival itself, and that developers will soon be along to bulldoze the quaint Elizabethan style facades housing craft shops, carnival games, fried food stands, and drinking establishments and dig quarries, as they already have with much of rolling grassy fields which serve as parking lots. Every year, though, it pops up as usual, and I can’t see that stopping anytime soon, not with a crowd like the one on the last day this year.

Does the Renaissance Festival hold up? Yep! Sure, the food is generally rather overpriced and of dubious quality (I remember chowing down on one of those ubiquitous anachronistic giant turkey legs and feeling tired of pulling tendons out of my mouth). This year we had some falafel, which wasn’t too bad, really. You could drop a small fortune on such useful household tools as a zweihander that really could take someone’s head off, or some pretty awesome leather tunics. Personally, I my favorite is the historically accurate game store, MacGregor Games, which offers fairly reasonably priced cloth games like Morris, Hnefatafl, Mancala, and even knucklebones and period playing cards.

The real draw, of course, is the performances and the people watching, I’ve always thought it would be cool to dress up sometime, but I make excuses about lacking funds to get fitted out for something that actually looks good, or the ability to make my own, so I’ve always just shown up in civilian garb. Maybe next year, right? Aside from the period garb, the jerkins, kilts, cloaks, and bodices, T-shirts with phrases, Tardises, and many middle aged moms and dads seemed to enjoy the opportunity to wear their “politically incorrect joke” t-shirts in public. We were certainly not disappointed by the people watching this year, and we even saw some new acts as we tromped across the grassy fields in between the store fronts and the people hawking nut bars and giant pickles.

The theme weekends always vary the options a little; this one was Shamrocks and Sheninagans, of course, promising Irish-themed events mostly focused on drinking. I do have to wonder why so many people drink at the fest, though, or at least, drink what is offered there; it seems super overpriced even compared to the food; a cup will cost upwards of $6. This might be worth a cup of mead, depending on your taste for the sweet nectar. They were offering free samples of Guinness, though, along with free cake in honor of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday this year. It was surprisingly good cake, actually, though I’m not too sure what it had to do with the Irish.

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The Minnesota Sky Vault Theatre Company forces a pair of hapless audience members to dance for our amusement in a scene taken from a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As for shows, we saw some old standbys, the Whacky Chickens and their poultryish brand of comedy, and the Danger Committee, expert practitioners of blade throwing, tossing knives and geek references at each other with equal deftness, but we also saw some new stuff too. My favorite new act this year were the musical and comedic antics of a young group, the Minnesota Sky Vault Theatre Company, who performed several abridged Shakespearean adaptations using that old Ren Fest tradition of enforced audience participation- watch out, you could be next! Fake British accents were bandied, and some nice violin work was displayed. It is good to see some new stuff being shown, after all, you can only watch the same Puke and Snot routine so many times over the years. We also checked out Arthur Greenleaf Holmes, writer of wildly inappropriate poetry, for the first time. Wildly inappropriate is not a misnomer; he does not exaggerate and makes sure to preface his show with plenty of caveats and viewers advisories, which did not prevent people from bringing their kids. He then asked the audience to pick a number between 1 and 10, where 10 was the most inappropriate, to indicate the poem they wished him to perform; the audience, of course, chose 69. The funniest part was gauging the reactions of the audience to the poet’s ribald limericks, and his jibes should they be foolish enough to bring their children into the audience. Seemed a good encapsulation of everything the Ren Fest is.

Once you have had your fill of faux Elizabethan life, and your feet are begin to the ache, one of the most particularly interesting scenes at the Renaissance Festival for me is the walk back to your car (and a car is probably the only real way to get to the Fest). Similar to arriving, before you buy your ticket, dragging yourself out, you find a strange and bizarre scene, as tropes of people garbed for the 16th century gather around cars and mingle with 21st century tourists, while everyone is just trying to remember where the car is parked. Was it on this length of lawn, or further along on that length of lawn? In any case, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival always offers a particularly idiosyncratic bit of Minnesota culture.


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