Forget the modern world and step back into history at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, one of the very best Ren faires in the world.
For 30 years now, the fictional town of Bristol has enticed many a patron with its charm and beauty. Selling the finest corsets, the town’s best ale, and even flowers for your sweet, over 200 Bristol Renaissance Faire merchants accommodate your every need. Kids can also enjoy exciting games and rides and be entertained with one of the finest jousting tournaments in all the land.
A great deal of planning goes into creating a period festival, especially one of this spectacular magnitude. Located on 30 acres of land in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Bristol Renaissance Faire has been the celebrated best fest in the nation for five consecutive years. I had the opportunity to talk with Julie McMillin, social media director for the Bristol Renaissance Faire and get some insight into just what it takes to put on such an incredible experience.
This faire began as King Richard’s Faire in 1972. What did it look like back in those early years? Were there any permanent buildings?
Although I never experienced the site personally during those years, yes, there were permanent buildings. I’ve heard several people mention that there once was a “hobbity hole” near the joust field and that the front gate used to be where the Fountainside Stage is now. It was a smaller site built for a smaller audience.
When did the faire transition from being King Richard’s to Bristol Renaissance Faire? Why the change?
Like many businesses, when King Richard’s Faire sold the site to Renaissance Entertainment Corporation (our name prior to 2006) shortly after the close of the 1987 season, finances were the primary cited reason.
Part of the fun, immersive environment of the Bristol Renaissance Faire is street entertainment. How was this developed?
Street entertainment was a natural and seamless place for busking musicians and vaudeville solo and group artists to brush up on their Commedia dell’arte knowledge and take to the streets of faires and festivals nationwide. Part of the concept at Bristol is that we’re a living and working city. We want to fill the streets with characters who represent all walks of life in 1574, when Queen Elizabeth came to visit.
Ron Scot Fry (artistic director 1989-2008) started the Bristol Academy for the Performing Arts back in 1989. Do new actors/entertainers still receive this training?
Yes, and it has expanded! New cast members take 40 hours of classes during the five weeks prior to the show opening, in addition to approximately 40 more hours of rehearsal. This doesn’t include the time spent on independent research or costume research. Four years ago we became a location where students at the University of Wisconsin could complete a theater internship and earn three credit hours toward their degrees. Many other colleges offer credit for performing at Bristol, but it would take too long to name them all. Suffice it to say, we’re thrilled that our training program meets college-level standards, and we believe it translates directly into the interactions our guests receive.
What are some unique ways the Bristol Renaissance Faire is arranged?
Bristol boasts the largest area dedicated specifically for children with our Kids’ Kingdom. We’re pleased to be recognized as one of the top-10 family-friendly Renaissance faires in the nation year after year. Each street in Bristol has a different “feel” characterized by the shops on that street. Traders’ Wharf showcases items from all over the world. Guildhall Row highlights some of our largest buildings filled with traditional crafts. King’s Landing features many of our newest merchants in the city. The differences are subtle, but we do keep each neighborhood in mind as we welcome new merchants.
Our tournament joust field is also undergoing big changes lately. I’m not at liberty to discuss them right now, but I know they’re going to be extremely well received when the project is complete.
Are the buildings all designed and constructed by Bristol? Do artisans (vendors) stay in their shops in sleeping quarters above the shops? I can’t help but look up at some of these buildings and think it must be a great place to stay.
Actually, most of the buildings are designed by the merchants, approved by Bristol and constructed by either Bristol or an approved contractor. The majority of second floors are for dry storage only. There isn’t much sleeping on-site at all — except where approved by the county. You many notice several RVs in the parking lot. That’s where the majority of the traveling performers and merchants reside. But in the spirit of supporting local business, the overwhelming majority of cast, crew and merchants are local and they go home at night — myself included.
Are all the buildings of the Tudor design, or is quite a bit of fantasy integrated as well?
Oh, there’s a bit of everything in the buildings. The majority of them are inspired by Tudor design, but where the shop is selling fantasy items, like garden gnomes, then they may have more of a fantasy silhouette. But if the shop has white walls with exposed brown beams, then that’s practically screaming Tudor design.
Can you tell us a little about the amazing redesign of Kids’ Kingdom?
The new Kids’ Kingdom is the result of a long collaboration among our producers and several talented artists. They wanted an immersive world at child size inspired by myth and legend, while being utterly unique to Bristol. You won’t find this fleet of ships, tiny houses with slides, flying dragons or eggs anywhere else. The castle stage is currently the largest stage in Bristol and we’re proud to fill it with some of the most talented children’s shows in the country. Kids’ Kingdom is the crown jewel of Bristol’s family-friendly experience.
Are there plans to redesign other areas at the Bristol Renaissance Faire?
Yes, we’re in the middle of a multi-year project that spans the entire site. You’re going to continue to see improvements to sight lines, accessibility and guest comfort. We’re ecstatic to reveal Bristol each opening day.
You have quite a few stages at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. What sort of performances might we expect to see there?
We take the phrase “all the world’s a stage” as truth at Bristol. There are 17 stages with built-in audience seating, and three large areas where it’s standing room only for the shows (around the Maypole, for example). We absolutely still call them stages and schedule performances in them throughout the day, but I know the internet loves to nitpick about the definition of stage, so I thought I’d be very clear at the outset. Our entertainment is unlike anything you’ll find in traditional theaters or concerts, and at Bristol there’s an act for every age and taste. We have acrobats who design their own stunts and stand on top of each other while juggling fire. We have jousting with solid wood lances that are not designed to break on purpose for flashy hits. We have comedians who don’t speak, bawdy singers who don’t shut up, and gentlemen who eat mud. We have the most dedicated historians who can fold you into the 16th century without you realizing you’re learning things, and the most talented physical actors who can make you believe in fairies again. Birds of prey soar through our skies while our heroes and villains battle for control of the city. We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and we cannot wait for you to join us.
The joust is obviously a big draw at the faire. How many shows are put on during the day?
There are three jousts during the day, and the jousts themselves are unscripted. The passes are made with solid oak lances colliding at a combined 30 miles per hour. You’re watching real armor, real shields and real lances do what they were designed to do for a tournament joust. We’re thrilled to present the jousters at Bristol.
What will Bristol Renaissance Faire be doing this year to celebrate the milestone of its 30th anniversary?
We’re going to have a different, interactive surprise every single day. I cannot reveal anything more, but if you’re “game,” then you might become part of the show!
There are so many things to see and experience at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. What is your personal favorite?
That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! Or my favorite book!
Before I joined the cast, my favorite part of Bristol was visiting in costume because the cast treated me as if I was another character who belonged. It felt like I was joining the largest game of make-believe I could have ever imagined. During the years I’ve been part of the cast, we’ve developed a game, RenQuest, now entering its 10th season. The game makes you, the visitor, the main character of the story. Become a fierce warrior, a wise mage, a cunning rogue or a dashing bard as one of the heroes of the city…or one of the villains. We’ve taken the feeling of easy inclusiveness that happens at Bristol and heightened it so that a guest can celebrate their achievements and their victories with all due recognition. I’ve watched heroes cry with happiness after defeating a dragon. I’ve held players when a death of a character reminded them too strongly of the loss of a loved one. I’ve been part of marriage proposals, officiated at player weddings, even held a baby or two and welcomed them into the fictional family. Bristol is a place where you can safely forget the modern world for a few hours and step back into history.
My favorite part of Bristol is the dedication of the cast to ensuring that the magic of the Renaissance Faire remains accessible for everyone.
The Bristol Renaissance Faire begins their 30th season on July 8 for nine weekends through Labor Day Monday.