April 23, 2010

Behind the Washing Well, Interview with a Washer Woman

I go to renaissance faires. I watch the shows, participate in them sometimes (very reluctantly), eat massive amounts of fried food, drink ale, and unlace my bodice with gleeful joy the second I get to the car at the end of the day.  And I’ve always wondered what happens before the crowds arrive. What is life like for the performers and vendors? Especially the ones that follow faires around the country, hopping from place to place. What kind of work goes into six or eight week shows?

I’ve chased down a few renfaire folks to gain some behind the scenes insight. This will be a continuing series for the blog, I’ll post fresh interviews as I can, probably every couple of weeks.

First up is the delightful Sarah. She has played washer wench at the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire (which is going right now, weekends til 5/23).

Are you a performer, goods vendor, or food vendor? Tell me a little about your craft.
When I play faire, I am primarily a performer with the Washer Women guild. We are a group of women who, along with the Ploughboys, have a "live stage" ... in our case, a large washing well and yard. At any given time of the day visitors to our stage can find us washing clothing (yes, we really do wash all day long!), singing, gossiping, dancing, arguing, and playing games in the mud. In addition to my time on the well, in the 2009 season I had a long-running gig with the Queen's Yeoman. Depending on the day we would interact with the guests, in a variety of scenarios, or, my favorite, perform long improv sessions around the faire site, much to the amusement (and occasional involvement!) of onlookers!

How many faires to you travel to? Are they concentrated in one area or across the States?
In the 2009 season I played full time at Southern (So Cal) only, though I did play part time at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in the fall.

What is the most challenging part about setting up at renaissance faires?
The load-in weeks leading up to opening are always a challenge when it comes to getting everything prepared. In our case, the well needs to be brought out of storage, set up, sanded, painted, and cured. In addition, all live plumbing needs to be installed, and our backstage area set up. Throughout work weekends, we also spend time sewing and updating our costuming, and brushing up on dialect and songs. With so much to do, it's quite a busy time!

What is your favorite faire and why?
Southern (So Cal) is by far my favorite faire I have worked or visited. Being the original in the country it is definitely the most well developed and run. The sheer amount of talent among the actors and vendors creates an atmosphere unrivaled at any site I've visited elsewhere! It is so well done that it is very easy to lose yourself in the world created, and really, who wouldn't want to do that?


Many visitors (even me) assume that the faire is comprised of entirely permanent structures. I had no idea the well had to be set up and plumbed annually. My respect for washing wenches just went up several notches. Funny, talented, and handy. And also, it is the best show to attend multiple times on hot faire days.

If you would like to be interviewed for this series, please contact me – alratcliffe@yahoo.com.
Photos in this post were provided by Sarah.  The first photo was taken by Richard Lowe of Renaissance Faire.net, and the second photo was taken by Skye Berger.

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