King Henry VIII is headed to Maryland and setting up his kingdom for a few months. At the annual Maryland Renaissance Festival, opening Aug. 28 Crownsville, attendees will get a chance to see familiar faces during their track through the medieval times and the reign of the English monarch, best known for his many wives.
The event highlights 16th century England during the medieval and renaissance reign of King Henry. This year’s festival is set up as the king and one of his six wives visiting a small town outside of London.
The festival has managed to grow nearly every year, said Jules Smith, the sites general manager. This year’s event will boast 230 daily performers, 112 stage shows, more than 42 food and beverages stands all over 19 days from August to October. Smith said the festival has managed to maintain its prominence during a recession without increasing ticket costs.
“Our prices are staying the same for five years in a row,” he said. “We are the least expensive Renaissance fair in the country. We’re institutionalized [in Maryland]; our pricing is reasonable.”
The event continues to average 284,000 people per year. Tickets prices remain at $18 for adults and $8 for children. Event planners bill the festival as the second largest is the country with 280,000 guests per season. The festival started in 1977 in Columbia before moving to a 25-acre site in Crownsville during the 1980s.
“In this economy people still want to have amusement but not travel far,” Smith said. “We always hold our prices as much as possible.”
Festival goers will be treated to a wide variety of entertainment including music, stage, and action performances from several hundred performers. The music genres include Celtic, renaissance, Sephardic, and world music, among others.
Still, event planners said every year they must find a balance between tradition and innovation.
“The one challenge is adding new entertainers while retaining old,” said Carolyn Spedden, artistic director of the festival.
Many of the performers will be dispersed throughout the site on corners and outside shops to give the festival a more interactive feel.
“Music is very big here,” Spedden said. “I think it’s a good value for your money. Most people like the overall event; it’s all inclusive.”
Todd Colvin, 23, of Bowie said the festival always offers a needed break from the troubles of the day. Colvin graduated in May from the University of Maryland College Park and has been looking for a job. He plans to work as a street performer at this year’s festival.
“It’s addictive,” said Colvin, who has been attending the festival since childhood. “It’s really therapeutic to get away from today.”
Colvin, a plant sciences major, said he will play a barber-surgeon while performing at the festival. During 16th century England, he said surgery was a new medical practice that was often performed by barbers.
“[Barbers] did it for the benefit of the surgeons because surgery was an up and coming [industry],” he said.
To prepare for his role, Colvin spent the year perfecting his upper-class English accent, and researching the role of a surgeon in 16th century England. He said his character is a part of a house, which is the equivalent of a business that worked for King Henry.
“It’s a labor of love. The language was different back then,” he said of his preparation. “The household we’re portraying is a very high household.”
Colvin said he will be feeling the pressure to perform. Acts wanting to appear at the festival must audition for roles, and even after they are selected they are not guaranteed slots in the next year’s festival.
“We always have to be on our game,” he said.
While some performers are just learning to sharpen their skills, others have spent years developing their talents to perform at the festival.
Jim Frank, 51, of Laurel had been performing in variety shows like the festival for more than 25 years. Along the way, he said he’s spent as much as $40,000 taking classes and getting certificates in various performance routines, such as archery, sword fighting, and jousting — he’s also a magician who will be displaying his flea circus during this year’s festival.
“I think everyone should experience [the festival] once to see a live performance — it’s so rare to see them,” he said.
Frank, who is a computer programmer, said though he failed his first audition with the festival in the 1980s, he’s remained a performer every year by continuously coming up with new performances for the festival.
“So many of us have branched out into new things because [event planners] are willing to take a chance,” he said. “It’s keeping everything fresh so it looks new each time.”
Kathleen Sobansky, 56, of Bowie said she has been going to the festival since it began. Sobanky, a member of the living medieval history group the Society for Creative Anachronism, had long been a fan of renaissance-themed events.
“It’s a fascinating area of history,” she said. “It’s exciting and romantic.”
Sobanksy performed at the festival during its first 17 years, playing the Celtic harp and singing medieval ballads. She still makes guest performances at the festival when visiting friends who still perform every year.
Sobansky said the festival has matured over the years, going from something that was largely organic and improvised in the 1970s and ’80s, to a very polished commercial product with a long list of performers. Still, Sobansky said the festival has never lost its charm as it continues to draw in large crowds. About a third of the attendees don costumes ranging from medieval wear, to pirate and gothic clothing.
This year, Sobansky said she would dress as a member of 16th century England’s lower class, though many of the festival goers choose to dress as noblemen and royalty.
“I go low class, because it’s cooler than being a nobleman,” she said.
If you go:
Maryland Renaissance Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends and holidays starting Aug. 28 through Oct. 24
Where: Crownsville Road, Crownsville, Anne Arundel County
Tickets: $18, $15 for seniors ; 2-day pass is $28; Fairever pass is $80.
Box office: 800-296-7304 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 800-296-7304 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or www.rennfest.com