Kage Baker, when once asked what she had actually done at the Renaissance Faire, replied: “I learned to cheat out, make eye contact, and be as loud as I could be, from an ex-Mouseketeer standing on a hay bale drinking my beer.”
That fairly much befuddled the interviewer, who – like so many people – had no idea what the original Renaissance Faire was about anyway. A bunch of freaks playing dress-up? Where ancient hippies went to expire in a plume of suspiciously fragrant smoke? A crafts fair with beer and tits?
It was nothing so simple. It was a 360 degree, live, outdoor, environmental theatre: 8 hours a day (barring wildfires and floods), every weekend for 6 weeks, or 8, or 12 if you count the rehearsal weekends – or, one insane year when we went straight from Southern Faire to Northern Faire – 24 weeks straight. It was scholarship, vaudeville, improvisation, fairy tale, history, and myth. The plot and characters were the same, but – like Commedia d’el Arte – the words changed minute to minute. Every day was irreproduceable. It was an ultimate Live Performance where you were never out of the audience’s sight or hearing, and every angle was center stage.
When we started Faire, Dennis Day was one of the ringmasters of our demented circus. He was one of our oldest, most talented, most complicated performers. He taught ALL of us, often standing on a hay bale (Dennis was very short), tottering busily through our dusty streets under the oak trees. He often played Newington Butts, the Shire poet: “One Butt, two T’s,” he would explain, with a wide, beatific smile. Then he would rope you into playing Juliet to his Old Nurse, reading off insane dialogue from chapbooks in the middle of a crowded street, explaining to the audience as he went along that there was some upstart glover’s boy from Stratford-On-Avon passing off Newington’s plays as his own …
He and his partner Ernie were directing Entertainment when Kage and I joined the Faire. They approved our auditions personally, after making us describe ourselves in character. They saw something in us that we had not even discovered yet. It would lead directly, via dubious roads, to Kage’s extraordinary talent as a writer. As for me … what they saw in me and taught me to express became one of the pillars of my life. It still is.
Yes, I knew Dennis, well and for a long time. He taught me improvisation and mime. We performed in some of the same stage shows – one (The Glitz Show) was so memorably bad and over-the-top weird that it had only two performances: Opening Day, when it got cancelled; and Closing Day, when we performed it in a defiant guerilla action. It featured Dennis rising like Botticelli’s Venus from a giant gilded clam shell, wearing not quite enough of a Greek chiton …
It was our first year, and Kage and I wondered at the time if that show would make it our last, as well. But it turned out that the Glitz Show entered the hallowed halls of legend, for those who were still sober enough to remember anything at all from the last, hot, dusty afternoon of Faire. Dennis was still directing Entertainment the next year, when he announced that too many of us were playing historically absurd characters, and that the audition to play a fairy was to frigging fly from the top of Main Stage to Ale 1. Never got any takers, as far as I recall; but the caveat still stands as canon with many of of the Faire Folk.
I’ve had it repeated to me by people who may not have been potty-trained when I heard it the first time. That’s immortality, man.
Ernie Caswell, Dennis’ husband, performed my sister Kimberly’s wedding. It was at Faire, in costume. Dennis attended and was part of the crowd that drank champagne from the very back of the Faire all the way to the front gates, as we escorted the bride and groom off on honeymoon. Dennis played Saints at Guild advancement ceremonies, and MC’d a variety of daft night shows. Most mornings and evenings he was behind Main Stage or the Prop Shed, convincing the younger and frailer of the cast that they really could survive whatever they’d enjoyed the night before.
Somewhere along the years, he and Ernie quietly withdrew from active performance. But they didn’t leave Faire; instead, they began selling the best jams, jellies and gooey desserts at Faire. Their jellies were as beautiful as gems – ruby, emerald, citron, topaz – and tasted like the fabled fruits of Paradise. There were all the standards, of course, but there were also magnificent novelties: banana jam. Rainier Ale (a favourite with impoverished actors). Rose petal jelly. Jalapeno jelly – the flat-out best condiment for roast pork in the entire Universe. And while the booth supported Ernie’s charity of the Oblates of St. Genesius, the genius behind the strainers and glass jars was Dennis. He could cook like a god.
Kage and I saved our very last jar of jalapeno jelly for a Samhain ceremonial dinner, and wept when it was gone.
Now I weep because Dennis is gone. But remembering the gold and heat and light of him can never be regretted. He’s not someone who should ever be forgotten, and the thousands of Faire performers who loved him never will forget. Nor will we forget how hard it was to find him when he slipped out of the vision of the short-sighted world, how we fought and nagged and whined and offered money to get someone to pay attention to his disappearance.
But he’s found now.
I wish I had a good, clever, declamatory way to end this blog, but I don’t. His death still feels like a punch in the gut to me. He would roll his eyes and scold me for this, as one of the things he taught was to always know how the gig ended – else, how does anyone know when to clap?
For you, Dennis: that would be all the time.