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 that damn Muddy Rag #12 Hat Trick
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Hat Trick
By Big Harry Lumpy
n
Lucky 13

What is the Sturdy Beggars Mud Show®? We’ve employed many mirthful methods of answering that query over the years, many available for consideration in various spots within this web site. Analytical and descriptive folderol aside, what we are essentially is entertainment. When you attend a Renaissance Festival, you should find many and varied entertainers exercising their respective schticks on stages throughout the site… unique and specialized performers, offering talents and tricks not readily available in other venues. In my fusty view, there are roughly three tiers of entertainers at any given Faire: the professional “Variety Acts,” the “Local Talent,” and the blurry gray area between the two, the “Local Acts.” The seasoned Variety Acts feature veteran performers -- magicians, jugglers, ropewalkers, comedians, musicians, or folks combining almost all of those skills and more. These are professionals who have dedicated respectable chunks of their lives learning and practicing specialized skills, and to be a successful Variety Act they must also have charismatic and confident stage presences. They book their acts at various Ren Faires and other venues throughout the year, making their livings providing dynamic “niche” entertainment.

The “Local Talent” is a general description of the many folks who fill the streets and smaller stages of a Ren Faire, playing Elizabethan-era-oriented characters. They’re generally citizens of the immediate region, have had some classes in “period” costuming, customs and language (typically provided by the staff of the given Faire) and usually supply their own costumes and props and usually work for free (a few do earn modest stipends)." In lieu of contractual monetary compensation, they get to attend their beloved local Faire and add vital character to the surroundings, playing everything from lowlifes to royalty (actually most royal courts do get some sort of meager remuneration – heck, those hoity-toity costumes ain’t cheap). They might travel to other Faires, but again, compensation is minimal at best. These dedicated minions are in it for sheer love of the Rennie world. Accordingly, actual talent as performers is oft questionable, hopefully made up for in spirit.

“Local Acts” are performers who have risen from the ranks of the Local Talent to develop burgeoning stage acts. They’re endeavoring to chalk up valuable experience and hone their skills en route to becoming (hopefully) professional Variety Acts. They usually just ply their tenderfoot trade at the local Faire, but travel to other Fests and venues when the opportunity arises. Some are gifted if a bit raw, some are earnest but, as our old pal Oafie used to put it, “charisma-challenged.” It’s not easy to capture and engage a crowd at a distraction-packed outdoor venue like a Ren Faire, and it takes vigorous skill and presence to pull it off. On a smaller stage today, shooting for a main stage next year…

Anyway, over the years one of the brightest benefits of performing our particular antic show at Renaissance Faires across the county has been meeting and getting to know several vibrant and distinctive individuals working as main-stage Variety Acts, true characters in every sense of the word, some unbelievably talented, some brilliantly bent, all memorable beyond clumsy accolades in a little web-newsletter article. At my first on-the-road Rennie gig, the Maryland Festival in 1980, other featured performers there included Penn Gillette (of Penn and Teller), the Flying Karamazov Brothers, and Avner the Eccentric, probably the last time any of them worked the Rennie circuit. Listing what we’d consider today’s top talent is a purely subjective exercise; different members of our troupe have gotten to know different main-stage maniacs in different degrees, as it were. Getting to hang and talk shop with top talent at the Fests has been a mad honor. These are tremendously skilled and funny professionals and any trip to a Ren Fest must include seeing as many top-notch shows as possible… you don’t get to see such incredible vaudevillian variety anywhere else these days.

AND at the end of most any act, big or small time, they make a personalized pitch and “pass the hat.” Actually, the hat isn’t usually passed, and isn’t even always a hat, but there’s that danged collection receptacle between you and escape in the bustling streets. In “gate polls” taken at different Faires we’ve worked (surveys pressed on exiting faire-goers), patrons often list the “hat” as a top complaint. Accordingly, some Faires occasionally profess intent to structure things contractually so as to eliminate the “hat pass.” Recently, a “creative director” we were dealing with coldly equated hat passing with panhandling. Folks, please understand the most fundamental factor of the proffered hat at the end of a performance – giving is strictly VOLUNTARY, despite any humorous haranguing. When a performer states that your smiles and laughter are the currency they most aim for, take them at their word. If you pass by them, thank them for the show if it entertained you, feel free to chat them up, but no one is actually grabbing you by the ankles and shaking you over the tip basket. Do not fear or loathe the hat.

‘Cause it ain’t going away. Passing the hat after providing distinctive diversions is, frankly, historically accurate and fully befitting an outdoor Festival venue. Street entertainers always have and always will shoot for tips. The top Variety Acts are contracted to appear, but that monetary arrangement doesn’t always cover all the costs of touring… life on the road entails vehicle maintenance, housing, and other essential living expenses. We’re independent contractors – no withholding in our wages, no health or retirement benefits. Tax time can be a mighty bite. So the humble hat pass comes to serve as a vital aspect of making things workable… the tip basket can indicate any true profit. If you see fit to drop a dollar or two in any given hat, God bless you for it, but only do so if you are able and utterly inspired to. I’ve always wanted to pointedly quiz the patrons who complain about “too much hat passing” to determine how much they actually put in themselves… odds are, naught to pennies at best. Basically, they just don’t get it.

Want a true “return to the Renaissance?” Then imagine Festival streets full of hustlers and cony-catchers (con artists), frenzied specialty acts on most every corner, and myriad beggars lining the byways, some legitimately desperate, others skillfully scamming. One big continuous hat pass of debatable entertainment value. Today you have the option of choosing the nonsense you wish to observe and/or participate in, and tipping is just suggested, not required. Sure, it shows good form, but only do so as an expression of your honest inner Faire-goer. I guess I’m droning on at this length because the whole “panhandling” comparison really sticks in my grizzled craw. Of course we’re more susceptible to such ‘cause heck, we’re beggars, but from the very beginning, when we used to spend at least 70% of our day begging in the Faire's streets, we strove to offer entertainment above all else… we begged like madmen, but always to get a laugh first and foremost, cracking wise with the passerbys, performing outlandish, often improvisatory slapstick hijinks, earning our coins via grins, not just blank entreaty (in a future article I hope to elucidate the vital role we play in the fabric of Faire society as lively lowlifes and the actual historical authenticity of our antics). When mounting the Mud Show became the thrust of our energies within a Faire day, our beggarly motivations engineered a unique hat pass as an integral functioning part of the show, something that distinguishes us among our Variety Act peers. Though we imbue it with giddy urgency, donating is strictly voluntary, like any other hat pass at the Faire. Yet some people apparently don’t get the big picture and dismiss it all as “panhandling.” Citing proximity to major cities is no justification for claiming passing the hat is but rude street begging … Faire patrons should be trusted to make the distinction between colorful entertainers in a Rennie fantasy realm and true panhandlers in the urban streets of the “real world.” To denigrate the time-honored hat pass as crude street badgering and hustling demonstrates a rather clueless disrespect for the dedicated artists whose energies make a day at the Faire a memorable occasion nonpareil.

 

 
 
that damn Muddy Rag #12 designed & executed by B. H. Lumpyn, S. Jitters 03/04
editor: B. H. Lumpyn
scribes du jour: S. Jitters, B. H. Lumpyn, Hw. Henry
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