Want to time travel?
|Brent Jones paints each sign at the Carolina Renaissance Festival by hand. (Lauren Odomirok / Herald Weekly photo)|
The Carolina Renaissance Festival runs Saturdays and Sundays, Oct. 5-Nov. 24, at 16445 Poplar Tent Road.
HUNTERSVILLE – Long before visitors stroll through wooded paths and flood the front gates of the Carolina Renaissance Festival each October, a massive amount of preparation is needed to make the 22-acre storybook village of Fairhaven come to life.
For starters, Brent Jones, a professional painter, spends roughly three weeks in a small studio shed on the grounds hand-painting just about every sign visitors behold – from ones stating the price of vanilla chocolate chip gelato to others proclaiming the name of theater stages.
Jones has worked on signs for the festival for about a decade, carefully retouching those damaged by rainstorms each year. He said it’s rare to find a festival with so little digital art and considers his work to be a visible symbol of the event’s dedication to personal craftsmanship.
Matt Siegel, director of marketing and entertainment, said his uncle, Jeff Siegel, started the popular attraction 20 years ago. Jeff Siegel worked his way up from performer to general manager at a Minnesota Renaissance festival and later successfully ran a similar event in Arizona.
“I got this phone call out of the blue,” Siegel said. “He calls me up and said, ‘So, I hear you’re studying marketing, huh?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and he goes, “Why don’t you fly up to Charlotte and see what I’ve been up to.”
A graduate of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Siegel was running a concession business at Six Flags Over Georgia and dabbling in advertising sales at the time.
Nine years later, he helps oversee 1,200 people – from parking lot attendants to the woman offering you truffles at The Chocolate Shoppe – who keep the two-month event running.
Jeff Siegel’s Royal Faires parent company maintains ownership of the Arizona winter festival, too. Four of the North Carolina event’s main staffers travel back and forth between the two venues.
“It’s hard to make a cactus look like it belongs in England,” said Lauren Sterling, administrative general manager. “We have to plant a lot of trees and focus everyone’s attention down because if you look up, there’s not the big, beautiful greenery behind the booths like there is here. And we have to force the grass to grow against its will.”
Debut performances at the Huntersville festival’s 20th anniversary will include talent that Siegel scouted after watching episodes of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “America’s Got Talent.”
“We like to keep the event fresh for our returning patrons,” he said.
Variety show acts will include Broon, who can swallow flames and juggle bowling balls. “Sirena,” a three-woman musical show, will play songs like “Scarborough Faire,” intent on hypnotizing their audience like the mythical sirens who lured in shipwrecked sailors.
Each June, roughly 200 people – generally from towns between Greensboro and Columbia, S.C. – audition for paid and volunteer roles in Fairhaven. This year’s event will feature 300 performers.
“The person dressed up as a peasant and who is pretending to play with mud could be a psychiatrist Monday to Friday or an IT executive at Wells Fargo,” Siegel said.
Whether you’re a court jester roaming Fairhaven’s streets or a professional comedian on stage, Siegel said all performers undergo about two months of weekend training workshops in Charlotte.
Teachers from the local theater community help them adapt to an interactive, outdoor venue. A doctor from Carolina Eye, Ear, Nose & Throat Associates even helps actors preserve their voices while performing.
The festival duplicates Commedia dell’arte, a form of theater begun in 16th-century Italy characterized by troupes of traveling “stock characters,” like the foolish old man or the devious servant, who entertained onlookers outside by improvising based on established scenarios.
“The Renaissance time period was an explosion, a rebirth, of the arts and sciences,” Siegel said. “It was an incredible moment in human history that continues to resonate and influence everything we’re doing today.”
While costume experts are part of the cast, performers assemble their own costumes after researching fitted bodices and doublets.
Knights who fight for the queen’s favor in the festival’s main attraction are actually part of a stunt-riding group, Aventail Productions, and also perform at country-western shows and rodeos.
Most of the dozens of vendors selling jewelry, artwork and palm reading services maintain their booths each year.
“Because we do have a pretty popular show, we have minimal vendor attrition,” Sterling said. “We may only have between four and eight spaces come available for new vendors each year, but we get between 50 and 75 applications. So we get to be pretty selective in who we accept.”
Visitors examining feathered hats or leather-bound journals often find the smell of cinnamon roasted almonds pulling them toward the line of food stalls.
A favorite staple of the festival is the giant, 1.5-pound turkey leg.
Eli Kujolic, food and drink director, said he goes through 30 tons of turkey legs each season.
“The festival here and in Arizona runs the food and beverage services in-house,” he said. “We operate the kitchens; we hire the staff. In this venue, we hire about 175 people seasonally.”
With roughly 5,000 square feet of kitchen space, a temporary food license and a beer garden, the festival offers bread bowls filled with broccoli cheese soup as well as top sirloin “Steak on a Stake.”
All the buildings add to the feeling of Old World Europe, with climbing ivy, stucco facades and cedar-shake shingles.
“The idea was to present the show to everyone as if they had immersed themselves in the Renaissance time period, similar to a Hollywood set,” Siegel said. “The village appears as if these structures are permanent, but they are not. They are temporary, and if they needed to be relocated and removed, it could be done.”
But for a visitor surrounded by frolicking ladies of court and falconry lessons, it feels as if you’ve landed squarely in 1500s Europe.