By the time July rolls around, the itch to cram in as much summer fun as humanly possible usually means one thing: a road trip. For many Milwaukeeans, scratching that itch involves heading down to the Illinois border, gnawing their way through a turkey leg that’s +1 versus ogres, and trying out a British accent that only improves the drunker they get. Bristol Renaissance Faire runs from July 11 trough September 7 this year, combining the classic elements of expensive costumes and cheap jokes with newer attractions like RenQuest and the Pub Crawl.
The Faire represents a day in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth I visits the small town of Bristol, England (give or take some Klingons depending on the weekend). It features dozens of actors, artists, and performers, but at the center of it all is the Queen, played for her fifth year by Jenny Higgins.
Higgins began her quest for royalty like many Faire players do: recruited fresh out of high school. “My first director came up to Pius to see a bunch of us,” she says. “It was kind of scary. I did two monologues and I think I had to pretend to be an animal of some kind.”
Bristol draws upon theater students from Milwaukee, Chicago, and beyond to populate each weekend. The players starting out often get little more than a name, a concept, and a bullet point or two about their character. Everything else is created on the fly, or during guild workshops during rehearsals.
The historical period features several different classes of denizens, from the royals all the way down to the beggars. Bristol organizes itself into several guilds based on the type of characters. For example, the Guild of St. George contains the royal court of people who surround Higgins as queen. The guilds set up their own stories, but also must be aware of how they interact with the other groups.
The fair has not gone unchanged in the time Higgins has been part of the show. The popularity of Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings, and Game Of Thrones has led to the rise of fantasy elements in the park. Guests can already interact with faeries and play an MMORPG style-quest game, and Bristol plans on expanding on these ideas this year. This year’s additions include a Kids’ Kingdom, which will feature a new stage, castle, and Hobbit-style houses for historically accurate frolicking. Themed weekends also make a return, with Steampunk Weekend (August 8-9), Holidaze in July (July 25-26), and Swashbuckler Weekend (August 29-30). The latter will feature a concert by “heavy mahogany” band The Dread Crew Of Oddwood.
“The fantasticals do some great work interacting with everyone,” Higgins says. “Kids especially react well, because you can see the discovery between everyone. It’s all physicality and creating characters through movement.”
Unlike the robots at Disney (allegedly), Ren Faire players have real lives outside their characters. Higgins works a regular nine-to-five job the rest of the year. “The Clark Kent effect is real,” she says. “I’ve run into people who are regulars that don’t recognize me at all. But then I turn on the queen,”—she lowers her glasses and fires off a look of regal disdain—“and I get a gasp.”
When not punching the clock and/or issuing royal decrees, Higgins has been finishing up a film degree at UWM. “I really just want to tell stories,” she says. Mixed in with all the face painting and lutes, that seems to be the lasting appeal of Bristol, or any, renaissance faire: a chance to tell stories on the fly and pretend that maybe, just maybe, they happened for real somewhere.