You might not be used to hearing an audio recording of Queen Elizabeth I decreeing that you keep your distance from her other subjects and keep your face covered in her presence.
But that’s among the ways visitors to the 40th annual Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, which opens for the season this weekend, will realize that things will be a little unusual this season at the grounds north of Manheim.
With the recordings that will play repeatedly at many of the show venues around the Faire, “we’re trying to help people with the personal responsibility, to remember that,” says Candace Smith, director of sales and communications for Mount Hope Estate & Winery — on the grounds of which the Faire is located.
40th annual Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire cast and costumes [photo slideshow]
The resident cast that will bring the 40th annual Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, starting this weekend at the Mount Hope Estate & Winery, north of Manheim, display their costumes. The 40th annual Faire opens this weekend, Sept. 5-7, for the season. Click on the arrows to watch the slideshow.
Because of COVID-19 safety protocols and social distancing, the Faire’s interactive elements will be pared down this season.
Elizabethan characters won’t be wandering the streets of the shire, or faire grounds, seeking to engage with visitors.
The size of the Faire’s cast of professional actors is a quarter of its usual size, as is the number visitors who are allowed on the grounds at any one time, Smith says.
And performers, vendors and visitors will be required to wear masks or face shields.
But those performers say the Faire will still deliver much of the pomp and pageantry, music and food, jousting and jesting that visitors have come to expect over the past four decades.
“One of the biggest changes,” Smith says, “is we have date-specific tickets this year, and they need to be purchased through our box office, online, in advance. In years past, the tickets we sold online were valid whatever day of the season you wanted to use them.
“That’s not the case this year, because we’re keeping our (visitor) capacity capped at 25%,” Smith adds. “We’re not selling any tickets on site, to avoid any kind of lines at the front gate.”
Each day of the Faire, visitors will have the chance to see the pageantry of the arrival of Queen Elizabeth I; several scripted shows performed by the resident acting company; three jousting events per day; musical and sketch-comedy shows; and visiting performers practicing falconry, acrobatics, juggling and more.
“During a normal season, they all would be roaming around the faire grounds,” says Jeff Wolfthal, a longtime actor and interactive theater director for the Faire.
“But for this season, we are cutting down on our street interaction,” Wolfthal says. “Because street interaction invites closeness and intimacy. And, even with our actors masked, we figured it was best not to risk their health or the patrons’ health.
“Our performers will all be masked when they’re not on stage performing,” Wolfthal says. “But they will take their masks off when they’re performing on stage, because we’ve been able to block (their movements), conscious of social distancing.
“Normally we would have a cast of about 42 professional performers in our in-house acting company,” Wolfthal says. “This year, we have 10.”
Wolfthal is portraying a Scottish character who’s the shire’s resident historian, Bruce Muir, and is directing many of the shows — including the pub-song finale with the queen that happens at the Globe stage at the end of each day.
One of the cast members he’ll be directing is Alex Stompoly, who’s portraying the Master of the Revels, Sir Walter Roderick Kensington — a character he originated four seasons ago.
“He’s basically the party planner and festival overseer for the court and for Mount Hope Shire,” Stompoly says. “You could call him an Elizabethan master of ceremonies. He keeps the party rolling, and he introduces the plot shows.”
Though the resident cast is smaller, Stompoly says, “I think (visitors) can expect still just as exciting and vibrant a shire as they have in years past. We are very blessed to have a lot of independent acts — those jugglers and minstrels and jesters — that rotate through the (festival) circuit, being able to be present with us for this run, and a lot of them for the full season.”
Stompoly says he’ll miss the interactive element of his acting work with the Faire.
“I love interactive theater, and I have gotten very close to this community and to the patrons that come every year, and I’ve been part of their lives,” he says. “But we’ll have to treat that relationship a little bit differently this season. It’s going to be an adjustment. But knowing we’re doing everything to keep everyone safe and healthy sort of bridges that uncomfortable gap a little bit.”
“We had to develop a whole list of safety guidelines,” Wolfthal says. The staff and directors are following state health department guidelines and protocols that have been based on those being put into place by national unions representing stage, TV and film performers.
“Beyond the fact that I’m thankful to have a job in entertainment, I have a heart condition and my wife (Jules Schrader, another actor at the Faire) has asthma,” Wolfthal says “If we felt that we were at risk going to work, we wouldn’t be doing this.”
Smith says visitors over 2 years old must wear masks while on the faire grounds.
“We ask that (visitors) keep them on unless they’re eating or drinking,” she says.
To celebrate the face coverings, Wolfthal notes, the regular costume contests held at the Faire will have a mask component.
“You have to wear a mask anyway,” he says. “Make it as cool as possible and enjoy the fact that you’re wearing a mask.”
The Faire will still have its themed weekends throughout the season, Smith notes, including those centered around pirates, wizards, time travelers, Celtic entertainment, the autumn harvest and Halloween.
There will still be plenty to eat at the Faire, Smith says, though visitors will notice there will be fewer picnic tables for dining, in order to keep families at least six feet apart from each other.
“We have kind of pared down the actual food booths,” Smith says, “the reason being ... because of the limited capacity, we don’t need as many booths open.”
Restrooms will be closed for sanitizing, throughout the shire, on a rotating basis every day, she says.
One thing that won’t be on the entertainment menu, Wolfthal says, is any talk of Elizabethan plagues.
“We always try to make sure people can leave the baggage of the outside world at the gates,” he says. “We want people to be able to forget about all of that stuff as much as possible.”
“There is an escapism that the Faire can provide and a place to leave behind, even for a little bit, what we’ve all been going through,” Stompoly says. “We will provide, still, even through all of this, a place for you to laugh and have fun and just to get a little of that hope back that we’ve been lacking,” he adds.
“We may not be in a lab, coming up with vaccines,” Wolfthal adds, “but if we can make people smile for a day, then I feel pretty good about what we’re doing.”