On a warm Sunday under the branches of oaks in Agoura Hills, Julie St. Germaine stood in the center of 20 people directing them in an improvisation workshop, 16th-Century style.
"You have an itch," St. Germaine, 29, suddenly barked out. "Find it! Kill it!"
The group stopped moving in a circle and immediately started gyrating in place, feverishly scratching their bodies as if each one had been seized by a swarm of fleas.
After silently admiring her charges for a moment with a smile, St. Germaine commanded, "You are in the Queen's procession. How proud you are. You wave grandly to your friends who only yesterday treated you like dirt."
The participants each stood erect and paraded, chests swelling, heads held high in a holier-than-thou manner, bowing to their invisible audience.
"While parading, you step on a dead cat," St. Germaine suggested. "Oh, what a smell."
Suddenly everyone came to a halt and looked down at the ground, scrunching their faces as if a noxious odor had just struck their noses.
Oh, the perils of 16th-Century life.
St. Germaine's class in the woods was part of the College of Renaissance Delights, three weekends of intensive workshops that prepare 20th-Century city dwellers to turn back the clock and take part in the annual Renaissance Pleasure Faire--as peasants, middle-class folk or nobles.
"For myself," said St. Germaine, who joined the fair in 1979, "I wanted to go back and get a sense of the ordinary. So I direct the washerwomen." In real life, she's a warehouse worker who does everything from word processing to driving a forklift. But at the fair, "I'm head wash-slapper, gossip-monger, bucket-thrower. Our theatrical illusion is that it's a sunny day and we're getting the wash done."
This year's Renaissance Pleasure Faire--the 25th edition--opens Saturday. It's held on 35 acres of the Bar W Ranch (formerly the Paramount Movie Ranch), reached via the Ventury Freeway (U.S. 101) at the Cheseboro Road exit. For 23 years, the ranch has served as the site of the imaginary Renaissance village of Chipping-under-Oakwood.
The fair was started by Phyllis Patterson as a two-day event in 1963 at a children's day camp near Vineland Avenue and Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. It now runs for six weekends and is presented by the nonprofit Living History Center, which also sponsors the workshop classes and produces the fall Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Old California Celebration and Dickens Christmas Faire, all in various Bay Area locations.
If it was once small potatoes, the Southern California fair now is "the largest traveling theatrical company around," claimed Chriss Zaida, 32, the costume director. "We employ 3,000 people when we come to town. Fifteen hundred of these are performers." There are also 1,500 craftsmakers, food-related people and support staff. Add to this number the estimated 250,000 customers, many of whom will be in costume and character as they enter the gates, and you have quite a cast.
During the fair's earlier years the illusion of authentically creating an English country fair, at least in the minds of some participants, was not so important. "At first, many people were very unclear about what the goal was," Patterson, a former history teacher, noted. "They were excited, it was fun to be in costume, but their sense of history was slight. They felt if they had a token piece of clothing on, that would do it. But a table cloth is not a Renaissance costume. A few pieces of velvet do not make a peasant. In fact, quite the opposite."
Now, "a sense of community has developed in that if you don't do it well, it affects others," Patterson, 55, said. "I remember a young girl running up to me a few years ago, almost crying, saying 'You've got to do something. Someone's back there playing Bach .' " J. S. Bach was born in 1685, just a little after the fair's period.
For his orientation workshop, Kevin Brown gathered newcomers--some dressed in costume, some in modern garb (one girl had purple-and-blue hair)--on straw bales in front of the Maybrower Stage and gave them the what's what.
Brown, a creative consultant for Walt Disney Pictures' Imagineering division, said the whole idea of his orientation class is, "to break that 20th-Century mold and start finding things inside ourselves that we can turn into a 16th-Century person. . . . Orientation is the beginning of that process of shedding our skins."
"Where are we?" Brown asked the class rhetorically. "We're at a country fair on a main road in the Thames Valley, near the center of England. We're about 50 miles from London, though most of us probably haven't been there. We're maybe 18 miles from Oxford. It's the late 1500s, and so we say the year is 1587. People in 1987 know the year, so when customers ask you, you'd better know it, too."
Brown defined the fair's array of jugglers, magicians, musicians, stage and street actors, as "lusty, bawdy, sexy Elizabethans."
Those who are working their first fair must pick a character to portray and then audition before a "guildmaster." Guildmasters are in charge of the 16 various performance guilds to which all the fair's actors must belong. And while you might want to be a noble, not everyone can be. To retain authenticity, peasants greatly outnumber noblemen, just as they did in the 16th Century.
As many as 10 workshops were conducted simultaneously on a recent Sunday. While Patti Blanco, a free-lance costumer and designer, directed a period country dance as if she were a master square-dance caller, Greg Propst, an actor, led an advanced improvisation class that began with a series of stretches. Since many of his veteran performers were in costume, this warm-up looked like an Elizabethan aerobics class.
One of Propst's charges was Jack Tate, 33, who, wearing Miro-styled shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and red tennis shoes, was definitely not in costume. Tate, who's been a street actor with the fair for eight years and can been seen in various TV commercials--"I'm the guy that gets blasted out in space for Bud Lite, I levitate Pepsi machines, I fall through floors for Gillette"--enjoys the trial and error of mingling with the crowds. "I get to try the same joke over and over until I perfect the timing," he said. "Then I can take it someplace else."
Between two faded-red barns, Chriss Zaida, spoke about the importance of capturing the feel and look of 16th-Century life in the costumes.
"The character you become will determine your costume," said Zaida, who teaches kindergarten to fifth grade in Oakland when not working the fair. "So if you're a peasant, don't wear a lot of fancy clothing. Besides, if you wore expensive cloth, like velvet or lace, or wore gold or silver jewelry, you were taxed on it. So keep it simple, unless you're a noble."
"Make sure your fabrics are hand-woven and natural," she continued, "such as cottons, linens, wools. Just avoid polyesters."
After the three weeks of workshops and a dress rehearsal, the fair opens, and for Patterson, the "vacation" begins. "That's the way this is--seven days a week, 14 hours-a-day, all year around--this is the difference between having a job and having a life's work," she said. "So the fair becomes your vacation. You have to have a blurred line between work and play."
As her silver jubilee approaches, Patterson said it was hard to pick out individual highlights, "because when you consider we've done the Northern California fair 20 times, then it's 45 fairs and it all tends to become one fair.
"But if there is a highlight, it's perhaps at the moment when it seemed that there were a great number of people who cared about doing this as well as I did."