For someone who spends so much time indulging in fantastical merriments, Paula Peterka sure has her feet on the ground.
Over the past 17 years, Peterka, a Crownsville wife and mother, has played ever more elaborate roles in the annual medieval pretend-a-thon known as the Maryland Renaissance Festival: wayward juggler, camp follower, a social-climbing countess named Margaret Donnington, even Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of King Henry VIII.
But when it came time to be wed in her own life, she was as real as a leg of mutton.
"People kept asking if Larry and I would get married at a Renaissance fair," she says of her husband of 18 years, Larry Peterka, also a veteran performer at the Maryland fest in Crownsville. "I said, 'No! I want Larry to know it's Larry marrying me, not Sir Thomas Kitson or Sir Henry Marney or one of his other characters.' "
They tied the knot in Larry's grandparents' backyard.
In a world in which myth and fact can make uneasy bedfellows, the Peterkas have made a name as truthful illusionists, epitomizing a Maryland festival that has gained widespread respect in the "industry" for its blend of theater and truth.
The festival, which began its 2009 season last Saturday and continues every weekend through Oct. 25, draws more than 280,000 paying customers over 19 days, and has set standards for fun and acting by which other festivals measure themselves.
It's old hat to the Peterkas, among the few who have an equal feel for historical knowledge and performance.
"We're hams," says Paula, 43, "but it's also about bringing history to life, and history informs the present. I love it when I'm talking to [a patron] in character, and I see the light come on.
"A good [Renaissance fair] is education, but it'a also theater. It's edutainment."
Larry Peterka, friends say, has always been a searching intellect, but as a history fan, he got a late start. History classes in his hometown of Fresno, Calif., made the subject "deadly dull, nothing but facts and dates." It wasn't until he made friends who staged Wild West shows and Civil War reenactments that he saw history for what it is: a profusion of vivid, overlapping tales.
When he was about 11, he stumbled onto the Renaissance fair circuit. "That did it," he says. "I was hooked."
Renaissance fairs, in effect, are gatherings at which guests impersonate characters, historical or fictional - typically from the England of the 16th century, when King Henry VIII ruled - and indulge in the music and other entertainments of the day, often in period costume.
The phenomenon was born in California in 1963, when a Los Angeles schoolteacher, Phyllis Patterson, held a fair as a class exercise; it grew, the Peterkas say, as an offshoot of the folk ethic that drove the Woodstock generation. With major festivals in as many as 35 cities each year, it's safe to say millions take part today.
"The fact that you're older than 12 doesn't mean you lose your desire to play," says Paula.
Larry got started as many in California did: sewing banners, picking up trash, setting up tents, researching history and eventually working on a variety of characters. The energetic teen took matters further than most, learning to juggle, eat fire and shoot arrows. (Even now, he's a competitive archer who teaches the sport at Cub Scout camps.)
Paula was a later bloomer. After earning a UCLA degree in German (it seemed a more idiosyncratic choice than other options, like Spanish), she drifted back to the Fresno area in 1988, when Larry was casting a small festival in the town of Hanford.
"I was just happy to meet some friendly people in a new place," says Paula, whom Larry persuaded to play Elizabeth de Vere, a noblewoman who became the second wife of the Earl of Oxford in 1504 at the age of 13.
"She was a very strong woman," Larry says admiringly, though it's unclear at first which woman he's referring to.
They married, in reality, in 1991.
It's not uncommon for Renaissance revelers to marry, says Carolyn Spedden, artistic director for the Maryland Renaissance Festival, in part because they tend to have deeply rooted mutual interests and spend lots of time together.
Three or four such couples work the Maryland fair annually, and about 15 couples from among the public marry at the festival each year.
There was nothing romantic about the newlyweds' move east.
Larry worked for the IRS, as he does now, and a promotion drew him to Maryland just before their planned wedding. Today, both work for the agency, Larry as a quality assurance chief, Paula supervising teams that test computer systems.
"You might be surprised how many people in these kinds of [bureaucratic] jobs have rich fantasy lives," says Larry.
They chose to live in Crownsville because it offers easy commutes both to work in New Carrollton and to the fairgrounds.