The Maryland Renaissance Festival opens Saturday to the delight of bikers and crafters, Ph.D.s and preschoolers, bachelorette partiers and IT geeks, period-music scholars and mead guzzlers. If it seems hard to figure why a pretend 16th-century English village draws such a diverse crowd, try separating the professional pretenders from the amateurs.
Even the people who put on the annual event in Crownsville have trouble with that one since so many patrons come in costume or rent Renaissance get-ups at the fair. Some guests dolled up like the St. Pauli Girl or Henry VIII go an authorized step further, taking it upon themselves to join the ranks of strolling musicians, jugglers and sword-swallowers.
It's a bit like someone going to Disney World dressed as Mickey Mouse and jumping aboard a parade float.
Which is why the festival posts this notice: "All performers are paid by the King's purse and scheduled by the Artistic Director. No uncontracted performances are permitted."
"It's always sort of a shock to me when people bring their bagpipes and just start playing," said Carolyn Spedden, artistic director of the 34-year-old festival. "Sometimes it is very difficult to tell who's the patron and who's the performer."
One tip-off: Self-appointed entertainers sometimes put out a hat for tips, which authorized performers know is a no-no.
Having to rein in enthusiasm is not such a bad problem for an event, and this one claims to be the second-largest of its kind in the country. Some 280,000 guests flock to a Brigadoon of "chivalry, bawdiness and good fun" that sprouts each year on 25 acres in Crownsville.
The festival, which in addition to entertainment ranging from intimate plays to jousting for 3,000 offers 130 craft vendors and food, runs through Oct. 24.
New this year is a Celtic music weekend, Oct. 2-3, which will feature Brother and Seven Nations, two nationally known acts. Some longtime performers will put new twists on their routines. Johnny Fox, long known to festival-goers as "Swordswallower Extraordinaire," will add a magic act to his routine.
"For people who have only seen Johnny as a sword swallower, it's a completely different show," Spedden said.
Each year the event takes up a different time in the life of Henry VIII, and this time it's 1543.
"We follow some of the political intrigues and his personal life, which is so rich, you don't need make anything up," Spedden said. "This year he has proposed to his last wife, his sixth, and he is awaiting her answer. Actually, she's not thrilled with this proposal."
In previous years, that sort of political and personal drama came to life in sitcom-length plays performed on stages throughout the day. This year, the festival will present shorter scenes, which will play out like short street performances along the pathways. That will give guests more of an opportunity to talk with the characters in between skits, Spedden said.
"It's much more interactive," Spedden said.
As if they need to get more people into the act.
If you go
Maryland Renaissance Festival: Opens Saturday and continues through Oct. 24 at the fairgrounds, 1821 Crownsville Road, Annapolis. Tickets are $8-$18. Call 800-296-7304 or go to rennfest.com.
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