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Md. Renaissance Festival kicks off its 38th year

Friday - 8/22/2014, 12:56pm  ET

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Maryland Renaissance Festival celebrates 38 years. (Courtesy Maryland Renaissance Festival/Alejandro Baez)
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WASHINGTON -- A steady flow of staff members parade in and out of the headquarters of the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville. With just days before opening weekend, everyone involved in the massive production needs something.

Vendors need contracts; staff need passes; the FedEx guy needs to dump dozens of boxes somewhere.

The rehearsal calendar tacked on the wall astutely refers to the days leading up to opening weekend as "hell week," but organizers insist the bustle is nothing serious.

"This is pretty quiet for two days before opening weekend," says office coordinator Jaki Shives as she dashes to answer the phone. "It gets way worse."

The ringing is incessant. Office assistant Hannah Smith fields endless questions from callers curious about ticket prices, parking information and driving directions.

The 22-year-old college student repeats her well-rehearsed answers calmly and politely despite the flurry of demand.

"I was exposed to all of this at a really early age," she says. "I'm really used to quirky and interesting people."

She grew up among the stalls and taverns of the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Her father, Jules Smith Jr., is the president and general manager. He first became interested in the 16th century after attending the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in 1971 with his dad, Jules Smith Sr., who was a shareholder in the new enterprise.

"I went to the first one the first day it opened, and I was hooked," Jules Smith says. "But I was only 12 and I couldn't run away and join the circus, so I had to wait a while."

The Smith family became increasingly involved in Renaissance fairs throughout the 1970s, and eventually founded their own in Columbia, Maryland.

The first bits of that festival were created in the family driveway in Minnesota and eventually shipped to Maryland, where they had acquired a "generous lease" from real estate mogul and family friend Jim Rouse, Smith says.

They maintained the Columbia location for eight years until the Rouse Company needed the land for development. The festival moved to Crownsville, where it now sits on 130 aces.

What started off as an initial $3,000 investment from Jules Smith Sr. has turned into one of the country's premiere 16th-century replica villages, complete with actors, artisans and a bevy of performers whose talents range from sword swallowing to jousting.

Even artistic director Carolyn Spedden started as an actress at the festival 20 years ago before turning in her Renaissance garb for a desktop computer.

Her office job doesn't keep Spedden far from the stage, however. She is a founding member of Shakespeare's Skum, a troupe that performs parodies of the scribe's tragic works.

"I'm a bit of an Anglophile and I love history," she says. "I really like the Victorian period, but King Henry VIII is fascinating."

King Henry is a permanent character at the festival. Each year, Spedden writes a script based on a different aspect of his reign, and uses that to create a theme and storyline for actors to follow throughout the nine-week fest.

This year's narrative centers around the execution of the Duke of Buckingham, who was seen as a threat to King Henry's legacy.

"The duke was third in line and the king didn't have any sons yet," Spedden explains. "Buckingham was considered a viable option to assume the throne if something happened to the king."

So it was off with his head.

"The real stuff is just so amazing, you don't have to make it up," Spedden says of her inspiration for writing scripts.

A classically trained actress, Spedden says that performing at the Renaissance festival is an experience unlike any other.

"There is no lighting, no sets, no [microphones] ... no rules," she says.

"Anything can happen. We're used to the unexpected."

* * * * *

Mark "Coop" Cooper has been selling his wooden creations at the Maryland Renaissance Festival for 10 years. He and his wife, Katrina Hoffman, who is busy painting the steps of their makeshift store, spend most of the year preparing for this fair.

"I carve spiritual symbols and Celtic knots out of single pieces of cedar," Cooper says as he proudly displays one of his creations.

It's called a "kitten knot," and features the profile of two cats whose intertwined tails twist into a feline version of the endless knot.

"All of us here do our own stuff by hand," he says. "It's why we differ from every other Renaissance festival in America."

Over the course of its 38-year history, the Maryland fair has carved out a singular reputation among picky artisans.

Cooper, for instance, lives near the Texas Renaissance Festival, the biggest in the country, yet spends the season selling his work in Crownsville. He says the quality of craftsmanship at this event surpasses all others.

"I was a guest artist for about two weeks before I was invited to buy a shop at the festival," Cooper says. "People looking to buy art directly from artists know to come here."

Down the road, Terry Boquist is hurriedly lifting heavy pieces of handmade wooden tables, chairs and sculptures. His wares are made from Northern California tree trunks and other bits of wood collected in various American forests.

Boquist first met the Smith family in his native Minnesota more than 30 years ago. Around the same time, he befriended Johnny Fox, the famed sword-swallower who has been performing at the Maryland Renaissance Festival since its early years.

On the weekends when the crowds have dispersed, many of the vendors and staff members gather for potlucks or to hear each other perform, Boquist says. The replica village is transformed into a real village of like-minded artists relaxing after a hard day's work.

"We're a family," Boquist says. "We're all in this together."

The Maryland Renaissance Festival starts Saturday in Crownsville and runs weekends through Oct. 19. For a full schedule and information on getting tickets, click here.

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