When it comes to Renaissance festivals, Cambria residents Rick Smith, Dianne Brooke and JoAnn Ward go back a long way.
And they enjoy going back even further — to Elizabethan England, which they’ll help recreate Saturday and Sunday at Laguna Lake Park in San Luis Obispo.
Smith, who’s in charge of entertainment and public relations for the Central Coast Renaissance Festival, has been on board from the outset.
“This is our 31st year, and I’ve been with it for 32,” Smith said, explaining that he started out by helping to stage a similar event at Corbett Canyon Winery for a year. Bad weather and poor attendance led the winery to nix plans for a return engagement, but Smith and other organizers decided to keep the event going.
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The Central Coast Renaissance Festival spent 27 years at El Chorro Regional Park across Highway 1 from Cuesta College before moving to its current location at Laguna Lake Park in 2013.
Brooke was there from the beginning, as well, and she’ll be returning in costume — or garb, as it’s known among Renaissance festival enthusiasts — for this year’s event.
“We went to the first-ever Renaissance faire in Southern California, in Agoura,” she recalled, explaining that it was first held on private property as a school fundraiser before moving to the Paramount Ranch in Santa Monica.
(Helpful hint No. 1: Enthusiasts call the festivals simply “faire,” with the old English “e” at the end, and often say they’re going to “Ren.”)
A little history
That event, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, has moved around a few times since 1963 — settling most recently in the San Gabriel Valley city of Irwindale, where it still operates for six weekends each spring.
According to Brooke, the idea behind the faire was to have fun, but also be educational. Participants were asked to learn the language of the period and dress in authentic-style garb.
For instance, Ward said, costumes initially had to be made of material that was available in 16th-century England. If you wanted buttonholes, you had to sew them in yourself, and the buttons had to be made of a natural material such as bone rather than plastic.
Some of the period requirements have been relaxed over the years, but many participants, including Ward and Brooke, strive to remain as historically accurate as possible.
“You felt like you were actually projected back in time,” Ward said of her early festival experiences. “You walked in the gate, and everybody spoke the way they did back then. That was the magic of it.”
(Helpful hint no. 2: If you hear someone yell, “Hip, hip, …” don’t answer with “hooray!” The appropriate response at faire is “huzzah!”)
Ward attended her first faire at Agoura in 1979, and has been involved more formally since shortly after moving to Cambria in 1995. She soon joined a faire group called St. Andrew’s Royal Order of Noble Scots, then formed her own guild, which subsequently became absorbed into another group, the Barleycorn Country Dancers.
The guilds are, in many ways, the backbone of the faire experience. They’re made up of enthusiasts who tour the faire circuit together, setting up tents on the grounds where they display their wares and skills while partaking of Elizabethan-era food and ale and mead. Some guilds feature “nobles,” while others are staffed by “peasants” who specialize in such skills as archery, cooking, blacksmithing and dancing.
“I think it’s safe to say that between the participants — actors — and costumed vendors, there will be about 900 costumed folks making up our ‘village’ before we even let the public in,” Smith said.
Ward’s group, which will attend five events this year, specializes in old English dancing such as Morris dances, which date back to the 15th century.
“It involves a lot of jumping and dancing and hitting sticks,” Ward said, “so if you’re not good at it, you’re going to get hit. It’s very energetic and very aerobic.”
(Helpful hint No. 3: You can see the Barleycorn Country Dancers from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m. both days on the Gloriana Stage.)
From its beginnings in Agoura, the Renaissance festival movement expanded across the country. A companion festival for Northern California was launched at Black Point Forest in Novato two years after the Renaissance Pleasure Faire; it eventually broke off from the Southern California event and now operates for six weekends each fall at Casa de Fruta near Hollister.
Other festivals can be found across the country, with the role-playing phenomenon expanding into areas such as pirate- and steampunk-themed gatherings.
Ward said she even went to a faire-style event in the Czech Republic.
In all, her group will attend five faires this year.
The Central Coast Renaissance Festival has been growing, as well.
This year, Smith said, he’s adding a third stage, largely to showcase a new act: a 12-year-old girl named Alexis Rosinsky who recites the works of William Shakespeare and has entertained audiences as far away as Edinburgh, Scotland.
Children’s activities include pony rides offered by Tara Covell of Cambria’s Covell Ranch and a costume contest for kids.
The festival will feature two full-contact jousts daily, as well as a dressage show, a falconer, storytellers, musicians and comedians.
Smith said 65 vendors, including 12 food vendors, have signed up for the event — about 20 more than last year.
More than 5,000 visitors attended the festival in 2014, he said, and he expects a similar or larger crowd this year.
As the Renaissance festival phenomenon has grown, it has remained focused on close-knit friendships, Ward said.
“Not only do we perform at the faires, but we do a … Christmas party for ourselves and we go camping together,” she said. “When it comes to the guilds, we’re like little families.”
Central Coast Renaissance Festival
10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Laguna Lake Park, 504 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo
$18, $12 seniors and children ages 6 to 15, children 6 and younger free; $25 for two-day pass
550-9177 or http://ccrenfaire.com