Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"The 2012 Renaissance Festival: A Talk with the Maestro" by Angie Fiedler

This article is from the September 2012 issue of KC Stage

Jim Stamburger has been with the Kansas City Renaissance Festival for 32 of its 36 years. "I'm one of those people: I have really done almost everything you can do out here," he says - with just a bit of pride in his voice. "I started out in Shakespeare, and I have pushed the Unicorn up the wire and now know that the Unicorn's holder is exactly 1 1/2 inches taller than I can reach and I have to jump, I ran games and rides for a while, I was a shop person for a little while, and I've always been hawking .... I think the only thing I haven't done is cooked in the food booths."

Stamburger's nickname, Maestro, comes from one of his characters - the gypsy Maestro, which in turn is based on Tommy dePaola's Clown of God. "I've always seen myself as the ringmaster, because I'm trying to direct the audience's attention over here, and when you're getting bored then I've got something over here. And that's what the fair really is - this three-ring circus." When he became the entertainment director (16 years now), he found out that the entertainment director at Scarborough Fair is also called the Maestro, and so it stuck.

"I think names are really, really important to building your character," Stamburger says. "I think the name has to say something about your character as well. I choose, as the Papa or the Maestro in a gypsy band would choose, the names of my children, and they always are names that mean something that I really want them to accomplish. I think words are powerful, and I think names are just as powerful."

He goes on to explain how giving the actors names in the casting choice has helped. "Originally, I used to say, 'You're the blacksmith,' so when you were cast, it was blacksmith - you got to choose your own name and all of that. I said, 'I think when I name them, they'll hold fast to the casting longer.' And the first year I actually gave them all names on the cast list, it was the year we lost one person that season. It really did make a difference, because you feel like a real person and it's a real role. It just wasn't auditioning for king this year, they were auditioning for Henry VIII."

Stamberger admits that he included a more historical court this year in order to give teachers a legitimate justification for bringing students out for field trips, but readily admits that historical accuracy is not his primary concern. "We try to be as period as possible," he says with a smile, "although I never give up the fact that I'm theatrically plausible and not historical reenactment. We have to tell our story in ways that the audience understands.

"There are festivals that are set up to be looked at: they don't interact much with the audience. It's almost like a fourth wall. Our festival has a very interactive idea, and I want to reach out to you as an audience member and draw you in so that we can have conversation and dialogue, and I want you to walk away feeling like you met the milkmaid, or you met the king, or you met the beggar in the streets. And I want you to feel the pressure that you maybe should've given him a penny."

Over the years, Stamberger has ramped up that interaction - and has added things that have made it more appealing to repeat attendees, primarily the themed weekends and the ongoing storyline. "It used to be the themed weekend was practically in name only," he says. "Now, there are themed entertainers who come in, there's themed activities, and the Pirate's Cove area will completely change face every weekend to reflect the theme."

The storyline for this year is the continuation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, according to the Maestro. Titania and Oberon have been banished to the mortal world, and the fairies are searching for them. This storyline includes the creation of an opera telling the story of Oberon and Titania.

This year's fair will also have mermaids, which Stamberger says he chose without knowing how big they've become in pop culture lately. "I had no clue all the subculture with mermaids," he says. "And of course, because we're starting to advertise them, it's all coming out of the woodwork. I have a group who called me and went, 'Can we come out?' Well, anyone's welcome. 'Oh, no - you have to understand: we're mermaids, so we have to have special transportation.' And I was like, 'Sure! Everyone's welcome!" In fact, the two women he cast as mermaids were already contemplating buying mermaid tails of their own.

Another thing that has changed with Stamberger is not only the number of actors, but also the amount of rehearsal. "In the olden days when I first got here, we had two days of Academy and they threw us on the streets," he says with a laugh. "Now, I have a costume coordinator, I have teachers that go to Academy, and it's much more difficult to get your costume okayed, get your character okayed: they go through a jurying process.

"In terms of numbers, when I was doing the apprentice program, which we now call the Canterbury Conservatory, there were probably 25 or 30 kids. Now there's between 50 and 55. And you'd be surprised how many people fall out, because it's a hard process, and they have to work for it. The Conservatory is building villagers, and they're building them from the ground up. Our Lord Mayor and wife have taken over that particular responsibility, which is very appropriate to how things were then, because the Lord Mayor would've been the leader of the villagers. So they meet with them every Wednesday night, and have done so all summer, and then there will be a graduation the last Wednesday. We have a formal graduation with diplomas and I have an organist who plays 'Pomp and Circumstance': I mean it's really a graduation, because these kids have worked really, really hard to get there, and so we make a big deal out of them."

Stamburger is always looking for people to add, both as actors and as musicians, and is quick to state it's never too late to contact him about participating. "Show off their creativity and don't get bogged down by history," he's quick to state when asked for tips. "I have a lot of people who are so worried about the dialect and the right words and getting the right information out, and all I'm really looking at is how creative you are and how fun you are. I can teach you the rest. I can't teach you to be spontaneous. I can't teach you to be fun and funny - those are the things that are God given, I can't teach those things. I can give you dates, and I can give you facts, and I can give you vocabulary, but I can't give you that spark. And I've watched people who I know are really, really, really, really talented not be successful in the audition because they were worried about the details."

Future plans for the Renaissance Festival involves a feasting hall that would be open year-round, giving the opportunity for performing in the winter as well as rehearsing out of the weather. He also wants to do more with the Pirate's Cove area. Finally, he also wants to increase the community presence of the festival.

"I know for me, that there are days that I just need to smile. I was having the worst day possible on Thursday, and just everything was coming unglued and nothing was working right. I went and spent the evening with the gypsy kids, and I danced and I clapped and I played my tambourine and we talked and laughed, and all of a sudden, I realized I became the gypsy Maestro, and I didn't think about all the trouble I was having. I didn't think about scheduling and being in budget and all of those things that I've been struggling with all week, and it's just - it's really exciting to be able to take people out of their situation and get them to think about something else and to smile and to laugh and to really enjoy themselves.

"What I love about the Renaissance Festival is that when I say I work for the Renaissance Festival, almost every time someone says, 'My neighbor worked there,' or 'My son worked there,' or 'I used to work there.' You know?" he says. "Everybody has a contact at the festival. It's one of those events that even if they haven't worked there, everybody's got a story to tell and everybody loves the Festival, and that's incredible."

The Kansas City Renaissance Festival runs weekends Sept 1 - Oct 14 (including Labor Day and Columbus Day), and more information can be found at or by calling (913) 721-2110.

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