From staging ground to fantasyland
The festival grounds in Plantersville — an hour north of Houston — were closed the weekend of Sept. 10 due to evacuation orders, suspending one of the festival’s eight late-summer rehearsals in addition to a staff orientation. That weekend, emergency crews used to the grounds as a staging area for fires only a mile and a half away.
“We were very lucky this year,” Gina Rotolo, the annual festival’s director of marketing and media, tells CultureMap. “In addition to the September event, a wildfire three miles away just missed us this past June. It’s been a stressful summer.”
The festival is making some concessions to the fires and drought conditions — replacing the traditional Royal Fireworks show with a laser show. Fires in the camping areas are also banned, with only propane cooking devices allowed. No roasting marshmallows over open flames.
Under new management since 2010, the festival broke attendance records last season, drawing more than 450,000 people over eight weekends to make it the largest Renaissance-themed fair in the nation.
“We were very lucky this year,” Gina Rotolo, the festival’s director of marketing, tells CultureMap. “In addition to the September event, a wildfire three miles away just missed us this past June. It’s been a stressful summer.”
Rotolo says there will be extensive improvements this year as the festival expands from 53 to 60 acres, including a new stage in the German area and alterations to a small chapel. In preparation for the large crowds, festival organizers also increased camping acreage. Organizers invited more than 30 new merchants this year for a total of nearly 400 “shoppes” — bringing about major renovations to the vendor area.
“Hey, even a 16th-century market needs to be up to building code,” Rotolo laughs.
“Amazingly, nothing was damaged by the fires,” festival entertainer Mildred Johnson says. “Right now, we’re just excited to be out there and work together again. We’re like a big family of barbarians, pirates, peasants, puppets, elves, fairies, and more recently — Transylvanians.”
Johnson has cultivated her Sybil Hornbeak persona for more than three years as both a cast member as well as a “boothie,” an affectionate name for the off-stage performers supplementing the merchant booths with colorful characters in full period garb. This year, she’ll be working at a handcrafted wooden toy shop named Visions in Wood.
“Sybil’s anywhere from an upper-class peasant to a lower-class merchant,” Johnson explains. “She was orphaned and raised in the forest by her adopted mother, Nanny Gruntswallow, who taught her a trade to be an independent woman.” That trade was candy-making, Johnson later revealed.
“Sybil’s husband, Baldric, is lost,” she continues, getting a little caught up in character. “Now, he didn’t leave her. He just hasn’t been seen since Sybil started dabbling in magic. He’s easy to spot, though, if you see him. He’s a balding man with three teeth and enormous nose — quite handsome really.”
With more than 500 performers, the Texas Renaissance Festival prides itself on maintaining the highest standards of authenticity, training its staff to maintain consistent accents as well as historically accurate costuming.
“We take great steps to make visitors to feel transported to another time and place,” Gina Rotolo says. “You wouldn’t want to see Mickey Mouse on a cell phone, right?”
The Texas Renaissance Festival is held Saturdays and Sundays for eight weekends starting Oct. 8 and on Thanksgiving Friday. Located 50 miles northwest of Houston on FM 1774 between Magnolia and Plantersville, visitors can watch performances on 17 stages and enjoy hundreds of international food purveyors and unique artisans — not to mention human-powered rides. See the festival website for more details.