A (Very) Brief Look at the History of Performers
People have always clamored for entertainment. Whether it be the rancorous singing of a crowded tavern or the elegant dance of a ballerina on stage, people long for the display of talent and skill that comes from those who have dedicated their lives to performance. There are few, if any, limits to what can be done on stage if the audience is enthralled. For this reason, I tend to think of our stage performers at the Ohio Renaissance Festival as the closest thing to Bards you can find outside of a Dungeons & Dragons game. Singers, acrobats, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, comedians, and silk dancers. Each and every one of them embodies a history of showmanship that goes back to the very dawn of humanity.
From the peasantry to the royal courts, folks have needed all manner of amusements to wile away the hours outside of work and sleep. Queen Elizabeth I was well known for her royal entertainments at Greenwich Palace, hosting private masques and plays from the most noted performers of the day. Poetry readings and private concerts were among the height of civilized entertainment for the nobility, but the poor were not to be denied their fun.
For the more common folk, it was usually up to them to provide their own entertainment on any given occasion. That being said, theater troupes were not by any means unknown. Wandering minstrels often traveled together from village to town, delighting the peasantry in exchange for food and coin with music, acrobatics, trained animals, and puppet shows. It was by no means an easy life. While many welcomed these skilled artists during festivals, Elizabethan England had some rather strict views regarding vagrants, which was what they considered anyone who did not have a permanent house and a respectable vocation. There were those paid by the church or who worked for respectable companies such as Lord Chamberlains Men, so it was not out of the question to be considered a professional entertainer of quality. To have a permanent theater in which to perform was the height of one’s ambition, especially if one had a patron from the nobility who helped keep the bills paid.
Authors Note: A big thank you to Michelle Anderson for clarification on the historical context of Elizabethan entertainment.
An Interview with PB&J Circus
In the Beginning
Travis: I started out as a kids’ party magician, and after realizing I wasn’t great at it, I decided to learn fire-eating. Susan was sitting in the audience taking pictures when Travis called her up on stage to do something and that is how she got her start!
Susan: Many people along the way have influenced us. From high school drama teachers, a stand-up comedy class we both took and nearly every Renaissance Festival performer we’ve ever shared a stage with. One particular teacher Travis had was a magician named Tom Frank who had a magic shop in Cincinnati in the 1990s. Even though Travis gave up on magic, Tom said, “Why don’t you learn to eat fire?” Tom then spent hours showing Travis how to gather, keep, and entertain a crowd. It may not appear so but I get my inspiration from many great comedy duos such as The Smothers Brothers. I have always found the straight man in the duos the funny one and try to put that into the show. Also Miss Piggy.
The New Vaudeville
Travis: As a circus act, I started as a street performer in Kentucky around 2002. I made a whole $25 in tips over 2 hours thanks to my grandmother giving me $20. Every show I did, I would learn something new that I brought with me to the next show. This is true even to this day.
Susan: I had the lead in my preschool Christmas show, mostly because I knew the names of all eight reindeer. I was also in my high school drama club and many musicals. I thought all that was behind me but then I married Travis. This was very different because everything I had done before was scripted and a different character. This is something original. It is much harder and you have to learn by doing what works and what doesn’t.
Travis: We’ve worked Renaissance Faires and Festivals all over. From Iowa, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and of course right here in Ohio. While we love the Midwest, we’d both like to try some of the California ren faires. Renaissance Festivals are a new vaudeville. It is amazing to have shy little girls come up to Susan and say Yay Susan or come out of their shells during their show. Some of the challenging aspects are things out of our control. Sometimes right in the middle of a show, it will start raining, and a lot of the audience will run for cover. But as long as at least one person stays, we’ll keep the show going! We love being able to show those kids that even being shy or quiet you can still succeed at something you love. We love being a part of that. Where else can you see dancing, circus, comedy, and music all in one place?
Little Memories & Faire Culture
Travis: One of the most memorable things that sticks out to me is that a fan had his birthday party at Ohio Ren Faire and his cupcakes were PB&J Circus themed, they said Yay Susan or had a sword on them. He saved one for us and brought it to us at the show.
Susan: Somehow a rumor got started that after the faire closes, it’s a big party. Even though we love what we do, it is hard work, and we are very tired by the end of the day. Just speaking for us, we’ll usually go back to our trailer, heat something up for dinner, and fall asleep a couple of hours after the gates close.