By Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
(Gold Canyon, AZ) When a modern plague forced the Arizona Renaissance Festival and Artisan Marketplace to shut down in March of 2020 and never open in 2021, the future of this celebration of the past was uncertain.
Even as set up for the 50-acre amusement park known as the Village of Fairhaven was underway earlier this year, Sanja Malinovic, the festival’s marketing and sales director, and others wondered if they would really open or have to close prematurely once again.
However, the event did kick off in February and ran through April, completing its season with 300,000 guests, increasing the numbers of returning and new attendees, according to Malinovic. For context, the Arizona Office of Tourism reported 279,586 attendees to the event in 2018.
Many past entertainers and artisans returned as well, like Shamus The Insulter, played by Tony Miller. He noticed a bump in attendance and a newfound appreciation for the festival’s communal atmosphere.
“In society, times are very stressful right now,” Miller said. “During the shutdown, a lot of people realized how much live performance meant to them, and at Renaissance festivals, there's all sorts of live performance that you can interact with, that you can laugh at, that you can enjoy.”
Preparing for the next siege
Though the festival’s 16 stages are empty, and its hundreds of shops shuttered, the work to bring all this old-time fun to life continues.
Malinovic and other employees labor year-round to promote, prepare, and look for ways to improve the event. They also schedule weddings that occur in the park during the festival.
Aside from COVID’s interruption, it’s a process that has occurred annually since the festival began in 1989.
From almost the beginning, Miller has been disparaging and occasionally complimenting attendees at the event.
“I was there the second year that it started, so I've been going to Arizona for a very long time, and I've watched it grow remarkably,” Miller recalled. “Back then, we were about a fifth the size.”
These days, the event boasts around 200 elaborately adorned shops selling leatherwear, jewelry, cosmetics, costumes, melee weapons, and many more items, practical or fantastic. It also hosts demonstrations of historic crafts like blacksmithing, glassblowing, and falconry.
Roughly 2000 costumed individuals roam its thoroughfares, like a walking tree known as the Greenman or the curious young dragon called Fireflicker.
Coordinating this small army is complicated, especially during a pandemic, but behind-the-scenes employees like Loren Sterling, the festival’s craft coordinator and human resources director, help keep everyone on the same page.
“She's truly one of the gold standard vendor coordinators we have on the circuit,” Miller said.
Rennies on the road
While there may be an offseason for the Village of Fairhaven, 40% of the performers and 88% of the crafters work year-round by traveling between the 30 to 40 other major renaissance festivals across the country.
Miller is one of these. Since most renaissance festivals last around eight to nine weeks, he fills his calendar by visiting four to five a year.
“People do different festivals, so they have different circuits, but sometimes we overlap, and it's nice to meet up with friends you haven't seen in a year,” Miller explained. “That's what the professional road rennies do.”
Miller has been performing at renaissance festivals since 1986. Back then, he also worked as a stunt performer for live shows and what he describes as “bad movies.”
Tired of getting beat up on the job, Miller decided he'd rather dish out verbal punishment. So, in his mid-20s, he developed his Shamus The Insulter character. Miller also officiates weddings for the festival.
The show must go on
Sterling, Malinovic, and the other year-round Arizona Renaissance festival employees are already analyzing last year's festival and planning for the next one.
Malinovic shared some of the upgrades attendees can expect. The Pleasure Feast, a ticketed event including food and entertainment, is revamping its menu.
The festival will also add new food items to its repertoire of turkey legs, sausages on sticks, and other tasty treats. In addition, new shade structures and seating will be installed throughout the park.
Next year’s festival is scheduled to open on Feb. 4 and run until April 4. Online ticket sales begin on Sept. 1. Discounted tickets will be available for purchase at Bashas' and Food City locations starting in early January.