The Odd Charm of the Kansas City Renaissance Festival

12.05.2017

Words and photos by Caleb Hundelt

In the wooded depths of Bonner Springs, Kansas, hordes of costumed individuals quietly convene once a year to join in an uncanny gathering. People dance and twirl around maypoles in a pagan fashion, women entrance and seduce in garb that glitters and jingles with each sway of their hips, and shouting, bloodthirsty crowds hold violent fights to the death.

Yet this is no new-age hedonistic cult that follows in the footsteps of Roman gladiatorial spectacles: this is the annual Kansas City Renaissance Festival, open September through October to elders and infants alike. Despite its focus on fashions and trends of centuries past, the Festival stands as a socially progressive symbol of Kansas City, creating a place in which artists of peculiar skills and trades can go to throw inhibition to the wind, celebrate their craft, and be celebrated.

There is undoubtedly a period of cultural adjustment that one must undergo to fully enjoy the Renaissance Festival. Upon stepping onto the festival grounds, a wild assortment of sights, sounds, and smells bombards the senses. One can easily become disoriented. The attendees’s costumes range from Tyrion Lannister to Tinkerbell, musical acts range from professional harpists to part-time pirate shanty-ers, and food ranges from charred mutton legs to cheesecake-on-a-stick. Due to the festival’s countless anachronisms, “Renaissance” is a bit of a misnomer; however, this is no reason to view the happenings of the Festival as overtly low-brow or uncultured. Once a moment is taken to accept the Renaissance Festival for the pastiche of eclectic pleasures that it is, then one can begin to recognize the devotion and artistry of those for whom the festival is a way of life.

Take the case of Ginger, for example. On a small sign outside of her artisan stand, “The Bard’s Musik Shoppe,” we learn that Ginger has a degree in acoustical engineering, but rather than apply her unique skills in a traditional career, she chose instead to make wooden folk instruments. The precision and commitment Ginger works with is evident in each glossy golden flute or whistle, but it’s especially present in her saxophones. Ginger plays a few notes with one of her entirely wood-crafted versions of the usually brass instrument, and there is no denying the richness and quality of its sound. She creates irreplaceable art.

This art exists because Ginger and every artist at the Renaissance Festival possess a special trait: they love what they do, and they do it well. In the festival’s choreographed keynote performance, a royal joust between two knights turns into a deadly sword fight. When watching the joust, the initial instinct to laugh is quickly overtaken by total respect for the performers. These men have practiced extensively on horseback and on foot to make every thrust and stab appear realistic. They represent extreme dedication to one’s work, and the crowd joyously recognizes this fact. People playfully respond to the calls for support from the knights, rooting for their favored fighter and jeering at his rival. Any sense of awkward reserve is disregarded; both attendee and artist alike want only to revel in the special and strange glory of the festivities.

But the beauty of the Renaissance Festival is that only an outside perspective would view such events as strange. The citizens of the Kansas City Metro for whom it is beloved know the festival to be nothing more than a gathering of people expressing themselves in a way that is pure, unfiltered, and unapologetically authentic.      

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