What explains the enduring appeal of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, now in its 41st year?
“It’s escapist for people,” says Carolyn Spedden, the festival’s artistic director. Still, unlike other similar festivals around the country, Maryland’s event hews close to actual history, particularly in all of the shows Spedden writes and programs across ten stages. “Some festivals really ignore the history altogether and have fictional monarchs. They say it’s set in England, but it’s pure fantasy.
“Every year we choose a different year,” she continues, “and something that happened in the reign of Henry VIII. This year we’ve chosen 1527.”
That year is important as it was a time when “his love for Anne Boleyn pushes him to ask for an annulment of marriage from Queen, Katherine of Aragon…. Of all the storylines we do with Henry VIII, Boleyn tends to be the most popular.”
This year’s festival also touches on an era in which “the whole persecution of witches is really starting up. We hit that a little bit, of how the hysteria can start building. It’s a fun day for people and that topic is kind of a bummer. It’s handled lightly in the sense that it doesn’t permeate throughout the entire village. But for people who are interested in it, it’s addressed in the stage show.”
There’s a lot to see and explore — too much, all told, for just one full day — and the diversity in content is reflected in the diversity in attendance.
“If you look at other events — anything from NASCAR to the symphony to opera to rock concerts, you can get a variety of people — but there tends to be a [specific] demographic. That is just simply not true here. We have all age ranges. Families, singles, couples, friends. It varies wildly.”
The festival, says Spedden, is “a very inclusive, welcoming event. Everybody should feel comfortable coming through the gates.” That’s true whether your primary motive is to take in the performances — over 200 professionals engaged in everything from jousting to comedic sword-fighting to re-enactments to parodies of Shakespeare — or to shop for early holiday gifts from “the amazing artisans here with their handmade wares.”
And don’t forget the food. “Some people come here strictly to eat,” Spedden says. “They want to get their yearly turkey leg or steak on a stake or cheesecake on a stick. They are not satisfied until they come through the gates to do that.”
The Maryland Renaissance Festival opens Saturday, Aug. 26, at 9:45 a.m., and runs weekends through Oct. 22 at 1821 Crownsville Road, Annapolis, Md. Tickets are $17 to $25 for a single-day adult ticket. Call 800-296-7304 or visit rennfest.com.
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