I’m a renaissance faire actor–a street performer, to be specific. I love it, and wouldn’t trade it for anything (except perhaps a contract with Cirque du Soleil), but it has been one big long experience of Learning by Doing, by which I mean Messing Shit Up. This has led to hilarious and not-so-hilarious moments, and while I’m always up for a hilarious moment, I really wish someone had sat me down before my first season and told me the things I would wish I had.
It’s been almost eight years since my first season. This is a list of the gear I think every street performer at a faire should at least think about getting. Please note: I’m not a musician, so I’m not super familiar with their specific needs. Please also note: this list does not include the things everyone will tell you over and over, like a drinking vessel (protip: a flask is not going to be sufficient), sunscreen, and a costume with a head covering, because everyone is going to tell you those things over and over. This is the stuff nobody told me about, or only mentioned in passing.
If you have any suggestions, please feel free to leave them in comments.
A pouch, a basket, and/or a bag
Whether you go with one, two, or all three, you should have something to carry your stuff on site. I have a pouch that hangs on my belt (for patron-friendly items), a basket (for picnicking supplies, games, and other large items), and a bag I carry over my shoulder (for private items, and my ice pack, see below). The bag was $4 at the thrift store, the pouch was thrown together out of scrap fabric and shoe laces in about ten minutes, and the basket was purchased at Joann for $10. I’m picky enough to want a dark basket (to go with the pretty white and red ribbons, naturally) or I could have bought one for $3 at above-mentioned thrift store.
Somewhere in your pouch or bag (or hidden on your person) you should have a dedicated, secure, weather-resistant place to store your performer’s pass, keys, and cash.
A tankard holder
You know you need a mug, tankard, goblet, or other drinking vessel, but how are you going to cart it around? Tying your mug to your belt is not going to work as well as you think it is; it will instead be a gigantic pain in your ass every single time you take it off or put it on. Yes, it will.
A mug holder, which can be purchased at most leather shops on site or found by Googleshopping “tankard holder,” slips onto your belt and holds your mug in an easily-removable state. If you don’t wear a belt, you can connect it to the d-rings you attached to the inside of your bodice.
Unless you’re playing the grossest of the gross, or you are just disgusting, you’ll probably want to wipe your nose on something that isn’t your shirt. Handkerchiefs also serve to wipe sweat from your brow or food from your face, and as bandages in a pinch. I carry at least three, tucked into pouches and up sleeves. You can buy them in bulk at the store, or whip them up out of scrap fabric, but for the love of God, make sure it’s soft fabric. Fancy ladies can spend their time on court embroidering them. Make or get more than you want to carry so you can have a new set on Sunday, and then wash them all over the week.
A bowl, a knife, and a spoon
World Market usually has interesting selections in both wood and metal, and I’ve also had luck at camping stores with reasonably period-looking metal ones.
Cold weather gear
I know, I know; your faire is in the south, or in the summer, and you’re always hot, you’re never going to need a cloak. Did I ever tell you about the time it snowed at the Georgia faire? In April? Funnily enough, it snowed that very same day at Scarborough Faire. In Dallas. A cloak will be worth every penny even if you only use it once. Mine is wool lined with felt, and it is comfortable, warm, reasonably water-resistant, and impossibly soft inside. Slap some Scotch guard on a wool cloak and bam, it’s practically water-proof. You can also sew a thin layer of plastic between the lining and the outer fabric for this purpose. I’ve never done that, but I’ve heard of it.
Ann has posted instructions for a double-duty cloak in the comments. It’s two layers, one for cold weather and one for wet, that can be worn together or separately. Check it out!
Other cold weather gear I suggest: gloves (LINED gloves), a pair of good heavy sleeves, and maybe a scarf or a shawl that can double as a scarf. If you’re wearing a skirt, consider a pair of pants you can wear under—plain pajama or yoga pants, for instance, or sweats or something. I hate sweat pants, but theoretically this isn’t about me, so you do what you want.
Your bodice/doublet should have sleeves and you should wear them.
Fancy characters can obviously carry feathery jeweled concoctions, but even poor characters ought to have some sort of thing to move air in the general direction of the face.
Freeze one overnight and stick it in your pouch. It will keep your lipstick and lip balm from melting, and sticking your hands in a pouch kept cool with an ice pack is stupid refreshing. I also keep a hanky in my ice pack pouch, and it feels super good on the back of my neck.
A wooden straw
This is a luxury, and silly, and probably more fantasy than period, but it makes drinking your water SO MUCH EASIER, and drinking your water is rule number two (rule number one being cheat out). Mine was about $13 from a faire vendor, and I love it. LOVE IT. I use it all the time. Sometimes I take it to restaurants. I LOVE IT. You can probably make your own if you’re handy with wood, but I’m not, so I can’t tell you how.
Your costume looks unfinished without sleeves because it is unfinished. They don’t even have to match! Tudor and Elizabethan folks were not so matchy-matchy as we are today. Get or make a pair of sleeves and wear them.
Umbrellas don’t really come into common use in Europe until later in the century than most faires play, but neither do turkey legs, so if your festival allows it, you might look into some sort of umbrella-like thing, even if it’s just a stick with a board stuck on top of it. It should be wood, whatever it is. On rain days, I like to carry around my little wood-and-fabric parasol ($4 online) and offer patrons a “free ten second trial of the new rain-repellant system imported directly from the East!” You can use your umbrella/parasoly things as portable shade, too.
If your cloak is rain-proof or rain-resistant, you can use it for this. Alternately, you can get a wide-brimmed hat and call it a day. Just make sure your hat is OK for rain. Don’t ask me how to make sure of this, because I don’t know.
In the event of rain, you’ll also want extra socks. Trust me.
Extra body linens
Make or get two of your body linens: your shirt/shift/chemise, bloomers, socks/tights/hose, headscarves, handkerchiefs, and anything else you’re going to wear next to your skin. I know it’s more expensive. I know it’s time-consuming. I don’t care. As with a cloak, the expense and hassle will be worth it the first time it rains all day and you don’t have access to a washer and dryer. It will also be worth it the first time you sweat like a damned pig all day and don’t have access to a washer and dryer.
Hell, it will be worth it your first Sunday (or Monday) morning, when you’re exhausted and aching and have to get up and do all that shit again oh God why. Clean, dry underthings will make your morning that much more pleasant (or less unpleasant, and sometimes that’s all we can ask for, right?). Your body linens are your underwear, and you will feel, look, and smell better if you have fresh underwear.
I AM NOT KIDDING YOU GUYS.
A time piece that isn’t your phone
You will lose your phone, or break it, or put it through the wash with your pouch. Yes, you will. If you don’t, it will get stolen, or it will ring while you’re in the middle of the Best Bit Ever. Phones on site are more hassle than they’re worth.
Hie thee unto the jewelry department of ye Local Big Box Store and get ye a watch face (they go for about $8-12). Hook it to a safety pin, and hook the safety pin to the inside of your doublet or bodice, just below the neckline. If you wash it, BFD. It was $8; go get another one. Alternately, stick it to the inside of your hat. I dislike this option, as it necessitates taking my hat off every time I want to see what time it is and also gives me a screaming headache, but some people love it.
An Emergency Supply Kit
Some or all of this kit can be kept backstage, and may include some or all of the following: sunscreen, bandaids (the flexible fabric ones are best, in a color reasonably close to your skin), safety pins, tampons/etc, any medications you may require on short notice (for asthma, allergies, migraines, arthritis, etc), emergency glasses/contact lens supplies, lip balm, powder and lip color (plus any specialized makeup your costume may call for), strings and other things necessary for the playing of your instrument(s), cough drops, Aspirin, a needle and thread, at least one spare lace, hair ties, and any other special things you may need. It should also include a spare pair of sock.
I like to pack my kit at the beginning of every faire, put it in the Tupperware container that holds my stuff, and leave it there. If I need to replenish something, I bring it to the kit, not the other way around.
Last year a patron asked me for an autograph! Woo! I felt like a fucking rock star until I realized that neither of us had a writing instrument. He went away disappointed and I was left shaking my fist at the sky, thinking of all the hours I spent practicing my character’s autograph. NEVER AGAIN.
I hope this list is helpful. If it is, feel free to use it in workshops, or link to it, or repost it with credit, or whatever else you’d like to do with it. And if you have any suggestions or additions, please leave them in comments!