Swords Are Cool

For most of us, a hobby is an end in itself. But for some lucky few, hobbies grow into careers. While one of Chris Last’s hobbies doesn’t quite qualify as a career, it’s close.

For 20-plus years now, Chris, who manages Math and Stats software packages for DoIT, has been part of the Bristol Renaissance Faire. It takes place on summer weekends on a 30-acre site in the Village of Bristol, Wisconsin. This year is its 30th anniversary.

Bristol, England’s Coat of Arms

Bristol’s organizing theme is the celebration of Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Bristol, England in August, 1574, during the flowering of the English Renaissance (the visit and the celebration are actual historical events). Within its microcosm of the Renaissance, the Bristol performers present many of the less-unsavory aspects of 16th-century life: period dress, jousting, eating without utensils, street performances, etc. Many guests also get into the spirit by getting into costume.

Chris got hooked on Ren Faires back in the mid-1980s, attending many with his family while he was in grade school on the south side of Milwaukee.

Then, during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at UW-Madison (where he minored in early modern European history), Chris’s best friend thought it would be fun to volunteer at the Bristol Renaissance Faire and got Chris to go along. Chris had no theatre experience when he began, but he did think that swords were cool.

It was only that first year that Chris was a volunteer. (Almost all of the roughly 1,500 performers at the Faire are volunteers.) By his second year, they were paying him, he was brought into management in his 3rd year, and he’s now part of the creative team that decides the direction of the overall show.

Chris is director of a 42-member cast of actors. His cast performs as a Trayn’d Bande, a National Guard-like entity in charge of the defense of the city. Chris’s responsibilities include training his cast in all aspects of their performance, as well as designing and implementing their schedule.

When performing with his cast, Chris portrays a wealthy member of the merchant class. Participation in one of the Trayn’d Bandes was considered to be a very good for one’s social standing.

Why does he spend almost all of his summer weekends doing something that falls well short of lucrative? And why do hundreds drive hours to volunteer? Well, besides the swords, Chris values the opportunity to make a positive impact on the cast. And the cast gets the chance to not only take a brief vacation from reality, but also to create a positive, and sometimes even educational, experience for guests.

In addition, Chris said that some volunteers use Ren Faires to gain experience and train for acting careers. And it’s great for that: the cast is acting on an open-air stage whenever the gates are open, staying in character all day in both organized performances and while interacting with guests. They have 360-degree exposure, and improvisation is the rule rather than the exception. In the past, Bristol has brought in improv comedy teachers from Chicago’s Second City and Players Workshop.

In addition to his work at Bristol, Chris is co-owner of Janesville Renaissance Faire, Inc. It was founded in 2006 as a non-profit and, with its 110-actor cast, puts on one show every year in May. Over their 12 seasons, they’ve raised and donated over $80,000 to community service groups, scholarship funds, and men’s and women’s shelters.

Chris and his cast also make appearances at other Ren faires, such as A Gathering of Rogues & Ruffians near New Glarus in October, and they bring history to life at school presentations.

The Bristol Renaissance Faire will be open on weekends through September 4th.

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