‘A West Virginia Mountaineer in King Arthur’s Court,’ AKA: Alderson man visits the WV Renaissance Festival

By Jeffrey Kanode for RealWV,

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Some of the folks in this story wished to go by their festival characters’ names, not their real ones. Also, in Renaissance festival culture, fests are also referred to as fairs or “faires,” using the older spelling. Sometimes the fair community shortens Renaissance to “Ren.”

I had never attended a Renaissance festival. After my day at the West Virginia Renaissance Festival last Saturday, I hope to attend more, especially ours. I live in Alderson, so this fest goes on just a touch over fifteen minutes away from my home. Just off of the Alta exit, on Route 60 heading toward Lewisburg, the West Virginia Renaissance Festival is easily accessible, yet nestled away on gorgeous Greenbrier Valley farmland, it has an “otherness” feel, a tangible feeling that moves you into another space, away from current time and even reality.

In the parking lot (that was already filling up quickly, even at mid-morning) I met two college students from Virginia Tech. Keelin Macken and Matt Irwin were Renaissance rookies, too.

Virginia Tech students Matt Irwin and Keelin MacKenzie enjoying their first Renaissance Festival experience. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV.

“I’ve never been to a Ren Fest before,” Keelin said. “The one in Virginia has already passed. This was
the closest to us. I am excited to see how the people dress up.”

Keelin also told me her fandom of fantasy and the Dungeons and Dragons game piqued her interest in these fairs.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Matt added. “There’s a bunch more people here than I ever anticipated. Hopefully we’ll run you into in there and we can tell you how it’s going.”

To Matt Irwin’s point, there were many people at the festival, and we didn’t get the opportunity to speak again. However, I did spot the couple once, in the crowd and at a distance. They were both smiling.

Erin Elizabeth teaches music in a secondary school in West Virginia. She directs bands and choirs, and serves as a church musician. While Keelin, Matt, and I entered the West Virginia Renaissance Festival as neophytes, Erin came in as a veteran. “I attended my first faire when I was eighteen, seventeen years ago,” she said with a laugh. “It was the best time ever.”

Erin Elizabeth has been attending Renaissance fairest since she was eighteen. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV.

Now Erin attends as many of these festivals as she can. She plans on traveling soon to festivals in Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, and there’s even a Renaissance cruise next year she looks forward to,
as well.

The Lord of the Rings books and films wooed Erin into the Renaissance festival world. Now, friendship within the faire community means a great deal to her. “Last week when I was here, I didn’t see a stranger,” she noted. “I know all the bartenders, all the musicians, all the performers.”

As I walked around the fair grounds, my forty-five year old eyes grew as wide as they did back when I was ten, gazing around at the world at large. This time as I looked around the world of the Renaissance Festival, I saw a “Pirate Comedy Show” which included “fire eating,” and “fire rope walking.” I met many of the performers, like Ken Julian who does “gravity check juggling” with a Chinese yo-yo. Ken has been doing these festivals for eighteen years now. A native of Burke County, North Carolina, he calls the North Carolina Renaissance Fair home.

Gentle, almost hypnotic music drew me to Kathleen Finnegan’s shady little cove underneath a tree. Kathleen plays the harp. “After thirty years of playing, I stopped counting,” she told me, smiling as she paused between songs. Her name really is Finnegan. “You might think I use the name in character, but it’s my real one,” she said. Her father immigrated to the United States from Ireland as a young man. “He wanted to be a forester,” she said. “He came to America, went to Syracuse, and moved to Oregon. That’s where I’m from.”

 Harpist Kathleen Finnegan enchants with her music. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV.

Kathleen Finnegan has been traveling the Ren Fair circuit as a harpist for twenty years. If Kathleen Finnegan drew me in with serenity, Dale Warner pulled me in with the magnetism of a horror movie.

He’s “Boltoff the Headsman,” and ten-year old me would have been scared to death of him, but in a thrilling roller-coaster kind of way. He loomed over the fairgoers as they traversed, willing to play the part with anyone wanting to interact. With me, he came out of character long enough to tell me he calls Maryland home, and he got involved in Renaissance festivals by answering a want ad in a newspaper.

According to Dawn Kieninger, property owner and event coordinator of the West Virginia Renaissance Festival, the fest has been averaging 2500 people on Saturdays. It takes place every weekend in June. This marks its fifth year. Dawn said that she and Taso Stavrakis, West Virginia Renaissance Festival Director and co-founder of the Hanlon Lees Action Theater, have worked Renaissance festivals and fairs around the country for years.

“Boltoff the Headsman” scared the author, but he found Dale Warner perfectly charming. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV.

“We both liked West Virginia and wanted to live here,” she reflected. “This is the business we know best and there wasn’t one here. We feel that there is a need for entertainment if people are going to stay and
raise families here in West Virginia.”

Kieninger noted that the Hanlon Lees Action Theater performs in large fairs in Texas, Massachusetts, and many other smaller festivals all over the United States.

“The Hanlon Lees Action Theater is America’s first and longest running theatrical jousting production company,” she said. They also do stunt work in films, and hope to forge a partnership with the West Virginia Film office “to help develop West Virginia into a filmmaker’s destination.”

As mesmerized as the festival made me, the venue, the land itself, also captivated me. Off to itself, with a plethora of green grass in meadows flanked by the mountains, the West Virginia Renaissance Festival showcases the beauty of Greenbrier County, just as it gives a stage to incredibly talented, creative performers. I had to ask Dawn about the actual space hosting the festival.

“The land was more or less vacant when we bought it. There were and are cattle on it. We raise and sell goats and produce, and are breeding and training horses for the joust program,” she said. Dawn also said many horses spend their retirement years on this farm, after their jousting careers have come to a close.

In looking back on my inaugural day at a Ren faire, our West Virginia RenaissanceFestival, I think Erin Elizabeth said it better than I can articulate. “I was so impressed when I came here for the first time two years ago,” she said. “I am just so proud of West Virginia.”

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