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The Ohio Renaissance Festival: Cosplay to the 1500s

A crowd of people, some in period costumes, walk in front of white castle gate with several flags flying on top of the towers.
Jason Reynolds
/
WYSO
The Front Gates of the Ohio Renaissance Festival.

When the castle doors opened on a recent morning, hundreds of guests flooded into the Ohio Renaissance Festival — many of them in detailed period costumes, just like the performers.

Among them were lords and ladies, and knights and elves.

And right inside the gates stood an actor dressed as swashbuckling swordsman. David Woolley wore a velvet vest and tall leather boots, and he had a fencing foil holstered to his belt.

“Well, what ho, young fellow!” he said.

Woolley wove his way through the crowd, toward the sword-fighting stage, introducing performers and convincing patrons to come to the show.

“This is Steven,” he said, pointing to a man with a lute. “He’s playing some lovely music.”

Then, Woolley turned to some women in costume. “Hi, little fairies! We’re off to go do the swordsmen show!”

“We’re coming!” they said, and they followed him.

Woolley and his stage partner, Doug Mumaw, do multiple shows each day, and each is a mixture of comedy and action.

Doug Mumaw and David Woolley swordfight at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.
J. Reynolds
/
WYSO
Doug Mumaw and David Woolley swordfight at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.

They took the stage and taught the crowd how to talk, laugh and act like a proper renaissance audience. But soon enough, they ended up arguing and sword fighting across the stage, until one of them was stabbed and the crowd went wild.

When Woolley isn’t performing, he’s a professor of stage combat at Columbia College, so he’s pretty good with a sword.

“If you’re going to make a living as a sword fighter, you need an outlet, and the renaissance fair is an excellent outlet,” he said.

Woolley and Mumaw have been doing this show at renaissance festivals for over 30 years now, and Mumaw says it's a great gig.

“We were just commenting that this crowd here at the Ohio Renaissance Festival is truly multi generational,” he said. “We get 5-year-olds to 85-year-olds at every show.”

And those generations of people often end up dressing up and becoming part of the festival themselves.

Jousting is one of the big draws at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.
J. Reynolds
/
WYSO
Jousting is one of the big draws at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.

Liz Lovett is a “playtron." That’s festival lingo that combines “patron” and “play,” as in costume play.

“When we say playtron, we mean playing with each other. And those are the people that will bow to the queen when the queen comes around," she said. "They're a delightful asset to the festival. So I pride myself on being a playtron.”

Lovett said costumes don’t have to be complex or expensive to be fun.

“I am just a basic wench," she said. “I like to be very plain Jane. All of my stuff is cotton, maybe a couple of feathers or pins. But you probably have seen a lot of court ladies around, and they're wearing the big skirts and the very beautiful, ornate outfits and jewelry and, oh, I want to be one of them!”

Alex Wells, James Wells, and Liz Lovett at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.
J. Reynolds
/
WYSO
Alex Wells, James Wells, and Liz Lovett at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.

James Wells is a playtron, too. He was dressed in linen robes with a crown that looks like tree branches reaching for the sky.

“I'm a 'Lord of the Rings' elvenking,” he said. “The elves were always a race that helped the humans. And generally, that's what I am in real life. So, when you come to the renaissance festival in costume, picture that you're building a character in a video game. And if you could do that in real life, what would you be?”

He says a fun costume can lead to new friends, too.

“Because there's going to be somebody here who's going to notice what you're trying to do, and they're going to compliment you, and it’s part of the magic of the fair."

Lovett said their group makes a point of bringing in first timers to “make them feel loved and wanted, and that’s powerful, too.”

Wenches A' Wailing raise a toast at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.
J. Reynolds
/
WYSO
Wenches A' Wailing raise a toast at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.

The performers and playtrons all seem to be one big family. Sometimes, literally. Like Johnna and Jennifer Brough, who have been singing together for 25 years.

“We’re sister in-law-ish,” Jennifer Brough said.

“She was married to my brother,” Johnna Brough explained, “and I got custody of her in the split.”

The Broughs say their family tree looks more like a wreath. Their band is called Wenches A’ Wailing. Jennifer Brough said they, “do a lot of drinking songs, some sailing songs, a lot of songs that are just a wee bit naughty.”

Over the years, they’ve seen their audience grow and multiply, and Jennifer Brough raised her son at the festival. Now, he’s a performer, too. His name is Chance, and he plays fiddle with five different bands. He says growing up at the fair was “educational.”

“I had some of the best jokes in middle school,” he said. “But over the years, I’ve had a chance to play with some of the best performers I’ve ever met. Growing up out here was amazing. I got to be my own little rock star.”

The Ohio Renaissance Festival is open weekends until the end of October.

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