For the past four years I’ve had the privilege of performing for the Carolina Renaissance Festival. It’s basically my usual show, but with period-appropriate garb and accent. I perform under the moniker “Sir Hannibal the Liar” (Yes: I was knighted just last year.) You can find his fan page on Facebook. I enjoy the time spent in this fantasy community. It happens in the fall, so the days are usually cool and the trees surrounding the site are in full autumn glory. Performing out in the sunshine on the tiny stage I share with musicians is an amazing experience, and I often meet extraordinary people. The following events took place in early November 2016 on an especially beautiful afternoon, during my second show of the day.
My stage, The Middleshire Grove, is located in the middle of a very wide lane. There’s a cloth ceiling, but no walls. It seats about 50 people, with standing room for dozens more. The stage itself is about a foot and a half high, with two small steps up to the stage proper. The front row is about a foot away from the steps. Get the picture?
I was setting up the stage for my show and chatting with the people gathering to watch, encouraging them to come closer, breaking the ice. A woman with three young children in tow made her way to the front and parked the kids on the front bench. Now … the Hannibal show is not a children’s show. The show at this venue is certainly family friendly enough, but certainly not child themed. While it’s not vulgar or “dirty,” there are some adult themes and humor. I was about to gently explain this when she announced: “Now sit nice and watch the magician. I’m going to go get us lunch.” Despite my trying to get her attention in the most demon- strative way I could, she trotted off without looking back. The audience got a good laugh at the look on my face. None of the staff was nearby, There was nothing I could do except go on with the show. To their benefit, the kids sat still and relatively quiet.
Roughly 10 minutes in, Mom returned with food. I was thinking of how (and if) to address her after the show was finished. I mugged a smirk for the benefit of everyone else, because Mom was completely focused on her next task.
She sat down on the steps of my stage and proceeded to set out lunch.
In the years of being heckled, booed, talked at … I’ve never seen the level of disrespect this woman showed me and her fellow audience members. I must have stood there for a full minute, just watching. Then I looked up at the crowd, and they were, in sections, aghast and bemused.
I was so shocked that I wasn’t even mad. I cleared my throat. She didn’t notice. I said: “Excuse me … .” She didn’t notice. So I sat down on the steps next to her and made eye contact.
“Begging your pardon, Madam.” (Ren Faire, remember?) “But did you happen to notice that you have perched yourself on the stage of an ongoing show?”
“Yeah.” She quipped, “So? My kids are hungry and the food tables are full.”
I took a deep breath and calmly explained the etiquette of theater and good manners in general. Well, calmly for me, anyway. There may have been sarcasm and biting tone involved. I invited her to a) sit on a bench and watch the show quietly or b) pack up and find a more appropriate place. She angrily decided to go with plan b. Before leaving she pointedly took a picture of me, so she could properly report my rudeness. I made sure she had the correct spelling of my name. Hey, it’s not “Hannibal the Polite.” The remainder of the audience cheered as she left. I was seething, inside.
I gathered myself and proceeded with the show. I got my rhythm back for the most part and did my best to not linger over angry thoughts, at least until I could get backstage and rant in private. The show went well, though I do admit to not being 100 percent. I wasn’t worried about being reported; I know the management and they know and trust me. More, I was self-checking, pondering ways I might have better handled the situation. It was frustrating and baffling.
One of the routines of the Ren Faire show calls for me to compose an off-the-cuff poem about one of the ladies in the audience. It’s sweet without being flirty, complimentary without becoming creepy. No insults, no negative connotation; It’s a nice moment. I chose a young lady in her late 20s who was sitting with her friends. It’s hard to describe the composing process, but if her escort and friends are smiling at the end of it, I’ve done it right. She absolutely beamed at the routine, so I knew I had nailed it. That moment took some of the sting away from my earlier encounter.
I wrapped up the show well, with a good strong ending. I stuck around to shake hands and pose for pictures and generally talk to and (more important) listen to my audience. They were very complimentary: I remember because I was a bit down on myself for the way the show had kicked off. I want the best for the people that invest their time and money on me and I knew that the show was flawed. Naturally it’s okay to have flaws in your performance, it’s not always going to come out perfectly. Sometimes the mistakes or accidents or even the rude and unthinking can lead to a better performance. One of the best ways to improve is to learn from the experience. It always seems to be the bad things that stick in your mind longest, though.
As I was making my way to the backstage area, I was stopped by the young woman I composed the poem for. Her friends were a few feet away, looking on … she was in tears, and smiling.
“I didn’t want to come today.” She said, “I’ve been isolating myself from my friends and just sitting at home, fighting depression. My friends literally had to come to my house this morning, force me to get dressed and come out. The day helped cheer me up: It’s warm and sunny and I was beginning to enjoy myself. A couple of them had seen you before and insisted on watching the show. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of magicians, but we got here just as you were ‘handling’ the problem with the kids. I thought maybe you might be worth watching. That was hilarious.”
She went on: “You picked me from the crowd and I was mortified. I just knew you were going to make me look silly or embarrass me in front of everyone. That’s what you guys do, you know? But you … it’s like you were singing to me, almost. You made me feel beautiful, and special.
“Sir, I’ve been thinking about suicide. Because I feel useless and worthless. You looked at me and saw something. You made me want to find that in myself. You are real magic.”
We embraced, her friends joined in. We talked for a few minutes and they went on their way, laughing and hurrying to the next event. My perspective of that performance changed drastically.
Clarity: I did not tell that story to inflate my sense of importance, or brag about my show. Rather, I want to illustrate the power that we as potential artists have, and the responsibility we have toward the people in our audience. You do not know who you are reaching, or how you are affecting them. You have a gift that you are sharing. It’s important to deliver it with the best of intentions and quality. Are you insulting or uplifting? Are you allowing the petty barbs of day-to-day life to affect your performance? Suppose I had let the rudeness of woman number one sour my attitude for the rest of that show?
The road is sometimes tough, that’s a fact. As artists, as performers, it is our duty to help others along when we can. Ease a burden, conjure a laugh … you could be improving a life. You might very well be saving one.
This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.