“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…” ~ Al Pacino in The Godfather III
I have ‘retired’ no less than four times from the professional jousting world. I don’t know why I was surprised to say ‘yes’ when my one time squire, and sometime boss, Bryan Beard, called to ask me to ride once again. Bryan heads up his own professional theatrical jousting troupe, Noble Cause Productions. He was in the enviable position of having expanded shows rapidly, with touring companies performing in three fairs simultaneously. He needed an experienced knight with some ‘gravitas’ to play opposite him as the villain at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival in Mt. Hope – A small town midway between Lancaster and Lebanon.
This would not be the first time I had jousted at Mt. Hope. Not even the fourth. When I ran a jousting company, International Action Theatre – doing business as The Hanlon-Lees Action Theatre – I produced and directed the shows at Mt. Hope during the long seasons of ’91,’92 and ’93. At that time, the show ran from June through October, and every weekend was a three day weekend. I’m pretty sure if you checked a dictionary printed during that time, our show schedule was listed next to the word ‘Brutal’.
I came out of retirement for the third time to ride and direct at the Mt.Hope show back in 2010. It was there that I gave my son Travis his first full ‘final’ joust, and knighted him backstage, awarding him his spurs and armor. I was certain that was my last joust, and was happy to have gone out on such an emotional high. “Never again,” I thought to myself. “Never again” I said out loud, numerous times to any who would ask.
Why then, agree to return some three years later? Like most decisions in life, the reasons were ‘over determined’. While I often complain of life on the road and its trials and tribulations, I always miss working with the horses.
I sometimes dream of riding my favorite mount, Deerborne across wide open fields. I usually awake laughing, with tears in my eyes. I miss that horse.
So yes, a chance to work with the horses, and flex the old muscles was certainly a part of it. A kind of morbid curiosity must have come into play as well. COULD I still do it? Would I be able to put on the harness, and slug it out on horseback, two or three times in a festival day? Not to mention two rides a day, three to four days a week in rehearsal?
I’m no spring chicken, and simply riding and jousting is wear and tear on the joints enough, let alone in armor. So perhaps there was a bit of vanity involved. Money? Not enough to make a dent in our finances – but enough to justify going. Call it a ‘working vacation’ then – being paid to exercise my riding and acting skills – and perhaps even lose a little weight. Because I had packed on the pounds while sitting at the keyboard. Yes, that was part of the incentive too. A change of scenery, and a more active lifestyle.
And finally, add to the excuses , that of ‘research’. I have an idea for a series of books set at Renaissance Festivals – so this would be a good chance to catch up on the culture and see what has changed in the intervening years since I began my career some forty years ago.
I started my summer adventure on July 18th, by taking three days to drive across country. Essentially a marathon slog from San Francisco to Philadelphia – across the US on Highway 80. I pushed hard the first day – making over 1200 miles in sixteen hours. Of course, I was losing an hour travelling east. The second day found me starting off in Wyoming aiming for Chicago or Joliet, Illinois by night fall. The final push was a mere 850 miles, arriving at Mt. Hope in a driving rainstorm. I spent the night in a leaky office trailer, parked next to the barn. I slept the contented sleep of the road-weary.
I met with Bryan and Danny Foss, his partner in Noble Cause Productions. Danny would be directing the show for the first two weeks, until Bryan could join us from the show in Colorado where he was currently riding and directing. I had never worked with Danny before, but we got along famously. A fine horseman, our biggest problem was lapsing into ‘remember when’ stories – that no doubt bored the young pups who were riding with us. Just a couple of old farts, telling one more war story.
Noble Cause productions – like most joust companies – usually writes and directs its own joust shows, with a minimal amount of interaction with the attending court or cast. In Mt. Hope however, Noble Cause works hand in hand with the directors and fight choreographers of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival to craft a seamless integration of our joust show, our fights and our horse stunts, with the festival’s stage scenario, stage fights and stage stunts.
The Pennsylvania Festival is unique among renaissance fairs. First of all, it has one of the finest joust facilities of any in the country. Even though the arena is more than twenty five years old, the underlying drainage system and infrastructure has kept the sand and field in excellent shape over the years. Add to that a large seven stall barn behind the arena, with cinder block toilet and shower facilities for cast and crew – and you’re way ahead of many of the festivals in terms of performance, housing and stabling accommodations.
Unlike most festivals, the arena space is set up as a proscenium. The seating for the audience is on the west side of the field, while the east side is fronted by a huge four story dais. This structure provides a beautiful backdrop for the joust with a multi-level playing stage for the stunt show, and a fantastic setup for the full scale pyrotechnics that accompany the final joust. In that sense, the PA show is very much like a ‘theme park’. The final joust is a stage show, with lighting and music cues, incorporating the cast as members of a final showdown essential to the resolution of the scenario that has been playing out all day long at the faire. The combined effect is a huge spectacle that rivals any stunt show at Universal or Disney.
In the past, whenever I directed a joust show, I tried to rotate the final joust duties between all of the knights. That way, each knight got to carry the day, win or lose, and be the focus of the scenario at least once a weekend. But to my surprise, when I arrived, I found that I would be playing “The Villain” each and every day – with the duties of the final joust and all that entails. To be fair, I had given up doing running saddle falls some time ago, so I didn’t have that particular wear and tear to worry about for the next three months. A saddle fall would be performed by my evil henchman, or Bryan’s young second, thus fulfilling the contractual obligation for one each joust.
My role in this year’s scenario, was to play ‘evil’ Sir Richard. Yeah… big stretch. The usual tension between the noble Sir William, Lord of Whitehall and Sir Richard, Earl of Greyhame – was ratcheted up a notch when I decide to ride on behalf of Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland, played by the beautiful and talented Sydney Schwindt.
(Grace O’Malley was a real historical character, whose bio is worth looking up). I agree to ride in the final joust on behalf of Grace, in order to free her companion/lover Red Hugh O’Donnell. If I lose, she loses all her ships to Queen Elizabeth. And if I win… well was that ever a real possibility for the bad guy?
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. In the final joust, I ‘cheat to win’ – when Sir William gets the upper hand, I call on my evil henchman Sir Rolland, (played by Dan McClelland) to pull a crossbow on William’s second, Sir Tristan (played by Nate McCormack) . “Yield, William, or the boy dies!”
Ever chivalrous, William surrenders, whereupon I tell Roland to “Spare the boy – kill the KNIGHT!” – Roland shoots William in the shoulder, and I claim victory. Queen Elizabeth (Jessica Eppler) will have none of this, and strips me of my land and titles, banishing me from England forever.
Not content with William’s demise, and being banished – I launch into a tirade against the Queen. “I’m going to do something I should have done a long time ago. You are not fit to sit upon the throne of this country. You are not the ruler your father was…” and here, knowing I was the oldest person on the field, and likely the oldest performer at the faire – I improvised a line that we kept in the joust for the run of the show. “I KNEW your father! WE BROKE LANCES TOGETHER! ” So yeah, I was old enough ( just barely ) to have jousted with her father, King Henry VIII. And finally – I finish with the worst I could possibly think of… ” You… are a weak… and pitiful… WOMAN!”
Okay, so Sir Richard is a misogynist, and at this point, on the delivery of that line, I lose half the members of my own audience. But if you’re breaking bad, go REALLY bad.
I give the cry “To ARMS!” and an army of evil minions climbs over the fence to attack the court. Chaos ensues – fights on the field and on the stage. I call for canon fire, and the canons behind me give fire, setting of explosions, fireballs and flying barrels and debris from the stage. All while marching steadily toward Elizabeth. After the smoke clears, the field is empty save for Elizabeth and me.
“I HAVE WON! And you have lost Elizabeth. Have you anything further to say, before I carry out sentence?”
Delivering those lines, while mounting the stairs was the second hardest thing I did all day. I was pretty much exhausted – especially on day three of Labor Day Weekend in heat of 90 degrees. But the final confrontation with Queen Elizabeth, portrayed by Jessica Eppler was the high point of my day, if not hers.
“Yes Sir Richard, you are correct. I do have the weak and feeble body of a woman. But I have the heart and soul of a lion. And the Lion of England as well….”
I often wished the audience could see her face as I did. For even though we were playing it for the cheap seats some seventy five yards away, her expression was pure cinema – and the moment never failed to inspire me to deliver my best performance.
In point of fact, about two thirds of the way through the run, Jess said to me one day, “You are such and evil man.” I replied by saying it was great fun playing the character, and that I almost felt she should slap me when I deliver the line “Prepare to meet the same fate your mother met.”
She agreed saying, “That would be GREAT! I feel that too! Would it be okay if I did that?”
That day, when I delivered the line, she let loose with a slap that was heard ‘round the shire’. Gasps came in stereo. From my left, the audience HOWLED in delight. From my right, the cast on stage GASPED in astonishment.
Turns out, I might should have checked with the festival fight choreographer, and notified the cast it was coming. The moment was pure gold however, and we left it in for the closing weekends.
“Have it your way,” I go to cut off her head, when the previously unconscious Grace O’Malley – springs up from the stage, to block my blow and disarm me. She will not stand to achieve victory in this manner.
As ALWAYS , good triumphs over evil, William defeats me fairly in single combat, and announces that once again and forever “Chivalry Lives”. A fairy-tale ending for a long day.
I don’t mind dying, I get carried off the field.
Once the show was running smoothly, we had time to fine tune bits, and add things to keep it lively. We also had time during the week to meet and mingle with the cast of the faire. What a delight it was to meet all these fine young actors from across the country. Most of them were multi-talented – being singers, jugglers, fighters, stunt players or musicians on top of their acting roles.
The central cast of paid actors, called “The Bacchanalians” were housed in dorms with a communal room and kitchen located on the festival grounds. Of course, the commons was used for sedate gatherings like basket weaving, and bible study on a weekly schedule. What fun it was to meet with these fine upstanding kids, and discuss their opinion on politics and the craft of acting in lively and ‘spirited’ conversations.
As much fun as I had attending cultural events in the commons, most of my time was spent with the knights and crew of Noble Cause. With more than 25 years of friendship, I knew I could work well with Bryan, but having three new companions in arms – some of whom were only riding for their first year – was a real delight. People who had never heard my boring stories were now at my mercy.
As I mentioned, I had the great pleasure of riding the first two weeks with Danny Foss (Sir Malcom) and Mark Fossey, (Sir Arthur) himself a talented musician. It seems everyone on the crew was multi talented. Danny is a professional carpenter – and Mark a musician who played gigs at the pub down the road. When they left for Kansas City, they were replaced by Bryan Beard and Dan McClelland as my evil companion in arms.
This was Dan’s first full year of jousting, and he was eager to take on any task assigned to him. He had a way of developing a natural rapport with the audience, and was clearly one of their favorites. Not only did he ride as my evil second, but during the last three weeks, he rode as Felix’ evil henchman. This entailed getting his head cut off, and riding in a special ‘headless horseman’ rig. Not an easy task, especially as it got dark by showtime in late October. I enjoyed getting to know Dan, and I am certain he will grow to be a valuable asset to the company.
The role of ‘good guy second’ Sir Tristan, was played by Nate McCormack. Or as the crew liked to tease him, “Nearly Naked Nate” – for his tendency to go bare chested – causing the ladies to swoon. Nate was my opponent in the second act, and we had great fun taunting each other about him being a ‘boy’ and me being an ‘old man’. He took his ribbing with good grace, and always made me look good by performing a brilliant running dismount in our joust. (And his mom made some awesome cookies…) Nate is engaged to another cast member, the beautiful and talented Chailee Friant – who fought in the chess match, and performed high falls from the upper level of the dais. Their kids are going to be AWESOME!
Opening the show, and then coming in to close the show for the Halloween stretch was the ‘dark knight’ Sir Sancho , played by Felix Franjul. A skilled rider with dressage training, Felix is also a talented artist, and would assist the other knights in heraldic designs for their shields. Felix had a gymnast’s ability to bounce and roll like top when he performed a dismount. Felix played the evil lead in the final three Halloween weekends where he got to invoke the ‘powers of darkness’ – which raised Dan from the dead as a headless horseman. He will be returning for the bulk of the season with Noble Cause next year.
The crew was rounded out with the addition of Matthew Gnojek (Sir Mereck) who came from the Colorado show to work as ‘Master of the List’ and learn to ride and joust. This was
standard operating procedure for the company. To place a knight in training as Master of the List, while he learned the skills and the ins and outs of the show. Mathew played the foppish Prince on court in Colorado. It was a bit of a change-up to play a ‘heavy’ Master of the List, and he had a hard time with the role of Knight at first. His rendition of musical numbers and Disney dance routines however, kept the cast and crew of the faire in stitches. I finally took him aside to advise him, “Less Danny Kay – more Clint Eastwood” on the delivery of his character, Sir Mereck, on the field. By the end of the run, he was riding, jousting and delivering a wicked smirk with the best of us. He’s unleashed the inner ‘bad guy’. Welcome to the dark side Matt. We have cookies.
The show couldn’t run without ground support of course. It’s the squires who make us look good. As usual here in America – if you’re looking for someone with horse experience, or even an interest in horses – you’re more than likely going to come up with a female. It’s just a fact of our culture. And the females on our crew were exceptional.
Head squire duties fell upon Emy Rothenberger, who was an able bodied task master for her charges – and a diehard fantasy fan and gamer. SO of course, she fit right in. While any squire might be dressed in any knight’s livery if the need is urgent – we tended to be assigned squires for each of us for the duration of the run. That way, they could learn the peculiarities of a particular horse, and the unique way each knight wanted his horse tacked or groomed. Emy served as Bryan’s squire. She was always on top of the needs of the horses, as well as the setup of the field props. Emy took her responsibilities seriously, and it showed in a smooth running performance.
Rolland drew Kris Marie for his squire. Kris had actually worked ‘for the mouse’ in Disney Theme parks as a costumed character before working at renaissance festivals. She also played Milady D’Winter at the Jersey faire. After tech rehearsal one day, when they had discharged a full round of pyrotechnics – she announced with breathless astonishment “Hey guys! That barrel that flies through the air when the canon explodes… IT’S NOT A REAL BARREL!” I looked directly at her, and bent low to whisper … “Yeah Kris, we’re not real ‘knights’ either… it’s a show. Like everyone else on the crew, Kris was multi talented. An accomplished singer, she was also a motivational speaker. She was always a bright light, even on the darkest winter mornings.
My squire and evil minion was played by the charming and capable Natalie Lawton. I actually met Natalie three years ago, when I was directing the show. But she wasn’t assigned ‘full time’ squire duty, and was only able to show up in between other assignments in the fair. Now she was dedicated to full time squiring. As it turned out, Natalie was also an able and accomplished seamstress – having made squire tabards, shirts, rein covers, trappings and saddle pads for the knights on demand. She had the ability to appear shy and retiring, until she let loose with a loud challenge of “SLOW DOWN” to any who dared drive too fast past the barn. You know you’ve found a keeper when you don’t need to check your cinch before mounting. Thanks for taking such great care of me on the field Natalie.
Joe Fleichman was slated to be Nate’s squire. A true ‘renaissance man’ – he was quick to offer help with your vehicle, discuss quantum physics, or give you a look through his telescope set up for stargazing in the tiltyard. Joe was new to festivals and horses in general, but he was quietly determined to make his mark. Curious about all aspects of medieval life, combat, and equestrian management – his attention to detail and dogged determination to make an impression paid off. He was punished… er,… rewarded… by getting the opportunity to travel with the company to Florida after Mt. Hope closed, and he will be on the road next year, squiring and training for knighthood. Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you off Joe. You’ll have no one to blame but yourself. Oh… and keep practicing your ring throws.
This was Erin Bark’s second year of touring as a squire with Noble Cause. I thought about calling her “Radar” because of her tendency to anticipate everyone’s needs and stay one step ahead of the game. A truly hard worker – her knowledge and experience of working the show on the road made her perfect as a ‘swing squire’ – able to fill in at any position on the field or in the barn. Her dedication to the horses, allowed most of us to relax on our days off, Monday and Tuesdays. Erin was always ready to lend a hand whenever and wherever it was needed. That’s the spirit that makes a show run.
Michael Howe was another performer who came to us from Colorado as well. Michael was also in a ‘swing position’ filling in as Master of the List when Matthew got a chance to ride, and working as an extra squire , horse handler and ring holder. Michael was another talented artist on the crew, and spent a lot of his free time pursuing his skills as an illustrator, utilizing photos and live models of us in action to round out his portfolio. He presented me with an awesome portrait of ‘Sir Richard’ – for my birthday. I expect to see great accomplishments in his artistic future.
There is no stronger bond than between horse and rider – or so the saying goes. That bond goes double when you’re in a working relationship with the horse. Whether working cattle, competing in equestrian games or in competitive or theatrical mounted combat., the horse and rider must form a synergistic bond to ensure mutual safety and accomplishments. Sure, we’re only PRETENDING to kill each other. But the horse doesn’t know that. They are training for ‘open field’ jousting – just as they would be employed in real combat. We don’t use the safety of a tiltrail – so horse and rider must work carefully together to avoid injuring one another – or the other team.
I started the festival on a tried and true mount that has been in the string for half a dozen years. “Silverado” was rock solid, and a good mount to have under me when I returned to the skills. He went with Danny to Kansas City after the first three weeks, and I got to ride on a wonderful horse called “Storm”. My son Travis, had the chance to usher Storm into the jousting world some two years ago. Although it takes a ‘barn’ to train a horse, each rider who follows can have a good or bad cumulative effect on a given mount. Storm was a delight to ride. Just the right amount of eagerness at the ends – so that one only had to ‘unleash’ his power, and he would ride straight at anything.
Bryan picked up a number of horses while we were in Pennsylvania – and we tried to introduce them all to at least some elements of the show. I got to take a horse completely new to jousting, and work him into the game show. “Theo” was a great ride, but had an issue with being ‘herd bound’. He simply would not enter the arena first, and went bug nutty if I held him there when the other horses had left. He tried on a number of occasions to throw me in the midst of a gaming show – but we always managed to settle down and get our tasks done. We teach best, that which we most need to learn, and Theo and I learned a lot of patience together.
And sadly, it was during the faire that we learned of the passing of one of our favorite warhorses, ‘Bonnie’. Bonnie had been retired for the last year, having reached that ‘aged’ status where she had earned gentle days of soft green pastures and sunlight. Bonnie carried many of us through numerous jousts over the years. She always gave one hundred percent. This photo of the two of us was taken at Scarborough Faire, during a freak snow storm in 2007. Rest easy Bonnie – your name is on the honor role.
New to me this year, was the practice of selling favors. When I started jousting, getting a favor from a lady in the audience was either pre-determined (your own lady, or someone on court gave you one) OR it was the luck of the draw. The seconds announced before the show that ANY lady wishing to favor a knight could come forward with a token – a scarf, a ribbon something to tie upon the lance – and do so during the show. It would NOT be returned. Of course, some knights would be more heavily favored than others. Such was the luck of the draw. Later, we began to ‘plant’ a few favors in the audience, to ensure at least one or two would be tied on a knight’s lance. Our seconds would take pre-made favors out into the audience, find a likely volunteer or two, and give them the favors. We still got spontaneous favors as well, with more than one joke pair of bra and panties tied prominently to a lance.
But this year, Noble Cause began selling favors as a way to involve more than a few ‘select’ ladies. “Favor Maidens” prepared small favors in the knights colors in advance, and pre-sold the favors to the audience. These favors then could be purchased by anyone – male or female, young or old – and they would come forward to ‘favor’ their knight at the proper moment in the ceremony.
We were fortunate to have the lovely Sam Rupp, Rosalie Terry, and impish Bonnie Croft as our Favor Maidens. The Favor Maidens at the Mt. Hope fair also served as horse handlers and extra squires when needed. Not only were they kept busy making and selling favors, their hands were filled before and after the show with grooming brushes and horse shampoo. Always ready to walk out a hot horse, and bring a cold drink to a thirsty knight or squire – their presence was a great asset to the show. Bravo ladies, and thanks for all your hard work.
Once a joust was finished, it was incumbent upon the knights, to take the favors they had received, and stand at the crossroads above the tournament field, where we would return the favors to our fans. This meant they got a keepsake that had been ‘in’ the show. It was also a chance to mix and mingle with our fans, to receive their accolades, and pose for photo ops. Our hard working squires meanwhile – would be tending our horses. This is one change from ‘back in the day’ that I really appreciated.
All too quickly, my twelve weeks on the circuit was up – and I had to leave for the Austin Film Festival. But not before I got a chance to see the opening performance of the special Halloween Extravaganza. Once again, Noble Cause worked hand in hand with the cast, choreographers and set designers of Mt. Hope to create a spectacle to take your breath away. Nothing short of fantastic pyrotechnics, a live beheading, a headless horseman, and the flaming sword of righteousness would do as a finale for Noble Cause.
Halloween Images – Noble Cause at Mt. Hope.
I’ve learned to ‘never say never’ – so I can’t say that my last joust… was my last joust. I made new friends, trained new horses, dropped twenty pounds and had a great time. Time will tell if I strap on the harness again to ride with Noble Cause. But if I never do, it was a hell of a run. Thanks for the memories.
Special thanks here, to the wonderful photographers, professional and amateur alike – who took such fantastic photos of us in performance, and made them available through the magic that is social media. Thanks to: Wallace Bidelspach, D.K. Brower , Jason S Colflesh, Julia Patton, Emanuel G. Paige, Michael Ulrich, and Amanda Ries