Photo credit: Elizabeth Singer.
At some point in your life, you will need to learn how to work a stage properly, whether you are a student presenting a paper to your classmates or an executive sharing company news with your employees. Make no mistake: you are on stage, however informal the setting or small the audience. The key to owning the stage is using your body wisely — including your eyes, voice, and gestures. How you communicate is as important as what you communicate, as I have learned while acting on summer weekends at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. On August 30, an opportunity to act in a scene with my daughter encapsulated the elements of owning a stage.
As I have discussed on my blog, the Bristol Renaissance Faire is a festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. I portray a pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright — a self-important and crotchety character who is constantly having his nose tweaked by a mischievous young rogue named Avis Nightjar, portrayed by my daughter, Marion.
The crotchety Nicolas Wright. Photo credit: Mary Goljenboom.
The Faire cast is given extensive preparation and then an incredible amount of leeway to construct dramatic (usually comic) scenes that we perform on the streets of Bristol to delight the patrons as they explore the city. On August 30, Marion and I acted a scene that required us to use a very small stage consisting of a few wooden steps leading to a square platform that accommodates one or two people at most. The riser, known as the “stump stage,” is so small it does not appear on the Bristol map. But its convenient location at a busy intersection made it the best place for our dramatic bit, which consisted of Nicolas Wright publicly charging Avis Nightjar with a list of ridiculous crimes ranging from poltroonery to hooliganism.
Avis Nightjar, rogue extraordinaire. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.
We built the scene to involve Bristol patrons. Throughout the weekend, Nicolas Wright let it be known that Nightjar would be put on trial Sunday at 6:15 p.m. He canvassed patrons to ask their opinion of her guilt or innocence and invited them to be present at the stump stage to learn the outcome of her trial.
Wanted. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.
When the time came to declare the verdict, Nicolas Wright, with the help of a fool named Jaclyn Faltrades (portrayed by Terri Williams), attracted a large crowd to gather around the stump stage. Wright, standing on the stage, formally read to Nightjar a list of her alleged crimes (a moment that I borrowed from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, when the character of Tuco is read an extensive list of crimes for which he has been convicted). He then asked the crowd to render their opinion.
Day of reckoning. Photo credit: Brian Berg.
Wright played up the moment with over-the-top bluster, making himself look foolish, and Nightjar watched from one of the lower steps with an innocent expression on her face. Of course, the overwhelming majority voted for her innocence. Wright allowed a pregnant pause to linger in the air while he pondered the vote, making eye contact with as many patrons as possible while he thought through his decision. His smile suggested a softening of his heart. Then he pronounced the verdict: guilty.
The crowed booed and hissed, and Nightjar cowered while Wright raised his arms for order. Wright asked Nightjar if she had anything to say for herself before he sent her to the stockade. The trial then took an unexpected turn, just as Marion and I had planned it: Nightjar stepped up to the platform, stood alongside Wright, and turned the tables on the barrister by threatening to expose a number of shady business deals of his. As she talked, Nightjar became more animated, waving her arms and smiling while Wright grimaced and shrank back. The crowd started to laugh, clap, and cheer for Avis as Wright sputtered and demanded she cease talking.