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Renaissance festival returns, and with it, workers who depend on 'the circuit'

The Arizona Renaissance Festival & Artisan Marketplace has returned to its home just south of Gold Canyon after a hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. With it comes the long-running festival’s staples: fun games, big crowds and anachronistic novelties.

There’s another group that returned as well – the workers, such as actors, vendors and craftspeople, most of whom rely on Renaissance festivals as their main source of income throughout the year.

Many follow “the circuit,” which is the series of dozens of Renaissance festivals across the country. Many workers are on the road all year, staying in one place only as long as that particular festival lasts, then moving on to the next.

Jeff Cahill – known as Bathos the Muse when he’s performing his folk and traditional playlist – has been on the circuit for 50 years. It’s his sole income, and when COVID-19 hit, he couldn’t work for 16 months.

“My brother took me in, and I cooked for him and mowed the lawn, so he said I could stay there as long as I want,” Cahill said.

Marian Brock and Vanessa Webb – Sprout and Gerty onstage and online – have been part of the Washing Well Wenches troupe for 10 years. They were in Gold Canyon in March 2020 when the World Health Organization declared the pandemic and lockdowns followed. Both lost their normal work for about a year.

“We were both scrambling to get home,” Sprout said. “We didn’t want to get stuck in Arizona when we don’t live here.”

Gerty even had to cross the border to Canada to get home and had to find another job, working with a friend to get through the global crisis.

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“Everybody just found their own thing,” she said.

They also started working on online content, which led to their TikTok account gaining a modest following.

Tina Berg, front-counter supervisor for the chocolate shop booth at the festival, has been involved with the shop for several years. She said COVID-19’s impact on her was just as personal as it was for the performers.

“A lifestyle ended,” Berg said. “And I really had to figure out how to be my own boss beyond just working the fair.”

The return of festivals has been welcome news.

“(Being back) feels fantastic,” Cahill said, adding that his favorite parts of the job are “listening to people laugh. Having them applaud. Just playing the music for folks.”

He also described the camaraderie with other performers as a sort of family. Many of them travel to the same festivals and often interact with each other year-round.

Gerty said people are “hungry” to be back in and watching live performances.

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Troy Hill/Cronkite News

Marian Brock, left, and Vanessa Webb, aka Sprout and Gerty of the Washing Well Wenches, perform at the Arizona Renaissance Festival & Artisan Marketplace south of Gold Canyon on Feb. 21, 2022.

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