Part 23 - Surviving Demos
by Lord Thomas the Black
Welcome back to another edition of Blackmaille! This month we'll be discussing demos, and how to put on the best demonstration you can.
Last season, I began my seventh year doing demonstrations at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. I had a great time my first year, so I decided to do it every year. In the process of doing the demos, I learned a lot, so I’ve decided to write this article to help others get through their renfest seasons (coming up again soon!) and other demos with as little discomfort and trouble as possible.
The number one thing to do when planning a demo is to know exactly what you want to do. Don’t just show up and improvise something. Generally what you’ll do for a demo is whatever you do in the SCA. For example, since I do chainmail, so my demo table consists of a display of various chainmail patterns, several finished pieces, and myself and some of my students actually putting mail together for patrons to watch.
The next thing you need to do when planning your demo is get in contact with the person in charge of your demo area. Who that will be will depend largely on where the demo is. For example, if it's at fest, you'll need to find out who's in charge of the demo area, and talk to them. When you talk to the POC (point of contact), find out where you’ll be, what time you need to be there, where you should park, where you can offload your equipment (if applicable), as well as any rules or regulations pertaining to the demo itself (for example, most schools won't allow weapons). Also, you may want to find out what other people are doing as demos. This will help you plan yours, and will save your group from having a dozen people all doing the same thing. All of this information will be necessary ahead of time to save yourself some grief.
Next, make sure your medieval garb is in good repair. You always want to wear your best garb to demos, in order to give the public the best possible impression of your group. If you need new garb or if your stuff needs repairs, and you know someone who can make garb, arrange for them to help you out. Or, if you’re handy with a sewing machine, get busy!
The last thing to do before the festival is, and I can’t stress this enough, DO YOUR HOMEWORK! I really mean this. During a typical weekend at fest, for example, anywhere from 200 to 2000 people are going to see your demo, depending on its location and the size of the festival, and most will ask questions. It is important that you learn everything you can about your hobby. What kinds of materials were used? What tools were involved? What time period was your activity done during? Who did this activity in this period? How does the way you’re doing this differ from the way it was done in the middle ages (modern tools, better techniques, etc)? Keep in mind most people will know little, if anything, about what you’re doing, and they may throw questions at you that you’ve never thought of, so it’s imperative that you learn all you can ahead of time. If someone comes up with a stumper, it's ok to say "I don't know", but look it up first chance you get so you’ll be ready next time.
During the demo, it’s important to keep a few things in mind as well. The most important about renfest demos is that the patrons are there for the most part to have fun. When they approach your demo, have a greeting spiel ready. Mine is “Good day milord (or milady)! If you have any questions, feel free to ask, and if I can answer it, I shall. If not, I’ll make something up!” This puts the patron at ease and even gets a chuckle out of them occasionally. If they ask questions, keep your answers fairly short and to-the-point, as long as it answers the question. Like I said, they’re there to have fun, so don’t go into a long, drawn-out speech covering the entire history of your craft unless that’s what the patron asked for. There’s a lot to see at a renaissance festival, and as a result, most patrons will have a limited attention span. If you're doing a school demo, have a short speech prepared about your craft, and try to tailor it to your audience. For my maille demos, for instance, I might bring some books where they can read about maille (borrow them from their own school's library, if you can). I could mention video games and movies that they might have seen maille used in.
The next important thing is PATIENCE! You’ll need lots of it. Especially at renfest. Little kids will want to pick up and examine everything you’ve laid out. People will say the most bizarre and/or rude things and not even realize it. For example, last year I had a guy approach my leatherworking demo. I went through my spiel about “if you have any questions feel free to ask”, and the guy actually said “Oh, I probably know more than you anyway”! Needless to say, I bit my tongue until he went away, then my fellow demonstrators and I had a good laugh about him behind his back (BUT, out of earshot of the other patrons). Along these same lines, some of the other participants may say something rude or obnoxious. My first year, I had a lady show up and express shock and outrage that an armorer (me) was at a table in the booth housing the weavers (one of the weavers was my friend, so I sat by her). My initial reaction was “I’ve been at the same table every day of every weekend since the fair began! Who is she to show up on the last weekend and demand I move?” I said nothing, but I held my ground. Someone else took her aside and straightened her out. Also, some patrons may have misconceptions about your craft. Don’t correct them unless you’re asked. I had a lady tell her young child that chainmail could defend a knight against any kind of attack, which isn’t necessarily true. I kept quiet until she turned to me and said “right?” That was my opportunity to correct her (but politely!) by informing her that it protected against slashing attacks, but not crushing attacks. She was pleased to get this new info, the kid was in awe of everything, and they had fun.
The next thing to remember is to keep your display simple, but informative and entertaining. The more visual aids, the better (to a point), but keep it simple, and appropriate to the demo. For example, there’s no room at renfest for a computer with a complicated multimedia display. This also refers back to what I said about patrons having short attention spans. One of my first chainmail display consisted of two mail coifs, one old, one new (to show how it darkens over time), a piece of balsa wood with parchment-and-calligraphy-labeled samples of different styles of mail, and a coil of wire and small pot of links to show how it’s made. That’s it. I thought about including a pamphlet about chainmail, but most pamphlets I saw ended up in the trash less than 10 feet away, so I decided it wasn’t worth it. However, if you belong to a group such as the SCA, renfest may be their way to attract new members, so a few pamphlets for the group would be a good idea.
Some things to know in order to make your demo time a little more comfortable:
1.) Show up early, set up your demo so that you’re ready to go, then help others set up their demos. The sooner everyone’s ready to go, the better, and most participants will appreciate the help.
2.) If doing a demo at renfest, pack your lunch. I can’t stress this enough. Renaissance festivals have a wide variety of great foods, and I’d encourage you to try it out, but only occasionally. Most renfest food will be relatively expensive ($7 - $10 per meal), so it’ll kill your budget to eat there every day. One year, I didn’t brown-bag it, and I estimate I spent in the vicinity of $160.00 on meals! Lunch doesn’t have to consist of much. I got an insulated lunchbox, threw in some meat sticks and cheese from Hickory Farms, along with a roll of crackers, a knife to slice the meat and cheese with, and a bowl to eat it from, and that’s it. $12.00 got me enough food to last 5-6 meals at fest.
3.) Pay attention to the demos around you. If you take an interest in the displays next to you, and learn what you can about them, those people will (more than likely) do the same for you, and you can cover each other on breaks. Speaking of which…
4.) Take breaks! This depends largely on the nature of the demo itself, and you'll have to clear it with the person in charge, as most demo groups will have a minimum time you must be there, but every once in a while, stretch your legs, catch a show (if at fest), whatever. Just because you’re a participant doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the festival. Try to stagger your breaks with the other demos so that everyone’s not gone all at once. For example, SCA demos at fest consist of fighter demos and craft demos. The crafts are available to see all day, but the fighters have show times. Since the fighter shows are distracting, when they start up, most of the craft people went on break, returning when the fighters were finished.
5.) Drink lots of fluids when doing outdoor demos. Most renfests take place in the summer, and it will get hot outside. If you lose too many fluids from sweat, it can result in heat exhaustion or heatstroke. These aren’t fun. Drinking water or Gatorade (or other sports drink) will prevent them. Bring along a cooler that will fit under your demo table or backstage (if there’s a walled-off area for participants only), and keep drinks available. I bought two big bottles of Gatorade on sale, and always had a mugful at hand. DO NOT, however, drink any kind of alcoholic beverage, as alcohol will dehydrate you faster. You’d be surprised at the number of people who’ve keeled over at renfest because all they drank was a few beers. Learn to recognize the symptoms of heatstroke and heat exhaustion in others, as well, and know where the nearest first aid station is in case you need to go for help. Your local hospital will have classes or brochures on heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Also, if you do need to go for help, especially at fest. it will be helpful for the EMT’s to know the building number of your demo booth. This is usually posted on the booth itself. Learn it.
6.) If it’s feasible, invest in one of those large plastic boxes with handles and a lid, and pack as much of your demo into it as possible. This will not only make getting it to and from your vehicle easier, but some renfest demo groups will have a lockable shed you can store stuff in during the week or overnight, and this will help you take up as little space as possible. It really is a lifesaver.
7.) Learn what the plan is in the event of inclement weather. Some festivals shut down when it rains, some don’t (the KCRF doesn’t). If the fest stays open during rainstorms, there are a few things to keep in mind:
a.) Don’t stand under a tree during a lightning storm. This should be common knowledge. First weekend of this season, a tree got blasted at our local renfest during a lightning storm. Fortunately, however, no one was hurt.
b.) It’s always a good idea to learn where possible emergency shelters will be. For example, I live in “Tornado Alley” (the Midwest), so the first thing I do is find the nearest deep ditch to hide in if the sirens go off. It hasn’t happened yet, but if it does, I’m ready. This isn’t paranoia, it’s just good sense.
c.) If it does rain and the festival doesn’t close, expect people to shelter in your demo booth. In fact, it can get downright crowded in there. Now, at first, this may seem like a good thing, but the problem is that they’re not paying any attention to your demo, and the ones who may want to see what you’re doing can’t get to you to see. There’s no trick to getting around this, it’s just an annoyance you should be prepared for.
8.) Particular to renfests: "privies". This is what they call the restrooms at the renfests. There are two kinds of privies: royal privies (indoor, flush toilets) and regular (clusters of port-o-sans). The royal privies are few and far between, and are generally just like any public restroom (I.E. not the cleanest) so I’ll only cover the regular kind here. The best tip I can give you is to look around the cluster of port-o-sans and see which ones are in the shade. This is important in the afternoons when the temperature rises and the plastic port-o-sans start to cook. The ones in direct sunlight will be miserable to use. Also, use the ones in the far end of the clusters. Most patrons want to get in and get out, so the ones closest to the entrance will generally be, how shall we say, unpleasant, whereas the ones near the back will be almost untouched. Sometimes you can luck out, and the ones in the back will also be shaded. Cool and clean…bonus!
9.) Remember to bring “comfort items”. If you smoke, bring however many packs you’ll need during the day. Also keep in mind the demo coordinator may not allow you to smoke in public (or at all), so find out ahead of time. If it's not allowed, then get yourself some nicotine gum or patches and try to get by. If it's a renfest demo, then that season may be a good time to try to quit. Women: for renfest demos, remember to bring tampons, pads, or whatever else you may need. You won’t be able to buy them there. In addition, if your demo involves sitting down to work on something, you may want to bring a pillow or a thin pad to sit on. Wooden benches or stools can give you a bad case of “numb bum” after a while.
A few notes on courtesy towards your fellow demonstrators:
1.) Don’t take up more room than you really need for your demo. If you do chainmail, for example, set up your chainmail on one end of a table, and use the other end for workspace. If you find you need more than one table (or two if you have students working with you), you may need to limit the amount of demos you’re doing.
2.) NEVER steal someone’s greeting spiel (see above). Most people who’ve worked renfests before have likely spent the better part of a season developing their particular routine. Stealing their lines shows disrespect to their efforts, as well as a lack of originality and creativity.
3.) Be sure to bring any tools you may need to do your demo. Constantly borrowing others’ tools can get annoying after a while.
4.) Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Some types of demo are extremely noisy, and can distract from performances. One weekend, we had both a choir and an orchestra perform in our area, and their performances were disrupted by someone hammering on metal. Most performances don’t last more than a few minutes, so just put off the noisy stuff until they’re done.
5.) PEACEBOND YOUR WEAPONS! I can’t stress this enough. If you carry live steel swords, axes, knives, etc, keep them in the sheath when not actually using them, and keep them peacebonded. This means tying a string or cord around the hilt to keep it in the scabbard. A lot of renfests actually require this, but not many actually check for them. If your weapon can’t be peacebonded (battle-axes are hard to peace-bond), keep them out of reach of patrons. I only mention this because last year, someone’s dagger had fallen out of its sheath, and the owner didn’t realize it. If some kid had found the knife before I did, we ALL would have been in trouble, and might not have been allowed back next year. This is serious stuff. If doing school demos, it might be best to leave the steel at home. If your school demo is about weapons, clear it with the school's principal beforehand.
That about covers it for my demo survival tips. There will probably be situations that come up that aren’t covered here (you all know about Murphy’s law!), so the buzzword of all demos is “flexibility”! Most of all, it’s important to have fun. If you’re not having a good time, the patrons or students will pick up on that, and they won’t have fun. Making sure the patrons have fun (or that the students learn something) is the primary purpose of most demos (the good ones, anyway!).
To recap, the important things to remember are:
1.) Plan ahead
a.) Know what you want to do.
b.) Talk to your POC ahead of time; get as much info as possible.
c.) Do your research and be ready to answer questions.
2.) Keep your spiel short, but entertaining. No long-winded speeches.
3.) Have patience with both the patrons and other participants.
4.) Keep your display simple, but informative.
5.) Show up early, help where needed.
6.) Pack your lunch.
7.) Learn what you can of the other demos.
8.) Take breaks.
9.) Drink lots of fluids (no alcohol), learn how to deal with heat-related illnesses.
10.) Pack for easy transportation.
11.) Know what do to in bad weather.
12.) Use the far-end or shady privies.
13.) Bring whatever you may need to make it through your day (cigarettes, toiletries, etc). Bring something to sit on, if necessary.
14.) Peacebond your weapons, or keep them out of reach, or leave them at home.
15.) Be flexible! Have fun!
Thanks for joining me for another edition of Blackmaille! It's been fun. Any maille- or demo-related questions should be sent to me at:
c/o Tom Beckett
13628 Belmead Ave
Grandview, MO 64030
Finally, on a personal note, thanks to all the readers of Blackmaille over these past two years. It's been a great run. I plan on having one more "Question and Answer" column, and then I'll have taught you all I can. I'm still available at the Baronial meetings for anyone who wants to learn, or who needs clarification on something I wrote, and the Barony of Forgotten Sea Maille Interest Group is still available for those who want to work on projects together. I appreciate everyone's support on this column. Thanks to Baron Malachi Von Uri for suggesting it, thanks to Baron Modar Neznanich for providing the webspace and for posting the articles as I sent them, and thanks to all of you who read these articles and sent in your feedback. Thank you.
Lord Thomas the Black
of House Leatherwolf
Rogue #693, Merc #373
Next month: Q & A II!
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