As any group director can tell you, running a group to promote adoption at a Renaissance Faire is not an easy task. It requires good organizational skills, solid historical knowledge, and a lot of good planning. However, the rewards of pulling it off successfully are great. There are few other events which draw so many people sympathetic to the plight of these noble companions.
This section is devoted to providing information for new and established groups. Hopefully, it will assist these groups in avoiding pitfalls that other groups have encountered.
Why Promote at Faire?
Let's explain this one first. From a purely logical standpoint, Renaissance Faires are the ultimate "meet and greet". Small Faires may attract as many as ten thousand patrons over a weekend. Large Faires may attract hundreds of thousands of patrons during a multi-week run. There just isn't any other kind of event that will allow you to expose that number of people to your hounds on such a personal basis. Additionally, sighthounds provide a wonderful, authentic atmosphere to the Faire experience, which provides an even greater impression on the patron. From a more personal standpoint, it's a lot of fun to dress up with your hounds, and become a citizen of a long-past time. This leads to the next point...
Faire is Work
Yes, Faire is a lot of fun. However, Faire is also a lot of work, and is certainly not a free ticket to see all the shows. In fact, if you want to see shows and such, don't do this. Most folks who work at Faire may go years between seeing a show, even though they're right there the whole time. As a participant at Faire, you are the entertainment. In addition to promoting adoption, your purpose is to enhance the experience of the patrons. Also, unlike meet and greets, which generally only last a few hours, a day at Faire may be 8-12 hours long, including travel and set-up time. From my own experience, I'm pretty exhausted at the end of the day.
There are established rules that must be followed. These rules may come from various sources, including the Faire management, your parent group, or your own internal rules.
Faire rules trump all. Always remember that you are a guest of the Faire management. No matter what your rules are, or your parent group's rules are, the Faire management's rules override everything. If you do not abide by the Faire's rules, you may not be allowed to return the following year, or may even be removed from the Faire during the run. Additionally, you may create ill-will that will prevent your group or other groups from being permitted to participate in that Faire or other Faires. It does not matter that you are good people, that you are a charity, or that you are unpaid volunteers. You must follow the rules.
Typical Faire rules will include restrictions or prohibitions on guests "backstage", costuming guidelines, rules of etiquette, smoking, etc. Some Faires may have additional rules relating to handing out of literature or collection of donations. These rules are often due to local laws.
I really don't think it needs explaining that you should clean up after your hounds. Ideally, you will have a place "backstage" where your hounds can go potty. If so, remember to take them there frequently, especially before walking them around the grounds. Know where other backstage entrances are in case your hound needs to go while you're out walking. Even backstage, clean up immediately. It is important to make a good impression on your fellow participants.
Most Faires have acts or exhibits that involve animals. In general, it is best to stay well clear of these acts, so as not to interrupt or interfere with them. Your hound may not mind that other dog, but the dog in the act may feel differently. In the case of Bird of Prey demonstrations, be absolutely sure to know the show times, and stay far away from them during the show. You do not want to be responsible for a falcon or hawk deciding not to return because it spotted your hound. Additionally, large hawks and eagles are quite capable of injuring or even killing your hound. Because of other animal acts, you may have to designate certain areas of the grounds as off-limits.
Make sure your group members are in good garb (costume). Sunglasses, cell-phones, pagers, cameras, etc. are an absolute no-no. Even if not specifically prohibited by the Faire, they give a lasting bad impression. Don't forget your dog's "garb"! Nylon leashes stick out like a sore thumb.
Groups that maintain extremely high standards will not only be asked to return the following year, some have been sought out by other Faires and invited to participate.
Do not attempt to start a new group a month before the Faire starts. Likewise, don't attempt to start a new group if none of your members have ever participated in Faire. Ideally, at least one of your members will be an experienced "Rennie". If you don't have a Rennie in your group, it's time for you to start visiting some Faires.
Depending on the Faire you are dealing with, contracts may be negotiated from two months to a year before the Faire starts. In very large Faires, you may have to negotiate special contracts, since some of these are "juried" Faires, and have long waiting lists for exhibitors. The type of contract you get will also vary from Faire to Faire. Some fairs have "guild" contracts, others may class you as entertainment or vendors.
Don't forget garb (costumes) either! While garb can be purchased, most participants make their own. This can take a bit of time. Peasant garb is easiest, cheapest and fastest. Even when purchasing garb, if the garb is fairly complex, it is probably custom-made and will need to be ordered well in advance. More info on garb is in the "Being a Fewterer" section.
Additionally, you may need a pavilion (tent), furniture, rugs, dog beds and other accessories. Be absolutely sure that you have a shaded place to act as a "base of operations" for your group. Your hounds will not be able to walk around all day, every day. They must have a place to rest and get water. A crate in the backstage area is a good idea for a hound that gets cranky. Never leave any hound unattended!
What Adoption Group Are You Representing?
Generally, you are better off if you do not represent a specific adoption group. By representing all groups in your area, you can provide the maximum support to potential adopters, maintain good relationships with other groups, and have a larger pool of potential fewterers to draw upon. Also, by remaining independent of a single adoption group, you avoid conflicts between that group's rules for volunteer participation, and the Faire's rules for participants. At any rate, make sure you have contact information for the national adoption resources! Some Faire patrons travel a long distance to Faire, and way live well outside of your local adoption groups' area of coverage.
Know Your Hounds
If you've got a good booth or pavilion as a base, you may be fine with dogs that are a bit shy. However, don't allow your members to bring "spooks". At best, it's not fair to the hound. At worst, it may cause an incident due to the dog panicking. If any dog is getting antsy, nervous, or grumpy, have the handler get it out of the public area where it can rest for a while and calm down. Be firm with your members on this point. Even the best "meet and greeters" and experienced Faire-hounds get tired after a long day at Faire.
Many Faires have a cannon that fires to mark time or events. A lot of hounds will be startled by it, and some react rather badly. First, know the cannon schedule, and make sure no hound is nearby when it fires, no matter how stoic the hound is. Next, know which hounds are likely to react poorly to it, and have a treat on hand and some reassurance immediately after it fires.
There is no place at Faire for an aggressive hound, or a hound that cannot be trusted with children. It's not possible to control the environment well enough to make these dogs safe. If you know a dog has aggression problems of any kind, don't allow it at Faire.
Limit the Number of Hounds
Don't let the ratio of hounds to handlers get too high. In general, more than two hounds per handler is too many. With more than two hounds, the handler will find it nearly impossible to pay attention to the hounds and the patrons at the same time, let alone talk to the patrons about the hounds.
Bringing Adoptable Hounds to Faire
There are advantages and disadvantages to bringing adoptable hounds to Faire. On the plus side, patrons may feel more sympathetic to the hounds' plight when presented with a hound that has no permanent home. On the down side, however, these hounds are an unknown factor, since their behavior and personality are not well known. Additionally, it may be very stressful on a hound that is already in a time of upheaval. If you are going to bring adoptable hounds, I suggest that each one have a dedicated handler, and that an individual hound not be subjected to more than one day in a row at Faire.
Educate Your Members
Be sure your members know some general history of sighthounds in the Renaissance period. When a patron asks "Why do you have the dogs here?" they're not wanting to know that you're promoting adoption. What they want to know is the significance of sighthounds at a Renaissance Faire. A quick explanation that sighthounds were the preferred hound and companion of nobility is what they are after. Then it is time to tell them that you are also promoting adoption. Remember, from the patron's point of view, you are there primarily to entertain them.
Educating the public about the ancient nature of the sighthound and its extremely important position in medieval society tends to give the public a greater appreciation for your hounds. The hound gives the patron a connection with the past that makes them even more likely to consider adoption.
Many Faires run workshops for participants. These are highly recommended for your members, as they teach acting, Faire etiquette, and the general rules of the Faire. Workshops may also include costume swaps and such, where new members can purchase older costumes from veteran actors.
Try to get members who will commit participating for the entire event. Some faires will not look very favorably on issuing dozens of passes to participants that only work for a single day, or a few hours. You will make a far greater impression if your members are there for that majority of the run. This also promotes a higher-quality fewterer, since they are gaining experience and skills more quickly. A fewterer who works two full weekends of a two-week run will generally provide higher-quality service than four fewterers who work one day each. It also makes scheduling a far easier task.
There are many costs involved, not the least of which is costumes for all of your members. You will also need rugs and beds for the dogs to lie on, tables, chairs and/or benches for your fewterers to sit on, a large water jug or cooler to dispense water to hounds and fewterers, plus miscellaneous items to provide "atmosphere" for your encampment. Additionally, you may be required to provide your own pavilion. While most of these items are relatively inexpensive, as a whole it is a significant cost. In many group's cases, these items are purchased/donated by the members. Don't forget to look at garage sales and such for your items! This is a good place to look for rugs and furniture.
Collecting donations is a common part of doing a promotion at a Faire. However, if this is your primary concern, there are probably better ways to raise funds. It may take several events to offset your expenses once all of the costs of costumes and equipment are added up. I generally look at any funds raised as a welcome bonus, rather than a goal.
Getting Into the Faire
Well, now that you've gotten a quick look at what it takes to run a group, how do you get into a Faire? First, you must know that there are two types of Faire management. So, the first thing to do is a little research. Find out who the management of your Faire is, and what the rules are for new groups applying for contracts.
Some Faires, usually the smaller ones, are run by government agencies, usually the parks department of a city or county. These can be fairly easy to get into, since they are almost never juried, and often must follow laws that prohibit discrimination and such. These Faires are also often very eager to have quality entertainment and atmosphere.
The rest of the Faires are generally private business concerns. These can run from fairly easy to get into, to very difficult. The largest Faires are almost always juried. This means that new vendors and entertainers are auditioned and voted upon by a panel, usually of existing vendors and entertainers. In these cases, you may have to appeal directly to the Faire ownership. When dealing with a large Faire, It is highly suggested that you write up a full description of your group, include your purpose, your experience, the number of members, and what benefit you bring to the Faire. Remember that large Faires are a business concern, they need to know what you are going to do for them. This is not to say that they are not sympathetic to charitable concerns, but they still must consider whether you are benefiting the Faire. Obviously, you're not going to be directly bringing income, so you will have to emphasize your contribution to the overall atmosphere, authenticity and enjoyability of the Faire. Don't forget to point out groups performing at other Faires! The success of another group may be a significant influence in getting your foot in the door. Also, remember that the management of Renaissance Faires are very busy people, even in the off season. Be respectful of their time, and understand that they are doing you a favor just by hearing you out.
Once you are well established and have built up a good reputation, you may find it much easier to get into other events. In one case, the Greyhounds of Fairhaven were specifically sought out to be performers by the San Diego Faire.
Don't overlook other events, especially when starting out. Many communities have Celtic Festivals, Highland Games, and other medieval/Renaissance themed events. Some SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) events may also be suitable for your group. Having one or two of these smaller events under your belt may make getting into a larger Faire easier.