Medieval Talent

Performers show their unique skills at Renaissance Festival

BY Connor Dziawura

Renaissance fairs around the nation are breeding grounds for people with interesting talents. From unique skills to thrilling performances, these popular events tap the best they can find in medieval entertainment.

The Arizona Renaissance Festival—open Saturdays and Sundays from February 8 to March 29, as well as on Presidents Day, Monday, February 17—is no exception.

This year’s docket includes Adam “Crack” Winrich, who developed a skill working with flaming whips; The Angels, who fuse their vocal talents with the thrill of sword-fighting, all put through a comedic lens; Cirque du Sewer, the acrobat with rats and cats; The Danseries, a historical dance crew; and The Jousters.

Quick thinking has been handy to performer Terry Foy, better known as Zilch the Torysteller, who will return for this year’s festivities. Known as a master of spoonerisms and storytelling, Foy has a knack for reconstructing words on the spot.

“If you’re doing a whole story like ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ it comes out, ‘Rittle Led Hiding Rood, the gittle lirl in the ced roat, went out for a falk in the worest, met a wig wad bolf,’ and so on and so on and so on,” he explains.

The term “spoonerism,” he says, is named after 19th and 20th century Oxford don William Archibald Spooner, who was known for this “art of switching,” as Foy identifies it. Using his mastery of the skill, Foy tells other tales such as “Parunzel” and Spilliam Wakesheare’s “Jomeo & Ruliet.” He mixes in music, too, and is experienced with mandolin. He has also played viola, violin and guitar.

“I found out when I was 12 years old I had a facility for this citching of swonsonants,” he says, adding with practice, “I’ve been able to put these stories together and use my rather odd sense of humor to present a comedy routine.”

He credits elementary English for teaching him about spoonerisms, malapropisms and pig Latin, as does he his dad, who loved comedian Archie Campbell on “Hee Haw.” Campbell has done spoonerisms.

“I’m not the first; I won’t be the last to do this kind of thing,” Foy says. “I happen to be pretty good at it.”

Talented bunch

Modeled as a 30-acre, 16th-century European village, the Arizona Renaissance Festival has 14 stages boasting talented acts like Foy. Medieval enthusiasts can wander the festival grounds and check out all sorts of other performances, activities and arts and crafts, maybe even picking up a turkey leg along the way.

As is tradition, the king and queen will be paramount to the yearly festivities. Robby Sinkler knows this all too well, as he serves as Lord Robert Chessman, the queen’s royal falconer.

Festivalgoers can check out his Art of Falconry show. In this show, which he calls a “family affair,” he is aided by his wife, his daughter and local volunteers. Together, they work with a variety of birds of prey—from eagles to owls, vultures and falcons—showing their natural behaviors while explaining the medieval history of falconry.

This includes flying over the audience, or even just groundwork. In one display, Sinkler has a vulture trained to spot a particular egg based on its color; in another he demonstrates an eagle’s speed with an amphitheater fly-by.

“We don’t have them ride a bicycle or anything like that, like you might see in a parrot show,” he says with a laugh. “It’s really a close encounter of animals you usually see at a distance.”

Sinkler heads up Wild Sky Productions, through which he acquires birds from zoos, rehabilitation centers and captive-breeding projects. He says his organization is a last resort for nonreleasable birds.

“They may have handicaps or mental disabilities,” he admits. “Depending on the year, there’s a lot of different types of birds we might work with.”

The Florida native and 30-plus-year falconer remembers gaining an appreciation for animals from his father at a young age, before doing zoo work in college. There he learned about falconry and birds of prey. He first signed on to a Renaissance festival gig around 25 years ago, at the Georgia one.

Wild Sky has also worked with theme parks and other attractions, with wildlife celebrities like Jack Hanna and Jim Fallor, and on music videos and movies.

“It’s such a unique opportunity,” Sinkler says. “For me, it’s (the appeal) bringing the wilderness to a unique type of venue where we get up-close and meet a lot of people. We actually—at the end of every show—have a meet-and-greet and we take pictures with the guests, and it’s an opportunity to hear stories.”

Just as he loves sharing his knowledge with audiences—he tries to make it a “positive experience” and even talks about conservation—he loves hearing from audience members about their own experiences with birds and other wildlife.

“I think it’s (the appeal) about meeting the guests and really making a connection so they have a greater appreciation of the wildlife,” he says.

For Foy, who is also a teacher, Renaissance festival work is a lifestyle. He says he has been performing in Arizona since 1989, but he got his start in Minnesota in 1975.

“Like many kids who were interested in theater when in high school, my friends and I heard an audition notice on a radio station and went, ‘Renaissance festival? Hey, we’ve been there! Let’s try it!’” he recalls. “There were three of us who went to go audition together, and one fellow saw what the audition entailed and went, ‘Nope, I’m out of here,’ and the other two of us auditioned and got hired.”

He eventually branched out beyond his initial one in Minnesota, and he’s a busy man for it. He expects to visit states like Texas, Colorado, South Dakota, Minnesota and North Carolina by next Thanksgiving.

While he can’t speak as to why festivalgoers are drawn to his performances—aside from those who have told him they feel smarter after checking out a show—he says his own personal appeal is entertaining others.

“I have always been a laugh junkie,” he says. “To get people laughing has always been sort of my reason for living. It’s what makes life worth living.”