Three weekends a year, Johanna Green becomes someone else.
Clad in a black top with a red and black lace skirt and jacket, black boots and a golden-blonde wig, with a broom and mug of mead in hand, Green becomes Scarlett McZander, one of three witch sisters. The McZanders — Scarlett, Violet and Goldie — are just three of the many volunteer cast members who spend three weekends each year at the local Renaissance Festival.
The Central Missouri Renaissance Festival provides a trip back in time and across the globe, from their kingdom set in 1550s Carlingford, Ireland.
They celebrate three “weekends of huzzah” from a small portion of land in a different kingdom — Kingdom City, to be exact — about 15 minutes east of Columbia off of Interstate 70. For the 2020 season, the kingdom will open its gates at Boster Castle Fairgrounds on April 25-26, May 2-3 and Oct. 24-25.
Rows of shoppes (in proper olde English) selling wares from handmade pottery and jewelry to steel weapons and other costume pieces to candles to painted dragon eggs line the fairgrounds during the festival, inter-spaced with food and drink options and stages ready to host performers.
Throughout, members of the festival’s cast, like Green, can be found. Green and her sisters — Goldie (played by Portia Bower) and Violet (played by Jackie Rimmer) — serve as the town’s witches, entertaining visitors with their back stories and tales.
“People, especially kids, they’ll ask you questions,” Green said. “Like we have a little house that’s built on site for us witches that we can store stuff in. We had a little boy go, ‘Well, that’s not a full-size house,’ and I said, ‘No, it’s a portal to our other house. That’s why you can’t go in there — because you might get sucked through the portal and not come back.”
Improvisation and the ability to build a character, even if the audience may never know the full back story, are key aspects of being a festival cast member.
“It’s kind of a character-building situation, it’s like role play,” Green said. “Dungeons & Dragons kind of reminds you of it, but you get to play it out in real life.”
Jenifer Purvis-Dierks, a cast member who also shares a seat on the CMRF board with her husband, Robert, has been with the faire for almost eight years. The first few times they went, they were just bringing food to their friends who were working. Then, they started coming for fun.
One year, after a last-minute cancellation, the organizers asked them to fill in for the tarot card reader. Purvis-Dierks said they’d done readings before, but never for a public audience.
“The next day, we went out in jeans and T-shirts, very non-Renaissance, at a pop-up tent and a card table, just giving free readings because we didn’t have any idea what people charge for that sort of thing,” Purvis-Dierks said.
These days, under the names Lady Gloriana and The Mystic Bob, Purvis-Dierks and her husband have a more elaborate set-up and official characters. She does palm reading and tarot for visitors.
As a board member, Purvis-Dierks works on the festival’s community outreach, contacting local schools such as the University of Missouri, Stephens College and Columbia College to find students interested in theater, costuming and set design.
“We’d love to have more involvement,” Purvis-Dierks said. “I think that the Renaissance Festival presents an ample opportunity for students to come out and do some improv practice and do some costuming work, and anybody who’s in the building trades can come out and try their hand at building a deck or a stage.”
The couple joined the board in the early days, around the same time the festival got its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
“That’s when we started really looking to grow the faire rather than just have it be three or four people sporadically throwing things at it trying to figure stuff out,” Purvis-Dierks said. “Now we’ve got several people involved. We’ve got a couple of committees, and we’re really trying to look at five-year plans and how we’re going to grow and where we’re going to grow.”
Building the kingdom from the ground up, and not being a corporate-owned festival, allows the organizers to keep their group close-knit.
“We have had a very blessed profession here at Central Missouri because we grew it from seed ourselves,” Purvis-Dierks said. “We had a lot of control of who gets to come in to our little family circle. We call it the ‘faire-mily.’”
Purvis-Dierks said she loves the opportunity to make the children at the festival feel special.
“I love making kids glow and light up and smile, and there’s nothing that can do that like fairies and princesses and getting to live this Disney fantasy. It’s pretty awesome.”
In some cases, that family feel is literal for the cast members. Like Purvis-Dierks and her husband, Green has brought her family into the fold. Her 16-year-old daughter, Randi, and youngest son, Zachary, also joined the cast last year, and her mother-in-law helps her make costumes.
Her oldest son, born with cerebral palsy, also attends the faire. Last year, Green said, members of one of the bands performing, Pictus, spent time with her son after he fell in love with their music.
“That’s the thing about being at Central Missouri that I love the most,” Green said. “The performers and the cast — we all act like humans. It’s not like you have to stick to a character. If something happens, you’re allowed to be human. You’re allowed to act like an actual person.”
While that may be the case, becoming and staying in character for the weekend is what draws Green to the experience.
“I enjoy it because it’s a way of walking away,” Green said. “You don’t have to be in your world. You get to go play in somebody else’s world and you get to forget about your problems and everything else going on.”
And when she’s not performing three weekends a year, Green said, she misses her “faire-mily.”
“I miss my Ren family. It’s a special type of family.”