Musketeer, fire breather or wizard, it’s always fascinating what motivates a person who leads an otherwise conventional life to don the garb and persona of a character living in the middle ages.
To help me understand, Cathryn Harper agreed to talk on record about her own alter ego, Lady Prudence. Harper has performed as a street character since 2006, first as a fairy and now as Lady Prudence, singer, storyteller and occasional member of royalty at renaissance fairs across the country, including the Kerrville Renaissance Festival that concludes this weekend.
“When I was a young 20-something, playing a fairy was a good choice,” Harper explained. “But I wanted to design a character that would allow me to play her the rest of my life, and I wanted to showcase my musical skills more than I could as a fairy.”
The word “design” is not an overstatement. Each cast member must inhabit their creation for days and weeks at a time, and therefore understand it at a deeper level than playing a role in a play or movie.
“Acting in a play is not the marathon that playing a character is for an entire day, interacting and improvising,” she explained. “It is not scripted, so you have to inhabit he character.”
Sure, cast members prepare for their roles with workshops, rehearsals and classes on medieval language, history, clothing, behaviors and mannerisms. But to make it work at a human level, you have to become that character.
“There is a lot of ‘me’ in Lady Prudence,” Harper agreed. “Instead of thinking of your character as a costume you are putting on, you think of it as taking off the costume of your modern self, allowing the character within to be present.”
You also must be comfortable interacting with strangers. I’ve written before of the range of reactions I get while dressing as various characters such as Elvis, the Grinch and Flatfoot Phil (I actually got punched out in a local nightclub on Mardi Gras). Harper’s background as an “Army brat,” actress, psychology major and one-time zookeeper no doubt helps her deal with all types of personalities.
“What is nice about Renaissance fests is the context,” she said. “Part of the issues you describe is when you are out of context, people don’t know how to react to you. Here, people come in expecting to play along.”
Harper travels the country year round, working at five different Renaissance fairs. She is glad to see the Kerrville Renaissance Fest build a following, both among attendees and cast members who do this for their living.
“The first couple of years of any new festival are always the hardest. This one has grown steadily, because Hal and April (the organizers) put their hearts into it. And we have the benefit of a deep community of Renaissance festival participants looking to fill up their winter schedules that brings us together to excel at what we do.”
To finish, I asked Harper to slip back into her persona as Lady Prudence and speak directly to my readers. Her voice changed register and added a lilt as she obliged instantly.
“One can find few opportunities as this to enjoy homemade and handcrafted items, with a turkey leg in one hand and the sound of sweet music in your ear,” said Lady Prudence. “The Kerrville Renaissance Fest is a place to go to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, full of memories you are going to want to make and to keep.”