Faire Characters Share Medieval Hoggetowne Tales

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Members of the Thieves' Guild line up to prepare for their final dress rehearsal before opening day at the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire. The group will perform "the human chess board" three times a day during the festival.
Members of the Thieves’ Guild line up to prepare for their final dress rehearsal before opening day at the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire. The group will perform “the human chess board” three times a day during the festival.” credit=”Josh Williams / WUFT News

Twenty-nine years ago the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire began with only a few people.

On Saturday, performers, merchants and the Gainesville Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs will work together to create what artisan Joseph Bilella called a truly magical and authentic experience.

The first of two weekends of the 2015 Hoggetowne Medieval Faire will begin on Saturday and continue through Sunday at the Alachua County Fairgrounds. The Faire will resume on Jan. 30 and conclude Feb. 1.

Bilella said many other medieval fairs have been taken over by larger corporations and lack the magic of the old world. A group of artisans agreed that Linda Piper, the fair’s producer, runs the fair differently.

Piper said the Faire must raise enough money to support itself — it receives no funding from the city. In years past, the Faire not only met its financial goals, but exceeded them.

Last year about 55,000 people attended the event with 58 percent of attendees coming from outside of Gainesville — some came from as far away as Pennsylvania.  The local economy has benefited from tourists checking into hotels, eating at restaurants and shopping in the surrounding areas.

This year an additional entertainment stage will be added to attract more people. Twelve new artisans will also be attending this year, bringing the total to 165. Some artisans traveled across the country to show their wares despite all odds.

Dixe-Lee Bernet, 78, came from Minnesota. Originally, Bernet was an English teacher who studied medieval literature in college. Because of her declining health, she was forced into early retirement. When she wasn’t teaching, she enjoyed sewing children’s costumes.

Bernet was inspired by her daughter to take her hobby on the road and make a new living selling her costumers at Renaissance fairs. She had already participated in a couple of fairs before teaching, so the transition back was natural. She has been traveling now for 23 years, but plans to hand the business over to a younger worker in the future.

Like Bernet, Joseph Bilella travels around the country.

“Natively, I’m from New York,” he said, but he laughed and explained his true home is really wherever he spent the night before. “So for right now, I’m from Micanopy.”

Bilella’s artisan roots began in high school when he studied art and later went on to pursue his Master of Art degree. He originally came to Gainesville with two storage trunks of his art and stayed in Micanopy at a bed and breakfast.

The Faire was an opportunity for some artisans to break away from financially troubling pasts and into brighter futures.

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Tom McGuigan and his wife Melinda were traveling from art show to art show trying to make a living selling statues in Ohio until they met Piper 15 years ago. They were offered the opportunity to show their pieces at art shows in Gainesville, and after a few years, they were offered a chance to set up a stand at Hoggetowne.

At first Tom McGuigan worried about not having costumes or the ability to decorate a stand. But Piper said she would take care of both the costumes and the stand and even gave them their first name: “Tom Starcrafters.”

Now known as “Ye Ole Wizards and Dragons,”the McGuigan’s stand brought in $6,000 in just two weekends in their first year — it took six months to make $10,000 in Tom McGuigan’s last year working art shows.

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The artisans are not the only ones involved in the Faire. Various performing groups put on shows such as jousting tournaments, balancing acts and the famous human chess board — a show put on by the Thieves’ Guild with a different theme and twist each year.

This year’s theme is Robin Hood and his merry men. Each guild member was assigned a role and given the opportunity to personalize his or her character.

Katey Sands is one of the designers behind some of the specialty costumes and acts. She created two costumes based on “The Legend of Zelda” and even worked to create a subplot within the play.

For Sands, joining the guild was a chance to express her creative side — but everyone had a unique reason for joining.

The main character, Robin Hood, is played by Michael Riling, who studied theater in school and picked up fencing during his time there. Seeing the human chess board performances as an opportunity to use his studies and hobby, he performed at his first fair in 2008.

Other members, such as Shael Millheim, remembered growing up watching family members perform in Renaissance fairs and decided to follow in their footsteps.

What draws people to the guild varies, but members all agreed they felt a sense of belonging.

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Molly Gillis originally joined the guild three years ago to meet like-minded people. Yet, she never expected to find the man she would fall in love with. Today, Gillis and her husband both play active roles in the guild.

While Gillis has only been involved for a few years, other members have a long history in the guild. This year marked Sunshine Andrei’s 20th anniversary since joining. She was recruited by the original producer and has since worked her way up to that role for this year’s show.

Andrei said the show is a chance for her to meet new people and feel young again. She compared her experiences at Hoggetowne to those of a child entering Disney and even called it her “fountain of youth.”

​The Thieves’ Guild was founded in 1988 by Ted Lewis under the name of The Hoggetowne Players. The Players performed at the second annual Hoggetowne Medieval Faire with only a few members. Lewis later left the group to pursue other opportunities with the Gainesville Community Playhouse.

Meanwhile, The Hoggetowne Players continued to work under the leadership of Shawn Bauldree and first performed the human chess board at the seventh Hoggetowne Faire. With the aid of the Playhouse, Lewis created a second group called The Thieves’ Guild.

The two groups came together to form one guild after the seventh Faire. Today, the group is still going strong and is a not-for-profit organization.

About Josh Williams

Josh is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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