As a musician and storyteller, I choose to perform at festivals and venues that I would also enjoy as a patron (although often when I am a patron at such events, I find myself thinking of how I could contribute as a performer.) I love the way Renaissance, Fantasy, and Faerie Festivals can appeal to a much wider group of people than most pop culture events of similar size and scope. At these faires people across the generations and from different backgrounds can find performances, activities, and artisan crafts that interest them. In some ways this happens organically and serendipitously, but in many ways the organizers, staff, vendors, and performers make this happen through careful planning and consideration.
One of the aspects festival organizers must consider is accessibility, making sure that booths and performance spaces not only meet ADA standards (or the DDA in the United Kingdom and equivalent accessibility laws in other countries) but to make sure that everyone in the communities that these faires create can enjoy what the faires have to offer. A good set of general principles for this are guidelines of Universal Design, a movement started by Ronald L. Mace at North Carolina State University, also described as "Access for All." An underlying concept of Universal Design is that by planning products and services from the start with users of a wide range of abilities in mind, these will be more functional to everyone who uses them. As an example, well-designed ramps that make sidewalks accessible for people using wheelchairs and other adaptive devices prove useful to everyone for such activities as pushing baby carriages, making deliveries, and moving furniture. Researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology in turn have formulated guidelines of design that apply to social interactions in the form of Universal Design for Learning, based on findings of neuroscience and progressive education. Although these guidelines were initially designed with academic settings in mind, "learning" covers much more than this. Learning does not stop after school ends. The modes someone uses to successfully learn will also be the ways he/she successfully works and the ways he/she seeks enjoyment. Both of these are particularly germane to the creation of interactive festivals.
Although the nature of most outdoor faires can make the implementation of UD architectural guidelines challenging (e.g., making rugged outdoor surfaces wheelchair accessible,) renfaires and fantasy festivals do tend to work well with the concept of Universal Design for Learning, and by their very nature work for populations normally underserved by the entertainment industry. One of these populations is the neurodivergent, people whose brains process information significantly different from the average population as to be at a disadvantage in many situations, especially in academic and work environments where success is measured with the expectation that these people will arrange and comprehend the information they are given the same way a "neurotypical" person would. Included under this heading are people diagnosed with learning disabilities like Dyslexia and Dyspraxia, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and the variety of diagnoses for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders which includes Asperger's Syndrome.
As a performer, and often involved in other ways behind the scenes at these festivals, while planning my performances I consider the various ways in which people process sensory information and integrate that into a wholistic experience, and what different people need from their experience at these festivals. Neurodiversity also matters to me as someone with one of these neurologic differences, known as Nonverbal Learning Disorder, included on the Autism/Pervasive Developmental Disorder spectrum. This effects the way the different parts of my brain work together, including ADHD-Inattentive effects on organizing and planning (before doing a new festival, I look online at all resources, including maps of the site, to plan out my day in advance), and a tendency to not notice as many visual details, while being acutely aware of sound aspects. In my performances, I augment my strengths at musical details and spoken language by getting feedback from visual thinkers about ways I can make my shows also appeal to folks who "think in pictures."
It seems that among participants (i.e., those working and volunteering at these festivals) I am in the company of many other neurodivergent people- what seems to be significantly more than one would find in a random cross-section of the population. Some of my companions have diagnoses of ADHD, Asperger's, Dyslexia, and other neurologically-based learning differences, and likewise many also have children and other family members who do. Many of these participants can trace their involvement with these festivals to their experiences as patrons, and often to moments of epiphany when they realized the festival world "works" for them in ways most environments do not. So why do so many neurodivergent people gravitate toward experiencing and working these festivals, and what can this teach us about effective practices when organizing both these events and the myriad attractions and performances that comprise them?
Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder can manifest in different ways throughout the lifespan, but one distinction which diagnosticians find useful in distinguishing types of ADHD is between those described as having ADHD-primarily inattentive type, and ADHD- with hyperactivity. What use are these criteria when considering effective practices at festivals? People with both types of ADHD function better at different ranges of stimulation than their neurotypical peers, both concerning what overwhelms and underwhelms them. The two types manifest different in terms of behavior by the means each type seeks stimulation that will "keep the gears turning." Those with primarily Inattentive type will often go inward when they lack stimulation, creating scenarios within their minds. Those with mixed/hyperactive type also tend to try to make the world around them more exciting by engaging in physical and social activities that stimulate them enough- not an easy thing to do in acceptable ways in a controlled environment like a classroom.
Renfaires and Faerie Festivals have two things going for them that work well for people with both types of ADHD: historical/folkloric background and interactivity. As an example, consider the performances of "Sir Oskar Hasselhoff", as played by Alan Hutton, who demonstrates historical weaponry and techniques for adults, and performs interactive stories of King Arthur with versions for both kids and adults. In each of these performances, the character includes both a wealth of information about the history of swordsmanship, or the folklore of the Grail-quest, or even the moral underpinnings of practices of chivalry, combining wit and humor with each of these, making this an engaging show for people with Inattentive type ADHD, or anyone seeking more intellectual stimulation. At the same time, the element of interactivity that Oskar Hasselhoff incorporates in his shows: bringing audience members forward to be volunteers on whom to demonstrate sword techniques, or to play various roles in the tale of Excalibur, all help to create the kind of "hands on" engagement that the hyperactive aspects of ADHD require. This results in audience members, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical, feeling that they have been part of an experience, rather than passive observers.
As the needs for general stimulation can differ for each person, so can the way a person perceives and organizes each of the senses, as well as what sort of sensory input each person seeks at an interactive festival. Neurodivergent individuals can exhibit a particularly wide range of perceptual differences that affects the kind of entertainment they seek, and how they use their senses to process information. We should look at some examples of each one, and how the overall structure and organization of festivals works with each.
Many people tell me that one of the main reasons they attend Renaissance faires is because they can find products and experiences that they can find few other places. One of these is the range of musical types one can hear at such a festival. "Rennie" music covers a broad range of genres from different regions and time periods. This may include period performance: music played on accurate instruments, tunings, and techniques for the historical period in which the event is set. In many folk traditions, however, every time period had a mix of old and new- with local variations on each tune and song, and so most musical performers use the various historical techniques they know, first and foremost, to create an experience catered to the interests of their audiences. The traditions from which these musicians draw can range from British sea shanties to Turkish bellydance rhythms. The range of bands can vary from the sublime and intimate sound of the Irish harp to the intense and rousing notes of a mediaeval pipe and drum band. At a renfaire, one can hear storytelling in the form of traditional ballad-singing, or in the tonal "language" of a recorder ensemble playing polyphony from the renaissance, with each recorder carrying a separate melody in a combination of interlaced notes and rhythms. Once again, different degrees of interactivity play a big part in this variety, from singing along, to joining the bellydancers on stage for the hafleh portion of their show. Most people, even those with unusual perceptions, will find music they love at a renfaire. Those who build and organize these festivals face the complicated task of putting each performance in its time and place in such a way that the sounds of each do not overlap.
In creating a festival environment, the organizers, especially entertainment directors, often place great emphasis on the way participants use language. Cast members at renaissance faires are coached on accent and diction, and learn historic examples of greetings and courtesies so that they can not only perform scripted sketches, but improvise and interact with patrons. The historical practices of using spoken word as means of orientation, such as heralds who announce times and schedules and barkers who announce products and services, can help those less visually-oriented- including both the visually impaired and those with learning disabilities that effect visuo-spatial processing, find their way around better than in a place where orientation is based primarily on sight. Festivals like these are one of the best places to experience the traditional arts of storytelling, which are not often found on television or mass media. For many people, a verbal component can add more interest and meaning to their shopping experience at the festivals as well. At the tudor-style pavilion in which Peter Andres and Chris Chapman do glass-blowing at Scarborough Faire near Dallas, Peter and Chris both talk with patrons about their creations in an informal manner, but also formally demonstrate their craft several times a day, explaining their techniques while they create blown-glass lamps, ornaments, and glassware. Just like with music, certain practices help spoken word work for more people. Peter and Chris coordinate with nearby vendors, so that barkers do not interfere with patrons' chance to hear the demonstration. VSA, an organization focusing on arts and disabilities, teaches workshops in practices of narration for the blind that can benefit many performances at interactive festivals.
Although current American culture is possibly more concerned with the visual than the other senses, often the tendency is toward conflicting visual stimuli that can be difficult to form into a cohesive whole, especially for those whose neurologic differences affect visual perceptions. I will give an example of this by comparing the layout of a large retail store with a section of the shops at a Renaissance faire. Imagine that you are looking for cups at one of the "big box" stores. You will most likely be under fluorescent lighting (notoriously unpleasant for many with visual processing problems.) The packages will each be in loud colors that demand attention, with identical objects stacked one on another, causing a repeated pattern of these loud visuals. Everything will be arranged with strict right angles in most stores. You will need to find your way around with signs with identical fonts.
At a renaissance faire, you can find cups made by woodcrafters, potters, and glass-blowers. The quality and aesthetics of each is kept to a higher standard by a system of jurying, either by festival organizers or fellow vendors. You will see these mugs and goblets in natural sunlight. The items will be displayed with- at most- a string tag attached, so that you can focus on what you are looking for rather than the extraneous packaging. Most of the mugs will be unique, rather than in daunting rows of identical images. The shop in which you see them will be a small self-contained building but with sides open to the faire at large, and all of these buildings will themselves be designed according to a standard of visual aesthetic, using natural materials like wood. In fact, every visual aspect- even the clothes the vendors and the cast wear, are all held to a certain aesthetic, all within a "village" atmosphere. This encourages patrons to explore longer to find exactly what they want, or even commission custom work from the craftspeople. Contrast this to the above mentioned "big box" store, whose sights and sounds are psychologically designed to make customers shop more hurriedly. This may influence more "snap decision" purchases among the neurotypical population at whom these techniques are aimed, but causes many with sensory processing issues to avoid these establishments as much as possible.
The historically accurate practice of including iconography in signs and banners proves helpful to those with dyslexia who may have difficulty orienting themselves quickly by reading, especially when calligraphic scripts are used. Visual language, both in the form of standard formal gestures of the period, and the use of American Sign Language both make the faire more welcoming to those who rely on visual communication. At Scarborough Faire in North Texas, one of the participants offers Sign Language workshops on non-festival days for fellow performers and vendors (in the tradition of "Renny University," the sharing of skills that helps the festival communities continue to improve and grow.)
The unique smells of a festival can elicit many of the memories and emotions that a person associates with that event. In the planning stages of such a gathering, the organizers, when imagining and considering how a faire will look, could likewise consider how their festival will smell to the various patrons and participants. Many neurodivergent people, along with people with chemical sensitivities, can be more affected by certain smells that would not bother most neurotypicals. Strong perfumes and other synthetic scents can be particularly difficult to some on the spectrum, while others may be especially aversive to body odor. Of course, the degree to which different smells affect people ranges widely among neurotypicals as well. As an entertainment director of a first-year faire expressed to his performers: "I want all of you to look mediaeval, I want all of you to sound mediaeval, but I don't want anyone to smell mediaeval." It is an important guidepost that anyone who will interact at close range with the public at these festivals also avoid strong perfumes and colognes. Just as some avoid strong smells, many also seek stimulation through olfactory experiences. Festivals provide a good opportunity to explore natural scented products, as either patrons or craftspeople. Most Renaissance faires I have attended jury scented items to certain standards, allowing only natural scents among oils, incense, and natural soaps sold. The open air of these markets allows many scents to dissipate that would be held in at in-door locales.
Many of the enticing smells at a faire are of the many things that can be tasted there. The range of food one can find at a festival can be exceptional, or notoriously bad. As this is an exploration of what works, I will avoid listing examples of the latter in lieu of considering notable successes. It should suffice to say that interactive festivals, which work on the assumption that patrons will attend for hours, if not the whole day, and are often located in rural wooded areas away from other food sources, need to have a better variety and quality of food than, for example, a cinema. In addition to the usual "faire fare" like kettle corn, turkey legs, and roasted nuts, professional chefs can provide foods with the element of interactivity that distinguishes so many aspects of the best festivals- that is, made to order. Como Ristorante Italiano, at Sherwood Forest Faire, features several cooks who consider what they do an art-form and love the challenge of making something tasty that works for their patron, whether they have specific food allergies or dietary needs and choices (including the best vegan pizza that I have ever tasted.)
An example of ways that a chef can create exciting gustatory experiences that encompasses a diverse range of sensory needs are the pepper sauces and jellies made by Lady McArthur, and sold at her shops at the major Renaissance faires in Texas. I suspect that many of her clientele, who often stock up for the year when they visit her shop, seek sensory stimulation that is difficult to find elsewhere. I have witnessed many people who are very sensitive to spice-heat, who have never enjoyed salsa before because it hurts their taste-buds, revel in the taste of her "Sissy Sauce", in which Lady McArthur has captured the flavor from the peppers with no heat at all. On the other end are those who flock to her Phoenix Fire, a habanero sauce with 40 times the pepper content of the hot sauces found in supermarkets- a rare treat for those who need that spiciness (but unlike many hot sauces with that amount of peppers, still has a rich flavor). In between these two extremes, Lady McArthur's has many different flavors of hot sauces, chutneys, relishes, and jellies. Interaction is also an essential element, letting people sample the full range with the artist and staff there to make suggestion based on each person's preferences and answer questions someone might have, making it easier for those with allergies and other dietary limitations to shop there.
Some faires have particular kitchens aimed at kids, and these can also benefit people with neurologic differences who get stressed with more exotic foods, or unusual tastes and textures. Although festivals differ in their policy concerning outside food and drink, it is important to both have variety and leeway when it comes to special dietary needs, ranging from diabetic needs for emergency snacks, to Kosher and other religious diets, to having gluten and casein-free options that many people including many on the autism spectrum, need. The Fairie Festival at Spoutwood Farm, near York, Pennsylvania has one of the greatest varieties of food vendors, most from local businesses, ranging from Thai to Ethiopian to American food, all served in utensils and containers made of materials that are composted after the festival. Spoutwood is itself a working organic farm, and some of the activities of the festival include workshops on gardening, the environment, and organic agriculture.
People who use their tactile sense as a primary means of exploring their world will find many opportunities to do so at faerie festivals and renaissance faires. Although many vendors also sell their wares online during the off-season, the advantage of finding these creations at a faire- in addition to finding the ideal one among individually made items, is the chance to explore by touch: the delicacy or strength of a dress's material, the balance of a sword, or the smooth edges of a potter's work. Vendors selling equipment for various types of juggling- balls, poi, contact juggling spheres, or "devil sticks", create areas where kids and adults can play with these for free with lessons provided by the vendors, because the feel of successfully mastering the basics inspires patrons to buy the tools to learn more at home. Even the faeries at festivals, with the practice of giving glass baubles and small stones as gifts for children, are giving to these kids a tactile way to trigger memories of their experience throughout the year.
Clothing, which touches a person continuously, can matter a great deal to someone with tactile sensitivities. What a neurotypical person finds comfortable can be unbearable to many neurodivergent people, and vise versa. Most people I know find velvet to be a very soft, luxuriant fabric; I find the sensation of rubbing velvet one of the most unpleasant nails-on-chalkboard sensations I have experienced (ironically, historical and fantasy festivals are two of the only places where I am certain to be near velvet.) When I have worked with professional costumers during performances, they understood my particular sensitivity as they had worked with others with similar tactile considerations- and they themselves had chosen a profession that requires, in addition to visual skills, much tactile thinking. People new to creating garb for a diverse group of people would be wise to consult cast members about sensitivities that might make them too uncomfortable to focus on the task at hand. When it comes to patrons and independent performers who choose their own garb, some with neurologic tactile differences prefer very little touching their skin, or very loose clothing, and might opt for "barbarian" personas that allow them to wear something simple. More often, I have observed, neurodivergent people will have a more difficult time with light contact, like a tag touching them in one place, but find heavier and/or tighter items comforting. Weighted vests are sold by clothiers specializing in garments for people with Asperger's Syndrome and other conditions on the autism spectrum. So while some people would dread the idea of wearing heavy garb, or even armor throughout the day, other people look forward to wearing what to them is the most comfortable clothing, something they have few chances to wear in the "mundane" world. Another aspect of clothing at these festivals that is advantageous to those with tactile defensiveness, and which is common with clothes sold by specialty shops for sensory issues, is the use of natural materials. In a recent National Public Radio program, Lisa Daxer, a biomedical engineering student with Asperger's Syndrome and author of the Resident Alien blog, gave a particular telling comparison: "We all avoid different things. I avoid polyester clothing. [Neurotypicals] avoid talking about death."
From a neurologic standpoint, there are several sensory systems involved in the experiences of being a body in motion, but as all of these happen simultaneously, for our purposes I will address various activities that involve all of them to one extent or another. The games and rides at renfaires provide many opportunities to challenge and experience these senses to a greater extent than in most daily activities. Those who like to challenge their sense of balance, might try climbing across a rope suspended "Jacob's Ladder," or battle a friend with padded weapons while balancing on a log. A person can challenge their internal sense of direction in a maze, or meditatively walk the single winding path of a labyrinth. There are motion rides sized for both children and adults, but with a notable difference from rides at an amusement park: these are human powered machines. Thus a person can experience the motion without some of the more unpleasant aspects- neon lights, and metallic and mechanized sounds- of amusement park rides. The workers who do the pushing on these wood and rope rides (often very kinetically minded people themselves) can also adjust the speed and intensity of these rides to the liking of the riders, whether they are on a spinning contraption or a giant swing. In addition are the many opportunities to dance, or simply move playfully and in character, that are hard to find in the "normal" world.
Differences of sensory processing can obviously affect both the receptive and expressive aspects of communication in various ways and degrees. Common wisdom might suggest that the more formal the communications of an environment are, the harder it will be for someone to navigate the details. As is the case with spoken language and nonverbal communication, many of the rules, from syntax to comfortable speaking distances, are learned intuitively by neurotypical persons such that those who have not studied linguistics or other communication sciences are unaware of just how many complex rules they, and even young children, apply to any form of communication. While dyslexia can effect the acquisition of information through written and verbal language, persons with autism spectrum disorders are often affected in how they process nonverbal communication. They may have trouble reading facial expressions, or receive so much information at once from all the means by which humans communicate simultaneously- words, intonation, faces, posture- that they must pick which aspects to process and which to ignore (e.g., looking away from a person's face to understand the content of their speech, or ignoring the meaning of words to better read how someone feels emotionally.) Some examples of ways this might affect expressive language include eye contact, or the inability to make "smalltalk"- communication in which the meaning and subject of conversation are negligible, but the way in which these niceties are said communicates much that is lost to many on the spectrum.
Re-enactments of historical periods, especially concerning courtly etiquette, might seem unnecessarily complex compared to modern casual communication- even more so are the many rules of interaction that can be found in traditional faerie-lore. But for those whose neurodivergence affects the way they communicate with others, the opposite can be true. When everyone involved has to learn the rules of the kingdom as an outsider, neurodivergent people (who often feel foreign during most interactions in their "own" cultures) can feel on an even footing. Through the personas they adopt at these festivals, people can interact with newly met strangers in ways rarely possible in the public places of most towns and cities. Within the characters that participants and many patrons create exists opportunities to communicate in the ways a person is more able. I have observed people with ADHD, often accused by others of speaking too fast- or too much, use that as a positive attribute in their character interactions. Likewise, I have a friend who speaks slowly and methodically who has created a character of the royal courts of Elfin lands- a very formal ambassador who must use careful consideration and diplomacy dealing with mortals- which uses his speaking rhythms to good effect in storytelling and improvisational acting.
Many people with Aperger's Syndrome and related neurology, who can make small-talk only with difficulty, can speak easily and at length about certain subjects that fascinate them. These special interests are an asset when someone can work in a field involving that interest. I love talking about different flute types, but I do not discuss the subject with most people unless they ask me questions first, because once I start discussing instruments, I will keep discussing them for a while (as some parts of my website will demonstrate.) Working booths for friends who make flutes has given me the opportunity to- in addition to playing many of their flutes- discuss flute history throughout the day while helping customers find what they need (not a subject that comes up often in bars or coffee-shops.)
Communication can involve all of the senses I have discussed above, and many performers at renaissance and fantasy festivals communicate in modes that enable patrons to communicate in nonverbal ways with them. EarthMama Willow, a character at Texas Renaissance Faire and other faires throughout the state, in addition to storytelling, uses visual creation in the form of sand art, and various "faerie calls": wordless yips, click and trills to share the faerie world with children and adults alike who have diverse communication styles and abilities. Twig, a faerie who makes her home at the Minnesota Renaissance Faire, but can be found at faires throughout the U.S., never speaks a word, but communicates continuously via her double-flute and her natural (and extensively studied developed) abilities at dance and body language, making her very approachable to many people, including the very young and the very shy.
For people with sensory differences, more than just avoiding overwhelming stimuli and seeking enjoyable stimulation is the need for balance in one's experiences. Even those who love every aspect of these festivals can find themselves in a "meltdown" after sustaining enough sensory input. While much of the literature on spectrum disorders and learning disabilities focuses on behavior and academics, sensory overload is one of the greatest concerns for many neurodivergent persons, especially when this overload happens because of experiences that, up until the point of meltdown, the same person greatly enjoys. These overloads can take the form of the "meltdown" where, unable to process more information, the brain goes into "fight or flight" mode, when someone wants to quickly get away from all excessive stimuli or, unable to do that, take on a self-protecting stance that most neurotypical people might interpret as inexplicable hostility, or these sensory overloads may take the form of a "shutdown" where the person goes within themselves and seems "out in space" to those who observe the behavior.
I have observed that these interactive festivals, as a result of being outside, have places to deal with being sensorily overwhelmed (something that happens to most neurotypical people as well when stressors are added to the intense sensations) that are hard to find in many entertainment venues and urban environments. Throughout Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest renaissance faire in the world with over 400,00 attending, a garden path winds its way throughout the faire. With thick groves of trees absorbing the sounds outside of the path and many little alcoves with benches and sculptures, this trail is a wonderful place to decompress and hear the birds and be away from the hustle of the rest of the faire. At Scarborough Faire, many of these calming places can be found by the sunken streams around which the faire was built. (A common calming influence with many on the autism spectrum is watching and hearing the motion of flowing water.) Later in the afternoon I have noticed how the bridges- one of the busiest places during the parades earlier in the day, become oases of calm with Sarah Marie Mullen and Doc Grauzer playing Celtic harp for those who sit to rest weary minds and bodies.
The ways in which festivals incorporate and build within the natural world are a huge part of why these places are welcome to such a range of people. Sherwood Forest Faire, which began a very successful first year this Spring, includes among its guiding principals the stewardship of the forest itself and the flora and fauna that fill the piny woods. This extends to such aspects as architecture- using local trees that are cleared for the faire to build fences, buildings, and other structures, to character development- in which knowledge of and responsibility toward the Forest of Sherwood guide Robin Hood, his Merry Men, and other cohorts. The May Day Fairie Festival at Spoutwood Farm has wonderful places to relax as well, such as the Forest Maze, or Frodo's telescopic observatory. Robin and Lucy Wood, who call Spoutwood home, began the festival years ago as a way to celebrate the natural world. Although it has grown to be the largest Faerie event in the United States, Robin and Lucy still keep the faire focused on the beauty of nature, teaching organic gardening and other skills to the younger generations. In these ways, it is not that surprising that many neurodiverse people feel more in place where the biodiversity of the area is likewise valued. Both forms of diversity help to define, for participants and patrons alike, ideals of both beauty and functionality.
I have written this to both synthesize various aspects of my own life, but also to encourage a dialogue among many groups of people who these interests and issues concern. I hope this can extend what people consider when discussing learning to include the many ways people work to find and create enjoyment. I hope that discussions that follow will help create guidelines, much like the principles of UD and UDL, that will take into consideration not simply "compliance" but making things and interactions in ways that work for the vast ranges of skills and needs that guide us as human beings. This will take input from people with many experiences beyond the scope of what I have covered here including neurodiverse (as in both the neurotypical and neurodivergent) performers, organizers, patrons, and other cross-disability self-advocates including those with mobility impairments, blindness, and the Deaf and Signing communities- I especially hope that people that relate in more than one of these ways will share their thoughts with me and each other. Finally, I hope that this gives a glimpse, to those who have not yet experienced these magic worlds, of the deep love I have for the people I know who make these places and experiences a reality.-Kaade October 31, 2010