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REN FAIRE (2024)

Limited Series [Series Premiere].

Release Date: 03/09/24.

[Seen at SXSW Film Festival 2023]

"When the ailing king of America's largest renaissance festival declares his retirement, an epic power struggle ensues between an actor, a former elephant trainer, and a kettle-corn kingpin to claim his throne."


There is an inherent power a documentary gives to its audience. It is tasked to be an objective storyteller, presenting the facts, the truth, the whole story. The responsibility of that knowledge is granted to the audience to engineer some discovery or call to action. What will you do with this new information? In a new three-part series, director Lance Oppenheim has pointed his lens at the biggest renaissance festival in Texas, aptly titled the Texas Renaissance Festival. Its first episode premiered at SXSW, setting up the power shift between the reigning “king” of the court, founder George Coulman, as he vets his potential successors. 


Having only seen the first episode, with the rest of the series primed to air in summer 2024, I was enchanted by the visuals and world Oppenheim and his crew captured. Like many ren faires, the Texas Renaissance Festival showcases all the inspiring elements of what one would expect to see at such an event. Buxom court maids flank dueling knights in a fighting exhibition. Delicious foods, some on a stick and some covered in sugary dust, accompany the ever-flowing pours of mead and beer. People are in costumes, children are getting face-painted, and families are enjoying incredible acrobatic shows and playing fun medieval-themed games. The fantasy that a Renaissance festival promotes is fun and well worth the price of admission. 


What occurs behind the scenes is laborious and challenging. The employees who provide the fantasy experience are some of the hardest working. Much like film and television, it takes a village to assemble the whole package for the thousands of festival patrons. They are all unified with a singular purpose. This leadership has rested in the hands of George Coulman, the founder of the Texas Renaissance Festival, and for better or worse, he has led with his gut and intuition. Coulman has reached his golden years and has decided to retire and make a bid for a quiet life. He yearns to find a romantic partner and settle down finally. The crux thus far in Ren Faire is the forthcoming power vacuum which sees Coulman’s heir apparent, Jeffrey Baldwin, compete with others for ascendancy to power.


This first episode shifts back and forth, as most introductory segments do. George is on the hunt for his next companion with little subtlety about what he expects them to look like and what age bracket he wants to pool them from. I would venture George to be very industrious and exacting, making up for what he lacks in propriety and gentlemanly virtue. His quest for a partner stalls, and he considers not even retiring. He also sends Jeffrey, the general manager responsible for putting out daily fires and keeping the ship on course, on errands across the planet. Jeffrey attends a similar festival in Germany to perform reconnaissance on their operations and report his findings back to George. Whether this is busy work or a task assigned in the course of discovering Jeffrey’s ability to steward the Texas Renaissance Festival effectively remains to be seen.


For fans of festivals and documentaries, Ren Faire is a feast for the eyes and an investment for the heart. This first episode presents a sticky quandary of power assumption and loyalty. Many viewers will find the parallels between this group of professional entertainers and the courtship of characters that they embody, which would undoubtedly endure these very similar dynamic struggles that they represent to be deeply serendipitous and cruelly electrifying to witness.

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