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Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture

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The Renaissance Faire — a 50 year-long party, communal ritual, political challenge and cultural wellspring—receives its first sustained historical attention with Well Met. Beginning with the chaotic communal moment of its founding and early development in the 1960s through its incorporation as a major “family friendly” leisure site in the 2000s, Well Met tells the story of the thinkers, artists, clowns, mimes, and others performers who make the Faire.

Well Met approaches the Faire from the perspective of labor, education, aesthetics, business, the opposition it faced, and the key figures involved. Drawing upon vibrant interview material and deep archival research, Rachel Lee Rubin reveals the way the faires established themselves as a pioneering and highly visible counter cultural referendum on how we live now—our family and sexual arrangements, our relationship to consumer goods, and our corporate entertainments.

In order to understand the meaning of the faire to its devoted participants,both workers and visitors, Rubin has compiled a dazzling array of testimony, from extensive conversations with Faire founder Phyllis Patterson to interviews regarding the contemporary scene with performers, crafters, booth workers and “playtrons.” Well Met pays equal attention what came out of the faire—the transforming gifts bestowed by the faire’s innovations and experiments upon the broader American culture: the underground press of the 1960s and 1970s, experimentation with “ethnic” musical instruments and styles in popular music, the craft revival, and various forms of immersive theater are all connected back to their roots in the faire. Original, intrepid, and richly illustrated, Well Met puts the Renaissance Faire back at the historical center of the American counterculture.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published November 19, 2012

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Rachel Lee Rubin

5 books4 followers

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Displaying 1 - 29 of 29 reviews
Profile Image for Jessaka.
888 reviews121 followers
June 17, 2022
This is an interesting book on the creation of renaissance fairs in America which were created by the Patterson family of LA county. The 1st 1 Was held in Laurel Canyon In 1963. When the feds or whoever they were learned that it was frequented Buy hippies and lefties, everyone who worked for the fair had to go and get fingerprinted. Go figure.

I had never heard of the Renaissance Fair until the 70s when I move to Berkeley, California. It was then that my friend Cathy and I and other friends of hers use to go to Marin county every year.

1 year after learning creative visualization, which I would rather think of as wishing for something and getting it, I was standing in line at the fair to get tickets and wished that we could get in free. Just about that time somebody that Cathy new walked up to us and said come on and you don't have to get tickets. He worked there. Later on that same day, we sat down on some haystacks because we retired. I began thinking about fudge. I wanted to buy a bag, but if I did I eat the whole thing and get sick. A few minutes later a guy walked by, THREW a bag on my lap and Said,
Here I opened up the bag and it was filled with fudge..
Profile Image for Sharon.
Author 38 books376 followers
November 23, 2021
It took me two months to get through this scholarly examination of Renaissance faires. As a former participant in the original events from the late 1980s into the mid 199os, I truly expect to rip right through it.

Instead, I found myself astonished at how often the author presumed the East Coast faire experience to be identical to the West Coast one. For example, we never referred to customers as "playtrons," and "Wench Walks" are a decidedly East Coast phenomenon that only happened in California faires during "invasions."

In any event, the historical information and how the Faire influenced culture (e.g., renewed interest in klezmer music) was interesting ... and seeing my favorite milliner named because of her renowned dancing skills from the days of her youth put a smile on my face.

Not a bad book at all; just some blanket statements about How Faires Are that, as the old song says, ain't necessarily so.
Profile Image for Steve Cran.
878 reviews87 followers
June 11, 2014
Once could say that the whole concept of the Renaissance Faire, which has become so popular, started out as a dream Ron and Phyllis Patterson. Phyllis had been involved in education and the arts back east working with Middle School and adolescent kids. When they moved out here to California they moved to the Laurel Canyon area. The concept started out as kids getting dressed up in costume and performing. They would go about on a wagon loaned from one of the many entertainment figures living there. She worked at children’s center in the area. From there the idea sort of took off.

The first faire which happened in Southern California was done in connection with KPFK and Pacifica Radio. The first faire was a fund raiser. Now back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the entertainment figures and residents of Laurel Canyon were involved with liberal causes and were often under scrutiny from the conservative establishment. KPFK was a liberal radio station oft times being accused of being communist. The first faire was a resounding success. The faire also attracted hippies and would be an influence on society at large.

The second faire was held in Ventura County. The first weekend went off well but the establishment was doing it’s best to thwart it. First the sheriff’s office was requiring al the vendors to get fingerprinted. Then the Ventura county zoing board managed to get the faire banned on the second weekend. This caused the vendors to lose lots of money.

After that the faire got it’s own place in Agoura Hills. The cultural watershed was both an influence and influenced by the pervading hippie culture. The fare helped inaugurate an interest in hand crafted goods as opposed to the mass produced plastic goods. Glasss blowers off made a show of what they did. The Pattersons would also travel to communes and communities where hand crafts were made. They would serve as a market for these goods and help boost their popularity. In this sense the faire served as a bastion or refuge away from the captitistic society that was all encompassing.

The spirit of free love and relaxed boundaries in the realm of relationships found a home in the faire where people could live out this lifestyle or different lifestyles as the faire community was tolerant and accepting of both. Such an attitude was maintained and preserved even up to the present day. Music was also changed. It became more ethnic and eventually more historical incorporating more element of Celtic and Middle Eastern. Had it not been for the faire one could wonder if we would have such a wide variety of interest in international music.

The faire has it’s own community of vendors who travel from faire to faire living in their own moving neighborhoods and culture. These vendors travel in small mobile homes living out of the vans they house their good. Cadres of children grow up together and are homeschooled.

The faire has been about for some time going through many changes. Atfirst being a refuge and countercultural activity. To becoming an activity more obsessed with historical accuracy. Now it has become corporatized yet element of the past still remain.
Profile Image for Christie.
1,555 reviews48 followers
February 24, 2013
First sentence: "This is our ethnic background!"

Visiting a renaissance faire is an exciting and unparalleled experience. This book looks at the history of the faire as a countercultural experience from its beginnings as a hippie festival in Northern California to its present as a corporately run, family-friendly endeavor that is still more unique than you find at many other events and festivals. The book looks at the faire through a social and political lens and examines it from a variety of perspectives: faire worker, diehard fans, casual visitor, and faire haters. It is an interesting take on an exclusively American pastime.

I have regularly attended my local renaissance festival for the past 5 years. It has always been interesting to me the diverseness of the attendees and just how much fun everyone seems to be having workers and patrons alike. I had never thought of the Renaissance faire as arising from the counterculture movement of the 1960s, but it does make sense. I was expecting more of a random faire trivia book and I did get a bit of that, but the book was more about how the faire brings counterculture to the forefront, whether the particular counterculture is made up of hippies, geeks, homosexuals, anti-consumerists, or any other people who do not fit into society's current mold. The book was very well-written and well-organized around this theme. I enjoyed the way the pictures played a part in the text. It was a very interesting read and made me think about the faire in a way I had not before.

Paranormal scavenger hunt: geek
My one problem with the book is that it is not very approachable to the lay person. It has a very scholarly tone which is weird when you take into account the subject. If you are not very well-versed in sociology or political science, you will be lost in some of the chapters. This makes it very dry and hard to get through in some places. Overall, it is a good read and the subject matter is interesting enough to make up for the dry places. I would recommend it to people who are interested in renaissance faire history or the hippie counterculture.
Profile Image for Tegan.
151 reviews8 followers
February 4, 2013
It was interesting to read about a world that I journey through in terms of being counter-culture. While I knew that Ren Faires were not main stream, I never through of them as transgressive to the norm, which I suppose says something about myself. Rubin has written a well rounded book touching on the history, the culture, the growth and change, and even the resentments and oppositions to Renaissance Faires.

Slate has a pretty good article on the book as well which can be found at:
21 reviews1 follower
November 29, 2015
Aims for the middle between academic and popular audiences, and I think it's successful. Would be PERFECT for an undergraduate class on subcultures, collective memory, or performance.
Profile Image for Bryan.
61 reviews
October 14, 2015
Some really great information in this book that is drowning in a sea of jargon.
Profile Image for Lee Ann.
777 reviews18 followers
June 12, 2019
This book covered everything I needed to know in my quest for research on Renaissance faires. It was not only fascinating to read about the faires and their founding years, but their evolution since then, as well as input from employees and "playtrons" alike. This book gave me a new appreciation for the faires I know and love, and also helped me feel more prepared as I begin my next writing project! I learned so much great stuff, and I can't wait to start writing--or for this year's faire season! 4/5 stars.
Profile Image for Pam Mclaughlin.
20 reviews1 follower
May 6, 2022
I enjoy going to our local Ren Faire every summer, so I enjoyed this history of the Renaissance Faire in America very much indeed. I was aware of the birth of the movement in California, but I had no idea how controversial the fairs were in the early days. Some of the people interviewed for the book view those early days with great nostalgia. They clearly think that having big companies take over has lead to events that are little too conformist and white bread (or, shall I say it, mundane?) Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Chris.
163 reviews1 follower
November 11, 2015
Well Met is incredibly well researched, and is a wonderful guide to the history of Renaissance Festivals, and their role from the counterculture of the sixties to subcultures today. Parts of this book are fascinating, and I would certainly recommend it highly. As someone for whom teenage visits to the MD rennfest were a major event in shaping who I am, I loved learning the underpinnings of the culture, and being able to look with new eyes on how it has evolved and how an irrelevant love of history, coupled with a sense of subversion, theatricality and whimsy have impacted American culture in a hundred ways. There are a number of brilliant points about subverting mainstream culture and the blurring lines between performers and audiences that really stood out. That being said, there were a couple of issues that prevented me from falling in love with the book. The citations were distracting, and could have been handled better—I’m not a huge fan of parenthetical citations to begin with, but something about the way they were done in this book was really distracting. There were images throughout, but they seemed to be random, often hardly related, images. Either Rubin couldn’t afford the rights to what she wanted (and how many millions of pictures of rennfest exist?) or she just reached in a box and chose a few at random. But the selections made no sense. Of the 20 or so images in the book, half are grouped together, and depict rennfest influences in 1960’s band promotional imagery, so viewers can look closely for that one band member wearing a poet’s shirt.

The biggest issue, however, was the choice of scope in this book. A significant chunk of this work is devoted to early rennfest musical acts. Academically interesting, perhaps, but not really worthy of such outsized focus unless Rubin had explained why there was such a focus, and she never really did. It more seemed she interviewed a lot of performers, and didn’t want to leave anyone out. Similarly, the focus skewed significantly early and late without much treatment of the 80’s/90’s and the corporatization/evolution of the rennfest—just a jump from counterculture and hippies to modern examples. There was no treatment of closed or failed rennfests (which would have been fascinating) and the bulk of the space was devoted largely to the four major faires, without any treatment of smaller events, one weekend events, independent events, etc. None of this is a deal breaker, but it just seemed like a lot of decisions were made without any explanation to readers arguing why the scope was this or that, leaving me to wonder if it was laziness and getting too close to some of the material.
Profile Image for Jonna Higgins-Freese.
708 reviews47 followers
January 18, 2015
This wasn't the most gripping kind of insightful anthropological analysis, but it had a few moments that made it worth continuing.

I hadn't realized the Faire's roots in sixties California counterculture, but it makes sense. Nor had I realized the ways in which the Faire is transgressive in terms of gender and sexual identity, but she makes a compelling case that the "everything is performance" nature of the Faire, along with the many opportunities offered for imaginative self-reconstruction through costuming and character development, as well as the Faire's very roots in the counter-culture, offer a safe space for this. I was especially fascinated to learn how many of the participants and attendees are working class; I had assumed it was a more middle to upper middle class phenomenon, given the costs of attending and participating.

She also touches briefly on the ways that people of color use the Faire to appropriate and therefore call attention to identities they would not have had access to in the "real" past -- or that we have forgotten they did have access to in the real past -- Asian American merchant class women, for example, or African nobles representing the Moorish rulers of Spain (207).

There was a fascinating chapter on Faire "haters," that delved into the ways in which "men in tights" seem to provoke anxiety. One of the most compelling and poignant sections focused on the ways that women of various sizes and shapes are accepted and considered beautiful at the Faire; there were some moving accounts of women who'd first come to see themselves as beautiful through their participation.
782 reviews1 follower
February 25, 2014
An academic history of American Renaissance faires going back to their founding in Southern California by Ron and Phyllis Patterson. The Oregon Country Fair gets some mention as being more of an anything goes celebration, perhaps closer to the roots of the faire. Rev. Chumley, who performed in Eugene, OR, is also mentioned. The writing is a bit flat, although very well documented, but it picks up with the chapter on fiction featuring the faire. Although there is no mention of Mary Monika Palver's Knight Fall mystery, which differs from the other mysteries in that the detective is an intensely involved role player. This study, along with John McMillian's Smoking Typewriters is a good move toward documenting the counterculture of the 1960s-70s.
Profile Image for Patricia.
15 reviews
March 29, 2013
This is a very in depth look at the history of the Renaissance Faire. Somewhat dry reading, a big emphasis on the beginnings during the sixties in California.The "Faire" then proved a refuge for artist/artisan types, political non-conformists et al. I was hoping for a bit more "human interest" sort of study. As a research tool this book will prove valuable but doesn't make for light reading. I've worked at one of these festivals and feel the author could have spent a bit more time in the current period of faire history. She basically has taken a fascinating subject and turned it into dusty bookshelf space.
Profile Image for Barbara Bristow.
69 reviews1 follower
April 9, 2013
I've been to the Renaissance Faire in Sterling Forest NY a number of times but never thought about where the faires came from. The first faire was in California (no surprise there), done as a fund raiser for a local public radio station (bit of a surprise there). The author ties in the history of faires with the rise in handicrafts and folk music, as well as looking at the people you meet at faires: the faire folk, the fans who come in costume, even faire-haters. There's even a link between faires and Michael Jackson (who would have thought that?!) An interesting look at a subculture that I took for granted.
Profile Image for Tanya.
297 reviews3 followers
November 6, 2013
I was eager to read this book because of my family's many years at the Renaissance and Dickens Faires and so I liked getting to dabble back in that world. The chapter about the history of the faire was pretty disappointing because it felt overly anthropological, with the author was taking everything people were saying at face value, rather than digging into the motivations behind the remembered history. The last chapter, about the Faire in literature and popular culture was by far my favorite. On a side note, why are SO many people afraid of men in tights?
Profile Image for Amanda Clay.
Author 4 books23 followers
August 3, 2014
Very interesting! I had no idea the Ren Faire was so tied up in the American Socialist and Workers' movements. I also had no idea that Penn and Teller got their start on the circuit. Fun and readable despite its scholarly bent, some of the most interesting info comes in the chapters about sexuality and Ren Faires, and also the 'outsiders' views and perceptions of the Faire and its people. Worth a look!
Profile Image for Valerie.
75 reviews1 follower
October 23, 2016
This gives the novice Ren faire goer the beginnings of the Ren faire, as well as every component of the faire. There is even a chapter on the Ren faire haters and Renissance Faires in fiction. I think the thing I liked best is that every chapter is self contained, so if you only wanted read about the jousters, you could do that easily. I would have liked the author to touch more on the SCA and the Pennsic War participants, but maybe with the next book.
Profile Image for Violet B.
193 reviews6 followers
September 6, 2016
So much more information than really necessary...... Yet so much more than I anticipated. Save it for a counterculture studies class or a non-rainy/non - hurricane weekend..... And have another book around to distract you.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Ferry.
168 reviews10 followers
May 7, 2013
Great background on how Renaissance Faires orginated and evolved. Interesting fact: Penn and Teller got their start at a Faire.
Profile Image for Laurie Post.
7 reviews1 follower
February 7, 2013
It was fun to reminisce. I was at faire from almost the beginning. However it didn't hold my interest.
Profile Image for Laura Hodgins.
319 reviews6 followers
May 22, 2013
Really interesting history of the first ren faires in CA and then across the country, counterculture, hippies, music, all kinds of interesting tidbits and some thought about what it all means.
Profile Image for Nickie.
167 reviews
November 4, 2013
Best book I've read about the Faires and what life was really like at them and in the surrounding counterculture world of the day. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Heidi Miller.
12 reviews
March 6, 2022
A friend loaned me this book, and it was an unexpected delight.

This is a scholarly but accessible research report of the origins of American renaissance faires. As someone who spent my for drive years at faire, it was not only fascinating to discover how the faire came about (roots in children’s theater, counterculture, commedia dell’arte, and fundraiser for California’s Pacifica radio station) but also that my experiences at faire were not an aberration.

Did you know that it was a place for actors black listed* during McCarthyism to perform? That when the California Pleasure Faire was founded in 1962, it was the only place for artisans to sell handmade, artisanal wares? Or that Michael Jackson said he got his robot moves from watching Shields at faire? Or that Penn and Teller got their start at faire? That GRBTQIA folks went because it was a place they could be out in public? That tights and corsets were tools to break down gender and beauty norms, which is why so many people hate faire? That Camryn Mannheim said she only got confidence to start acting after experiencing the inclusive fat acceptance atmosphere at faire?

In fact, there is a whole chapter on faire haters and the faire’s defiance of gender and beauty norms, which makes frequent reference to the celebration of “women’s large erupting bodies.”

This describes my own live of faire to a T: “[faire] gives them the opportunity to pretend to be someone else, and it gives them the opportunity to be who they really are.“

I only went to faire once not in garb—my first time. After that, I thrifted a skirt, peasant blouse, and wide elastic belt to approximate a corset I couldn’t afford. A friend made me a flower wreath with fake flowers I got at a craft store.

It felt so liberating! I could actually flirt at faire, something I’d never been good at IRL. I met my first trans person at faire, but I didn’t think of her that way; she was just a sweet person who was kind to me. I quickly discovered chainmail and that if I got to Lord Randolph’s booth early, he would dress me in borrowed chainmail that I could wear all day. I felt fun and sexy and unstoppable, things I didn’t feel outside of faire.

I began feeling like the faire was a place for my alter ego to run free, but after a while, I realized more that it was a safe place to be myself. I didn’t have to be a good girl at faire; I could be a bit naughty and still stay safe. I could be my true self. My best self.

And then there was this statement: “I had never heard of polyamory until I went to the Rennaissance faire” 🤣❤️
Profile Image for Geri Hoekzema.
87 reviews5 followers
September 24, 2020
Interesting and informative history of the Ren faire movement. I was surprised at a few omissions - Peter Beagle's Folk of the Air, possibly the not only the first work of fiction starring the world of Medieval reenactment but also definitely the best one - is barely mentioned. But it was largely a satisfying trip that made me wish I'd been around back when Ren faires started, before they became overly commercial and were therefore still magical.
Profile Image for Cornelia.
34 reviews
December 31, 2019
This is easily one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read. I learned so much about early American counterculture and the influence that was/is the American renaissance faire.
Profile Image for Drew Penrose.
57 reviews3 followers
March 20, 2023
A lot of cool background on Renaissance Faires, their own history, and how they have impacted culture more broadly. The writing is just a little dry and academic.
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