A real cast of characters

Role-playing is not just for recreation and video games. For some, including USF students, it’s a real job.

The Bay Area Renaissance Festival is worlds away, in a sense – with characters dressed in costumes from a medieval era roaming the grounds – but it takes place right across the street from USF behind the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI).

And university students dive into the opportunity to be someone else – if only for a short while.

Adam Kaiser, a senior majoring in creative writing, has participated in a Sarasota renaissance fair for the past five years as a “LAN” character and said he knows what it’s like to be someone different for work every day.

“A LAN character is basically someone who walks around in costume … and changes to whatever theme the festival is doing,” he said. “These characters buy their own costumes, and get paid a stipend at the end of the month, (maybe) $100.”

Kaiser said the roles can be a form of “escapism,” as he interacts with patrons and entertains customers. It’s a way to leave reality aside, he said.

“It’s a way to come and be someone else – open up a bit (and) get people to come out a bit,” he said.

Some characters are contracted and receive a steady paycheck while others only receive a monthly stipend, but all share level of dedication to their creative imagination.

Heather Songster, a junior majoring in creative writing, is known as “Heather the Harpie” on fair weekends. She’s been involved with the Bay Area Renaissance Festival since she was 9 years old.

“It’s one of those things that allows us to get our creativity out,” she said. “Personally, I like to sit and imagine myself in another world. You haven’t lived (until) you’ve seen a guy shoot a rabbit out of a cannon.”

She has played the harp since age 6 at events, including festivals. She said she couldn’t think of a better way to spend her weekends, and she thinks working at the festival – along with family and friends from school – brings her closer to the community.

“It is a really fun way to live outside of reality,” she said. “A lot of handmade crafters will bring out their stuff and sell it. It also allows some of our patrons to let out their creativity.

“You can tell who is really into the fantasy side and the re-enactment side, depending on the costume.”

But it’s not just students who find the work entertaining. Some characters do it full time. Johnny Phoenix has been with the festival for 15 years. His show is a mix of improv, comedy and audience participation.

“The Renaissance venue allows me a place to perform. It’s not about the art shows; it’s all about entertainment,” he said. “The festival hires professional performers to create the environment of the Renaissance.”

Stevo Doccerson is known as “Hob the Troll.” Originally from Michigan – another location for the festival – he has played the character for seven years and followed the Bay Area Renaissance Festival for four years. He designs his own costume and writes music.

He makes T-shirts and even released his first CD in 2008. He said he just finished a Christmas album titled, “Troll, the Ancient Yuletide Carols.” Making CDs and costumes is his hobby, but working the festival is something Doccerson said he takes seriously.

“People a lot of the time, ask me what’s my real job,” he said. “This is my real job. This is how a lot of people make their living. I do this full time, and I do a couple other fairs in Michigan.”

And that’s fine with him.

“Do what you want to do, and figure out how to get paid for it,” Doccerson said. “That’s the secret to success.”

Joseph Cosby, an onlooker at one of the shows, comes to the festival for the atmosphere and said he appreciates the dedication the workers have to their characters.

“It’s the closest thing you’re going to find to gypsies anywhere. These guys are traveling the country all the time,” he said.

The festival includes plenty of food items, promotions and entertainment. It opened in February, and its last two days are Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.