The Nothing

I wrote the other day about how the time I worked at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival thirty years ago affected me in ways both subtle and profound. Like all of its kind, the Festival is a place of wonder, of creativity, of bawdy jokes, lewd and wonderful songs, and general silliness, with amazing performers and talented crafters.

It’s also a business.

To the best of my knowledge, the owners of the Festival don’t own the land it sits own. It has had a long-term lease on a bit of rocky ground outside of Shakopee, MN, owned by a gravel company. Thirty years ago, the stone being quarried from the earth took place at least a mile distant, no intrusion upon those who wanted to do something utterly silly for six weekends a year.

But every year, the quarry took out more rock, moving the boundaries a bit closer. But every year, the economics of the faire changed. The lease on that quarry land went up. Rents were re-negotiated. Tastes changed (or so we’re told). Actors were paid less, performers had their contracts cut, sending some of the best acts to other faires.

The Nothing moved closer.

When I’d last worked there, the performers parked on a broad expanse of trampled green grass which provided a pleasant walk to the performer’s gate (or a quiet spot to snog while parked in the car ofter the sun went down). Sure, the car got a little dusty being parked out on a field, but no matter. We worked out under the sun, we drank and laughed and sang and acted the fool. All was right with the world.

The Nothing moves closer.

This year, we drove out to the Festival, down a bumpy and narrow gravel road, to the bottom of a gravel pit. Huge mounds of sand and stone towered above us, forcing us to wend our way between them, looking for an open place to park. For several years, my friends who worked at the Festival had been commenting on the ever-present dust resulting in “Fest Crud” that ended up afflicting pretty much everyone who worked out there. I now got to see where the dust came from.

That isn’t early-morning fog making a haze of this shot.

We parked on the gravel, surrounded by silica sand, and got out of the car. The festival was right there, only about 50 yards away. Unfortunately, it was also about 50 yards or more above. A sheer rock wall towered over us, huge boulders strewn about at the base of it from the last blast that brought the Nothing ever closer to consuming the Festival.

It’s a business, and if it doesn’t make money, it won’t be around, dust or no. But it also exemplifies the worst elements of American corporate culture. The owners of the Festival knew 30 years ago that they sat atop a quarry on land they didn’t own, and they did nothing. Instead of making the Festival a better value for the ever-increasing ticket price, they made it more common. The best place to see this is the food: everything that you get out at the Festival you could get out at the State Fair or the freezer section of the local QuickieMart, with the possible exception of turkey legs. Instead of investing in the best of the current acts that roam from faire to faire, they relied on their old standbys Puke and Snot (emphasis on “old”) to draw crowds. No acts are being groomed for the main stage when that act finally hangs up their swords. Already, one of the original performers has died, so, just like the quarry, it isn’t some unforeseen calamity approaching. It’s lack of planning. It’s “what does the bottom line look like this quarter?” kind of thinking.

Instead of building up new acts, encouraging young performers, and paying the current ones well enough to give them the opportunity to hone their craft, the owners cut wages, end contracts, and generally treat the workers out there as expenses to the business instead of the means by which the business continues. In short: there is less music, fewer original acts, over-priced bland food, and lots of dust.

The Nothing is here.

I’m sure the owners are making a tidy sum off the estimated 300,000 people who go to the Festival each year. Very little of that seems to go to the performers or crafters or workers in the food service areas. The grounds (what’s left of them) seem to be in relatively good shape, but even there the shoddy business practices are apparent. Before the last weekend of the 2011 run, a fire took out several food concession stands. I visited the faire this year on the last weekend in 2012, a full year later. The food booths had been rebuilt, yes. Going full blast, slinging tasteless, overpriced food to all and sundry.

The booths hadn’t been painted. In the “fantasy Renaissance village” ye olde unpainted OSB faced the paying patrons, their entre to the Renaissance. The disdain for both the workers and the customers is painfully obvious.

These are tough times for any business. But any business that relies on coasting through the tough times, taking what is best and making it more common, while ignoring the particulars of the market that you occupy, is the sort of thing that makes companies fail in tough times. As usual, it falls onto the workers to make up for the shortsightedness of management. The people who work (both those actually under contract and the “playtrons” who actually pay at the gate just so that they can play) at the Festival are, and have been, amazing. They love what they do, they bust their asses, they get sick because of long days and poor working conditions. But I’m afraid their dedication is going to come to Nothing. I don’t see any transition strategy for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. I seen an exit strategy. When the quarry wants its land back, I see the owners cashing out and going into retirement, the richer for having made us poorer.

The Nothing will be all that’s left.

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