Sep 182012
 

Yes, there will still be beer (and wine). Cleavage, too, I’m sure.

But that’s not what Much Ado About Sebastopol is about.

It’s about something far more cool. It’s time travel. For $12 a day, it’s a two-day vacation to 450 years ago. Pretty good bang for the buck, you ask me.

The third annual MAAS Renaissance Faire—now expanded to two days—is a charitable benefit for the Sebastopol Education Foundation, benefiting local schools. It takes place this weekend, September 22 and 23, at Ives Park in Sebastopol.

Once upon a time in the misty past of the 1960s, the concept of a Renaissance Faire was born as an educational adventure: an immersion experience in Elizabethan England to bring the world and history of the time of Shakespeare (mostly a bit prior, actually) to life. The clothing, language, pastimes, culture, crafts, and intrigues of the day would be revealed in the re-creation of an English country fair, circa 1570-80. Rather than sitting at a comfortable remove from performers, patrons were surrounded by costumed actors being people of that time. It was colorful, loads of fun, and patrons came away knowing something of a time in history that laid the groundwork for much of our modern-day world.

And boy, was it successful.

So much so, in fact, that it became a very profitable idea, and—as will so often happen—those elements that appeared to be driving ticket sales began to take precedence over the initial purpose, which was to enable patrons to have fun while learning something. Those elements being, okay, let’s say it, tits and beer.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like all three of those things.

However, when “Renfaires” became big-money, corporate-owned enterprises, those elements, um…came to the fore, and the amazing coolness of actually re-creating a voyage to another time got supplanted by crass, lowbrow entertainment. Pretty quickly, all sorts of stuff inappropriate to the period was allowed, patrons got the idea that the Faire was a costume party where you could wear anything, and goods for sale began featuring quite a lot of mass-produced crap. A long slide in all standards of quality had begun.

But then, into this howling wasteland of avarice, there strode a Man. And a Woman. With a Vision. (Probably several of both, I’m unclear on the specifics.)

Enter Rydell Downward, Claudia Laughter and an associated crowd of longtime Renaissance Faire performers who still carried the values of historicity, excellence in immersion theater, and overall Goodness and Virtue.

(Okay, Goodness, anyway. They’ll probably read this.)

Founders of the Guild of St. George, these folks take their costuming, history, and craft as performers seriously. And get this: for the first time, at Much Ado About Sebastopol, they can actually do a Renaissance Faire the way it should be done, because the whole thing is a charitable benefit for local schools.

They—okay, we; I’m one of ‘em—don’t have a corporate profit motive breathing down our necks. And as a result, we’re doing a Renaissance Faire unlike any other, a lovely jewel of enjoyment and wonder, right here in Ives Park in Sebastopol.

Meet the villagers of the little town of Fenford, come to celebrate their harvest fair at Michaelmas! Encounter Will Shakespere, and ask him why he can’t settle on a spelling for his name. See how the folk of Fenford, high-born and low-, live their lives. Hear music of the period, interact with characters from history. See hilarious stage shows. Treat yourself and your kids to fun and educational demonstrations of craft and art. Shop fer stuff. Marvel at period clothing of every class. Ruffs! Partlets!

Ogle the Queen, and sing the timeless song:

Ogle our gracious Quene,
Ogle our towhead Quene,
Yep, that’s the Quene.
Let her reign glorious O’er Court uproarious,
Now sing in tones stentorious: Ogle the Quene!

Admission on Saturday 9/22 will also allow you to stay for a special performance and live auction from 6pm to 10pm at the main stage and Pip ‘n Vine Tavern, featuring Aries Fire Arts Collective.

Anyway, you get the idea. It’s too cool for school…though in actuality, it’s for the schools.

Ah, irony. What fools these mortals be.

UPDATE: Mr. Downward informs me that this event sprang from a Renaissance Faire-type event for 7th graders which has been organized for several years now by Sebastopol teacher Andrea Hagan, who began this activity to reinforce California curriculum standards for 7th grade history/social studies. She approached the aforementioned sticklers for quality, resulting in Much Ado About Sebastopol.

So let me extend some credit to Ms. Hagan, and thanks for the opportunity to do one of these things with the proper set of priorities. If you have kids, BTW, there is a program of fun and educational activities in which you and they can participate to get the most out of your day in the Village of Fenford.

I hope to see you there! I play Elizabethan madrigal composer Thomas Morley, a social climber from humble roots who wears an elegant–but hopelessly out of fashion–set of used clothing. I’ll be the guy in black and silver, with the counting staff.

At publication, the Dragon was LOOKING FORWARD TO IT

Jul 242012
 

Welcome to the thrilling conclusion of  How to Throw a World-Class Theme Party! Today, I’ll wrap up the elements of a great party, and touch on how to prepare for some party pitfalls.

Parts 1 and 2 are here and here. I produce events and fundraisers professionally as well as for fun; you can check out my business site at greenfutureconsulting.info.

When last we saw our Heroic Hosts, we were in the middle of Killer Theme Party Principles. So, to continue…

KTPP 3: A Good Party is made of FADDLMAC (continued). That rhymes with “Saddleback”, and it stands for Food And Drink, Decorations, Lighting, Music, Activities and Costuming: the ingredients of a successful theme party. We covered Food And Drink, Decorations and Lighting last time—here are the rest!

  • Music. Nothing sets a mood as quickly as music. Speaking as the husband of a truly mind-bogglingly eclectic DJ, I can tell you that there are hours of perfect music for any theme you can imagine. Start out with relatively mellow, welcoming music that establishes the theme’s atmosphere or time period. Make sure conversation is possible—guests will be driven away by a loud wall of sound. Over the course of the party, transition into music with a beat, so there is a feeling of energy. If—as I recommend in most cases—you intend to have dancing, lead the way by hitting the floor first. It’s contagious.
  • Activities. Conversation, eating and drinking usually aren’t enough to make a party, particularly when you’re asking people to go to the effort to costume themselves. Our parties almost always have dancing, and often also have costume and character contests which present awards (either judged or by audience acclaim) for best male and female costumes, best theme-appropriate character, etc. Having characters tell their stories as they vie for the prize can be hilarious. If you’re doing a historical period theme, you can teach people how to do a period appropriate dance, as well.

For some parties, we include a performance showcase or floor show. These are great! They can be largely open-mike in format, but if there is a particular flavor you want in the performances, don’t just let anyone get up and perform, or you will inevitably end up suffering through quavering renditions of Grateful Dead songs at your medieval party. Arrange for some acts in advance, and have your MC hold the line on maintaining the spirit of your theme.

  • Costuming. Lead by example. What you wear makes a big difference, especially if you plan to do more theme parties going forward. It doesn’t have to be expensive; often, you can assemble fantastic outfits with thrift store and online auction scores. Don’t forget accessories; props can really tie together an ensemble. If you decide to keep doing these kinds of parties, over time you’ll find you accumulate a good collection of pieces for all kinds of eras and genres, which means that costuming gets easier over time.

When you plan your outfit, think of a character (don’t just think of yourself as “dressing Fifties”, for example). What is this person like? If you care to go so far, choose a name for the person you are being at your theme party, and play the role. Be sure to break character to engage your guests as friends now and again—it’s a party, not a theater exercise.

KTTP 4. Celebrate success! Costume parties make for great pictures. Be sure to document your incredible setting, guests’ costumes and stage performances, etc., and post those pictures where your guests can see them. You’ve gone to all the trouble to create a unique environment. Make sure you capture the memories…and let those who missed it on your guest list know how much they should try to make the next one.

 

And, finally, saving the bummer for last, the final Killer Theme Party Principle is:

KTPP 5.      Plan for the Worst. The smoothest events are ready for something to go wrong, so be prepared. Here are the top culprits:

  • Weather. Expect unexpected weather. We held an outdoor event on the same weekend for two consecutive years and had a thirty-degree temperature differential. What happens if it rains, and the patio you thought would be overflow from the house is no longer attractive? Do you need access to propane heaters, or to rig a shade structure?

If you plan, you can pull off surprising accomplishments. We did a tiki party in bikinis and grass skirts with sleet falling outside. We’d cranked the heat to 80 degrees and had sun-bright lighting going in the party space, so when people arrived, they stripped off their parkas, and there they were: Volcano Island.

  • Alcohol. Most parties in our culture serve alcohol. If you choose to do so, there are some considerations:
    • Minors. Having minors at a party with a self-serve bar is a problem socially and legally. If you’re having people under 21 at your party, have someone tending bar, and make sure they have a way of knowing who doesn’t get served. Don’t allow minors to attend if a parent isn’t there as well. If you catch a minor drinking, boot their parents, too.
    • The Law. There is a huge legal difference between a private, invitation-only party, and a public and/or ticketed event. Be sure to find out if you need a permit…and if you do, get one.
    • Excess. Some people just don’t know how much is too much of a good thing. You have to keep an eye on your guests and figure out whether someone needs to be cut off, provided a ride home, or made to stay until sober. Err on the side of caution. If it’s going to be a long affair, make arrangements for those who need it to have a place to crash.
  • Insufficient Personnel and Host Conscription Syndrome. Identify jobs that need doing, and make sure they’re covered. Many party concepts require some roles to be played: a bartender, a person on the door to collect the cover, maybe an MC for the cabaret floor show.  Make sure you have your jobs covered…and that you are not locked into one of them.

You’re the host. You need to float. You should not be stuck behind a bar or in some other role that keeps you from troubleshooting and helping your guests to have a good time. If you have to, hire a bartender, door person, etc., but if you’re planning on the cheap, find friends who will take on shifts.

  • Neighbors. Parties are loud. People who drink are loud. Music can be loud. You only have three choices here:
    • Notify those nearby that there is going to be a party, and get their buy-in (invite them!);
    • Develop a noise plan to bring the party indoors, close the windows and step down the bass on the music after 10 PM; or
    • Find somewhere to hold your party that’s far away from anyone else.

 

Follow the concepts outlined here, and you will be throwing unique and amazing events your friends will be talking about for years.

Invite me, won’t you?

At publication, the Dragon was ENTHUSIASTIC

Jul 232012
 

Last time, we talked about clarifying the initial concept for your theme event, and communicating it to your invitees. I provided examples of the kinds of party themes my wife and I have produced over the years—this isn’t all of them, mind you, just a selection I threw up onto a links page.

Producing events is also something I do professionally. You can find out more about my services at my business website, greenfutureconsulting.info.

So, where were we..?

Now you have a theme, venue, and budget. Onward to Killer Theme Party Principles!

Here’s the meat of putting on the party, Get this stuff right, and you’re all set.

KTPP 1.      Everything matters. When you’re trying to create an atmosphere—even if it’s tongue-in-cheek and lighthearted—the more care you can put into having everything at your party consistent with the theme, the more your guests will immerse into it. So take some time with your invitation, your own costuming choices, decoration and music selection. Attention to detail is the difference between an event guests will always remember and just another party.

KTPP 2.      Before the Party, Make Sure Guests Get It. You might think your theme idea is obvious, but assume your invitees don’t understand it. Communicate as much as you can about your theme in advance, so they get the concept of the world you want to create. Help them not to panic about what to wear by providing costuming examples.

The most important way to do this is in your Invitation. I use a free online service called Socializr which lets you design and email attractive invitations, manage lists and track RSVPs. It’s better than Evite, in my opinion.

By itself, though, a Socializr invitation is not enough. To really get across the flavor I’m trying to convey, I design a simple website invitation with the party theme and details, and link to it in the invitation I send through Socializr.

Be sure to let invitees know if uncostumed guests are welcome. I generally reassure my friends that I want to see them more than I care about what they wear. If you have them, you can also provide some stock costume pieces for guests to borrow during the party.

KTPP 3.      A Good Party is made of FADDLMAC. It rhymes with “Saddleback”, and it stands for Food And Drink, Decorations, Lighting, Music, Activities and Costuming. Those are the ingredients of a successful theme party. Get those right, and your guests are having a great time.

  • Food And Drink. Unless your party specifically demands it, stick to finger food. There is far less cleanup, and you don’t have to provide a place for every guest to sit so they can use cutlery. If using a caterer, make sure your offerings are self-contained and do not include goopy, staining dipping sauces.

A theme potluck can be a lot of fun, and can actually be a theme itself (“Lamentable Food of the Fifties”). Be sure to prime the pump, providing some kind of thematic cocktail or libation, a non-alcoholic alternative, and some food so early guests have something to sample besides their own offerings. If you’re doing potluck, remember to provide enough table or counter space for food and drink offerings.

  • Decoration.  Create as much of an immersive environment as you can with props, wall-mounted images, and set pieces if you have access to them. Everywhere a guest stands, s/he should be able to see something relating to the theme, even if it’s only a picture on the wall.

Your budget is obviously a limiting factor, but with a little creativity, you can do a lot. When we threw our Space Escapade party, we covered all of the furniture in the party space with mylar space blankets, turning the room metallic and futuristic. Add some red and green colored lights, a borrowed futuristic art piece we hung from the ceiling, and a cheap fog machine from a party store, and we were partying at Moonbase Alpha! On the other hand, our annual Pre-Rafaelite Picnic is held at a mid-19th century rural cemetery, and the only “decoration” is keeping the china and food containers period-appropriate, such as baskets and Mason jars, and hiding everything modern under Victorian-style tablecloths. Easy.

There are affordable, wall-scale background images printed on thin vinyl called “Scene Setters” available from party stores. Mounted on a wall (Blu-Tac again), they can make a big difference in creating your theme world. Some of them are kind of cheesy, but if you’re selective, they can be helpful. We used something called “Freddy Krueger’s Boiler Room” at our steampunk party—it was perfect. Again, don’t be wasteful: save ‘em and use ‘em again.

The color laser printer is your friend. Printed historical or public domain images from the Internet that illustrate the theme are a great, cheap way to decorate. Use sticky putty so you don’t damage walls or paint when you take them down; if you have a bigger budget, you can invest in a bunch of cheap frames of standard sizes and reuse them over and over. Poster-sized printing is available at most digital printing shops.

Avoid jarring visuals. Do what you can to keep the spell from breaking. There are very few themes for which those red or blue plastic party cups are a good visual fit. Get a bunch of reusable clear acrylic wine glasses, and use those instead. When it comes to china, glassware, etc., be responsible: minimize waste, and use washable and reusable items as much as possible. You can, by the way, wash and reuse those plastic cups after your Seventies Frathouse smoker.

  • Lighting. For indoor events, keep the lighting low and indirect rather than from overhead. People feel more anonymous and less observed in lower light conditions—they’re less likely to dance and be playful if the lighting implies they are being interrogated. You can start brighter early on and dim when the party is really going, or have brighter areas near the entrance, food and drink, and a dance space with dimmer light. All the usual dance club tricks apply: where appropriate. colored lights, mirror balls and so forth can add to the festive feeling.

[NEXT and FINAL: The Rest of FADDLMAC, and some cautionary tales]

At publication, the Dragon was ENTHUSIASTIC

Jul 212012
 

So…you want to throw a theme party. Good for you! Theme parties provide a chance for guests to play dress-up, and for you to indulge your creative imagination. When successful, they’re unforgettable.

I’ve been producing events for more than 20 years, both professionally and personally. They have ranged from intimate dinner parties to fundraising dinners for 500 (I can produce yours! More information at greenfutureconsulting.info).

Among our friends, my wife and I are (in)famous for throwing memorable costume parties. We’ve done dozens of them. We love to imagine other worlds to visit, create them, and invite our friends along. You can find examples here.

Along the way, you learn stuff. So over the next few days, in 3 parts, I’ll be passing along what I have learned about producing a memorable themed event.

First: what’s the concept? Make some decisions.

  1. What kind of event is it? Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, a barbecue, a picnic, or a sit-down dinner? Each of these has its own considerations. For example, it’s harder to decorate the outdoors, so to communicate a theme, costuming, food and music choices become more important.
  1. What’s the theme? Pick something intriguing. If you want to do a 1920s theme, instead of a generic “Roaring Twenties” party, throw in a twist. Ours was “New Years Eve 1928 Aboard the Graf Zeppelin (held in May!) Choose something YOU think is cool: a moment from history, a film, book, TV series…or a genre, like “the future they imagined in the 1950s.” Make it unique, but not so obscure that no one else will be interested.
  1. What’s the venue? Choose your venue carefully, and be realistic about likely attendance. Be aware of the concept of critical mass—if you don’t have enough people to fill your space, your event can’t possibly succeed. A 50-person party can feel like a smash success or like three mosquitoes flying around the Grand Canyon, depending on how large the space is. Without critical mass, guests will feel awkward and bored, and your party will be a flop.
  1. What’s the budget? Throwing a great party doesn’t have to break the bank. Most of our parties have had a budget of under $250. Some cost us nothing!

If you have money to work with, I recommend you invest most in atmosphere. If the event is catered, don’t go overboard on swanky food and drink unless it’s a sit-down dinner. The draw is the party, not the food. You can provide attractive, tasty food that fits with your theme without spending a fortune…and your guests will remember the WOW effect of decorations that transport them to another world far more than they would those grilled chipotle-quail-stuffed mushroom caps.

If you don’t have a budget, go potluck. You would be surprised at the effort your guests will put into bringing nice food and drink that fits the theme. Our standard request is “a bottle of something to share, and a plate of theme-appropriate finger food,” and it’s been working for ten years.

That said, expenses can get away from you—set a limit and stick to it. If you know you’re going to need to recoup your costs, set a cover charge and let your guests know in advance you’ll be asking for it. If your parties are amazing, you can ask people to bring a bottle and a plate of hors d’oeuvres to share AND pay a door fee, and they’ll clamor to come to the next one.

If costs are higher than you’re willing to spend and/or space is limited, you can go the whole way and make it a ticketed event. In my experience, the best free online ticket sales service is Brown Paper Tickets.

[NEXT: Elements of a Successful Theme Party]

At publication, the Dragon was ENTHUSIASTIC