Royalty, revelry and role-play: Behind the scenes with a Renaissance fair actress
The hardest part about being Anne Boleyn is when Anne’s husband comes for a visit.
Not the king, that is—her other husband.
The fateful queen’s second husband might not be in the history books, but for this Anne Boleyn expert, it’s all part of the story.
That’s because every weekend for two months, Maryland resident Heather O’Shaughnessy takes on an alternative life of sorts, transforming into Anne Boleyn, Lady of—Annapolis.
Heather turns into a Renaissance mistress from dawn on Saturday until nearly dusk on Sunday through most of September and October at the Maryland Renaissance Fair.
For attendees of the fair, it’s a fantastical escape into the world of kings and queens, role playing, skewered cuisine and general mythical merriment.
But for festival actors like Heather, the production is a big theatrical undertaking.
Actors take on two months of rehearsals, long weekend work days, stunts and acrobatics, and, in Heather’s case, hours without breaking character— no exceptions.
So when Heather’s friends and family come to see her, it’s understandably tough to maintain her façade as Anne.
“When my husband comes to visit me, it’s really hard,” Heather says with a smile.
“That’s like the one time I’m tempted to break character.”
All the World's a Stage
Working at the festival is much different than conventional acting gigs. Instead of putting on one or two shows in one night, Heather acts in multiple performances per day and maintains her persona for hours on end.
It’s all part of a never-ending work week— Heather works weekdays at an escape room venue, then heads from her Germantown, Maryland home to the fairgrounds on Saturdays.
On festival days, she usually puts on her elaborate costume, complete with jewelry and an ornate headpiece, at 8:30 a.m.
Once dressed and in character, she spends most of the day performing in theatrical shows around the fairgrounds and interacting with other actors and guests.
Though it makes for long days, Heather, who trained at a classical theater program at University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts, had been pining for a role at the fair for a while before she got a part.
When she first moved to the area, she thought the Renaissance fair might be an ideal gig for her. She loved going to similar festivals herself and was interested in Renaissance history.
It took two rounds of auditions, but eventually she was selected for a role and cast as Jane Parker, a relative of Anne’s. Now in her second season as a cast member, she settled into her new role as Anne Boleyn, styled as the king’s mistress.
“I like playing a character that is somewhere between sinner and saint,” Heather said.
But the best part of the job for Heather comes with interacting with the guests. She loves engaging festival-goers who know about the real Anne Boleyn’s lurid past.
(In case you’re a little rusty on Renaissance history, Anne was King Henry VIII’s mistress, then his queen until he had her beheaded so he could marry a different woman.)
“I really like when I run into someone who is familiar with the history and interested in the history, even might argue points with me, because I am that person, I have the final say,” Heather said.
Letting Her Hair Down
While it’s great acting experience for a classical performer and history buff like Heather, she says the fair environment is also just a lot of fun.
After the last guests leave, many of the cast members who camp nearby like to get together and blow off steam.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, their revelry of choice is the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.
“What do we do at the end of the day? Well, we keep playing,” Heather said with a laugh.
It’s unlike any other types of theater, but Heather says working at the fair is worth all the hard work.
“It is one of the most difficult acting gigs I’ve ever done, but it’s also one of the most rewarding acting gigs I’ve ever done, or I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
And while as Anne Boleyn she certainly turns heads at the fair, at the end of the day— perhaps most importantly—she still gets to keep her own.