Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1558 and died in 1603. She was queen for quite a long time, and under her reign, England went through a huge change of peace and prosperity. Her tiny navy somehow defeated the Spanish Armada. Sure, the weather had a lot to do with it, but the fact remains that the Spanish were a naval power that dwarfed the rest of the world, came sailing against England, and were defeated with Elizabeth at their command. And in a time when women, especially royalty, were expected to marry and have children, Elizabeth did neither to preserve her power.
Of course, we don't know any of this shit off the top of our heads. But Caroline Jett does. That's because for the past 15 years, Jett has played the role of Queen Elizabeth at the Michigan Renaissance Festival.
Jett tells us by phone that she's always been fascinated with Elizabeth, even as a child. She says at this point she's amassed enough texts on Elizabeth and her courtiers to rival any library. She even says she can accurately freehand Elizabeth's signature now.
An actress who's done her share of film, TV, and stage work, Jett was asked to audition for the Renaissance Festival in Tampa, Florida, 18 years ago, which is where she currently resides. Her mother lives in Port Huron, though, so Jett uses the opportunity to spend some visiting family and reprising her role.
Jett says Tampa's festival differ's from Michigan's in that it's more of a "tent fair." "It's very much like a festival would've been," she says. "They would've put big pavilion tents outside of the town." However, she thinks Michigan's permanent town devoted to the Renaissance Festival is something special.
"When you do step inside the grounds," she says, "you do feel transported back to a different time."
"The thing that is so crazy, in film or television — you take, and then you cut, and you do another take. In a play, the curtain goes down and that's it," she explains. "Out here, none of this is scripted. It's character-driven, interactive improvisation. There are a couple of points during the day that are the same for me. But getting to mix and mingle with the people and talk to the people makes it different, and I have to remain in character but do all of my improvisation in an interactive way. That is its own toy box."
Some of the queen's daily duties include presiding over the first joust. She walks around and greets people, and she spends a little bit of time at the feast. At 3 o'clock, she has a knighting ceremony in the children's realm, at 6 o'clock she heads to the pub. If patrons have a wedding at the festival, for example, she'll make an appearance there as well.
"The Queen is always busy," she says. "But she's never too busy to talk to the people who come out to see her."
It sometimes seems as if the Renaissance Festival crowd can host two distinct contingencies — history buffs like Jett on the one hand and fantasy nerds on the other, and we ask if there's ever any conflict between the two groups. "There are definitely Renaissance purists," Jett says. "But we've managed to blend historical and fantasy in a beautiful way."
Jett doesn't see the two groups at odds, saying the Renaissance was still a time of high superstition. "These people believed in angels and demons and witches and all of that sort of stuff, so you can pull in some of that fantasy element into it and still maintain the integrity of the Renaissance," she says.
Jett says the important thing is that the Renaissance Festival is a place for people to temporarily escape the fears and worries of the real world. Anything goes, really — Jett says you'll see plenty of patrons come dressed as Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings characters, or in steam-punk or pirate garb. "One of the funniest I ever saw was a group that came out dressed in Star Trek uniforms," Jett says. "One of them tapped their communicator and said, 'Ah, the holo-deck appears to be working properly.'"
The management, Jett says, works very hard to bring great stage acts in, which is a big draw. "There's always favorites to see, and new entertainment to discover — it all keeps it new and fresh," she says.
This year's new additions include events that require an extra ticket, such as the Royal Princess brunch — "A little private party with the princesses," Jett explains. There's also the Pig and Swig, an event that pairs four gourmet bacons with four microbrews. Jett doubts one could see everything the festival has to offer in one day.
Jett says there's a number of people who buy a season pass and are out there every day. Some only do a weekend, but come back year after year. "We have a lot of Average Joes and his wife and their kids who say, 'You know, we've never been to the Renaissance Festival, let's go,'" she says. "By the end of the day, we've hooked them. They'll be back."
We can't resist. Before we hang up the phone, we ask if Jett could indulge us in a quick sample. "I'm sorry?" she asks, confused at our request. We clarify — can she give us a quick sample of her performance as the Queen?
Jett doesn't miss a beat. "Of my performance?" she asks in an accent that just oozes royalty. "We never perform as Queen. We are the Queen." — mt
The Michigan Renaissance Festival is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends and on Labor Day; runs until Sept. 28; 12600 Dixie Highway, Holly; 248-634-5552; michrenfest.com.
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