To many in the SCA, court is the part of the event where the Crown recognizes worthy individuals with accolades. Others see court as a venue for announcements. Still others see it as the part of the event that must be suffered before the fighting begins. But too few people in the SCA see court as an opportunity to showcase the pageantry that transforms us from a group of misfits in outdated attire hanging out in a local park into the Current Middle Ages. In this article, I hope to demonstrate the potential for court to be truly great theatre by discussing the venue, the various roles for participants, the duties of the audience, and key points to bear in mind to avoid performance mistakes.
Theatre = Suspension of Disbelief + Engagement with Audience
A good court experience presents the viewer with stimulus that is both believable and interesting. A believable court allows the populace to let go of the modern world, ignore the shortcomings of their venue, and commit themselves to the idea that they’re in the Current Middle Ages. An interesting court will hold their attention, keep them from starting side conversations, and justify the time commitment of the court as part of the greater event.
Suspension of disbelief is built through removing modern elements from the experience while pushing medieval elements to greater prominence. It is true that not all parts of court are inherently medieval (e.g. your event steward has to point out where the parking lots are, or mention the Toys for Tots donation point); the same can be said of any theatre experience, when an audience must be reminded not to take flash photographs prior to curtain. However, it’s best to keep such obtrusive modernity to a minimum.
Audience engagement is achieved both by making the activity of court easy to see, hear, and understand, and by giving the populace a reason to care about what’s occurring. Sometimes, engaging the audience is easy (e.g. a popular person receives an award). Other circumstances present greater difficulties in engagement (e.g. a change in kingdom law is read). But for every item that must be conducted at court, an attempt to make it interesting to the populace is vital.
How does a court production successfully immerse its audience in SCA/historical culture in a way that engages them? It all starts with the stage.
When you consider the layout of a typical court, it’s easy to see it as a theatrical venue. There is a performance area, frequently raised on a dais. There is a backstage area (typically delineated as the space behind the thrones) with a stage crew constantly in motion to help the performance run. There is audience seating facing the dais, and at least one aisle for performers to make entrances and exits from the back of the “house.”
Unless the event occurs in a medieval castle, chances are that there will be several distractions onsite that will prevent full immersion during court. Care should be taken to choose the most effective location at the site in which to stage the court performance. Use banners, curtains, or other set pieces around the court venue to obscure overly modern visuals, such as shower trucks or trophy cases. If such set pieces are unavailable, arrange the court so that most distractions are outside the field of vision for the audience when looking at the dais. If the event is in a park, avoid proximity to loud distractions, such as roads, parking lots, or other events (e.g. birthday parties or soccer games).
“Sky Cathedral” Source: An Tir Wiki
For outdoor venues, the choice of pavilion as stage and set can enhance the viewer experience. One spectacular example is a pavilion used in the Principality of the Summits, known as the “Sky Cathedral.” The exposed wooden structure of the pavilion makes it resemble a great hall far more than a tent. It’s wide enough to block out everything behind it, and magnificent enough to allow the audience to believe they are being hosted by true Royalty. A member of the populace also has a massive blue and white canopy that provides shade for the populace and a more clearly delineated aisle, which lends even more to the experience.
Regardless of whether your venue is inside or outside, having clearly separate spaces for the audience, the participants, the principals and the support staff will aid in the experience of court.
“A Stage Where Every[one] Must Play A Part”
In court, there are many theatrical roles, including the Royalty/Landed Nobility, heralds, stage support (court and guard), presentation leaders, presentation entourage, announcers, and even the audience. It’s important for each participant to know and to commit to their role.
As members of the populace who are not otherwise involved with court, the audience nonetheless has a responsibility to be attentive and courteous. It’s considered impolite to talk in a theatre; likewise is it inappropriate to have side conversations at court, particularly in the back where it’s more difficult for people to hear what’s happening on the dais. The populace should participate in the interactive portions of court (e.g. cheers, “ooh, ahh, pretty,” etc.), stand and sit as directed by the herald, bow when passing the thrones, and otherwise pay proper respect to the performers.
The first chance for someone to participate in court beyond audience presence is typically as part of an entourage, usually for a presentation. This is typically a non-speaking role, either carrying part of the presentation, or otherwise simply walking in the procession. Even so, there is much to consider. If planned beforehand, entourage members might consider wearing similar colors (livery of the territory presenting) or other themed clothing (same time period or culture for a household with that specific focus, regalia for an Order presentation, etc.) When the entourage processes, each member should remember that they represent their group in the presence of the Crown, and comport themselves accordingly:
- Walk straight and tall, with a dignified smile and upright gaze.
- Unless otherwise assigned, walk in pairs, with the consorts on the right (if applicable).
- Members of the entourage bearing items for presentation should be in front, behind the processional herald and heads of the presenting group.
- The rest of the entourage, if any, should fall to the back of the group (option: process in precedence order, for a subtle but appreciated attention to detail)
- If items being presented are particularly visual (such as a heavily embroidered kneeling pillow), and there is no plan for a big reveal to the Royalty before the populace can see them, bearers of these items should hold them high, proudly displaying the wealth and generosity of their group to all the populace.
- As each pair reaches the dais, they should bow or curtsy not as a perfunctory gesture, but as a full show of the respect the group holds for its Crown/Baronage/Hosts.
These notes also apply to a Royal or Baronial entourage processing in at the beginning of court, attendants to a candidate for a Peerage Order, friends and household members of Crown Tournament finals, or any other group procession in a courtly environment.
An organizer for a presentation has the dual role of director and producer.
For a presentation to be a successful part of court, it must engage the audience. This can happen using any number of techniques.
The first is that the item being presented is of interest to the populace in and of itself. New regalia, such as a painted groundcloth, gonfalon, or set of thrones, are gifts to be enjoyed by all, not just the Crown or Baronage. They are additions to the commonly owned set of their branch, and so the audience can engage with it. As an example, Caid has a tradition of presenting scrolls every Coronation that were made in the six months leading up to the event. This engages the populace by giving them something to look at, and possibly to collect at the end of the day. If the populace can see it, they can appreciate it, especially if they feel some ownership of it.
A second way to engage the audience is the theatre of the presentation itself. The simplest of techniques is to have a herald announce the group into court, and to describe what is being given. In this way, the audience is at least partially involved in the gift-giving, discovering with the recipient the contents of the basket and learning of the artisans who made the items (more on that in the next paragraph). More elaborate presentations can likewise engage the populace with entertaining audio, such as singing, chanting, call-and-response, or humorous patter appropriate to the venue. Visuals are also useful, such as props or costumes. Finally, engaging with the audience directly always makes court more interesting. One recent example came when Their Excellencies of Dragon’s Mist in An Tir visited Caid; during their presentation, Her Excellency cried out “Largesse for Caid!” and started tossing chocolate coins into the audience. In these ways, the populace is entertained by the pageantry of presentations, regardless of what is being presented.
A third way to engage the audience is to present noteworthy crafts that feature members of your populace. A single hand-crafted item made by a familiar face is more interesting than ten store-bought items. It also encourages artisans not featured to create items for later presentation and largesse, knowing that their work will be seen and enjoyed by many.
There are other ways to engage the audience; learn what works best in your kingdom and use it to your advantage.
Announcements at court are brief informational monologues performed onstage. As a courtesy to the court and the audience, announcers should prepare their statements in advance, and be able to speak with minimal reference to notes or scripts. They should keep announcements short and pithy, remembering the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”
As a performer, announcers should be aware of their role in the court. They are present at the will and pleasure of the Crown, acting as ambassadors of their particular subgroup or activity. They should ensure that they are dressed appropriately, and standing at the ready for their moment in court. They should approach and bow, then request permission from the Crown to address the populace (unless specifically summoned by the Crown to do so). Once permission is granted, they should immediately engage the audience with a warm and friendly demeanor, identifying themselves, their purpose for speaking, and what they offer to (or need from) the populace. Who, what, when, where, and why should all be identified in the announcement.
Example: “By Your Majesties’ leave? Thank you. Good morning! The Canton of Lilliput is holding a raffle at the picnic tables behind the Royal Pavilion to raise money for the Royal travel fund. Tickets are $1 apiece, or six for $5, and will be on sale until the final round of the tournament, with the drawing occurring immediately after combat concludes. Come support the Canton and the Kingdom!”
If an announcement will take less time to make than will be used to walk to the dais, make due obeisance to the Crown, greet the populace, and sit back down again, announcers should consider having the herald make the announcement instead. Such short announcements include “Gate will close one hour after court,” and “marshals, heralds, and list runners are needed. Please volunteer at the lysts table.” While there is less pageantry in such an announcement, it is a more respectful use of the court’s time, and will be well appreciated by everyone in attendance.
Guard and Retinue
Every theatrical production has both tech crew and supporting cast; in SCA courts, these roles are usually filled by the retinue (also known as courtiers, lords and ladies in waiting, cup-bearers, etc.), guards, and other attendants to the Crown. From a practical standpoint, the guard act as ushers, escorting people to and from the dais and lending a hand as necessary for those within the audience. Retinue, meanwhile, act as stagehands during the performance, seeing to the needs and comfort of the cast, producing and putting away all props quickly and quietly, hiding modern items from the populace’s line of sight, and generally facilitating the smooth performance of the court.
Beyond this, however, Retinue and Guard are also performers. Guards, true to their name, take the role of actually guarding the court, standing alert and ready to protect their liege from any threat. Retinue, being directly onstage and thus always in line of sight for the audience, serve as visual cues to the populace about the importance and solemnity of court. Guards should thus remain alert, and courtiers always attentive to the actions of the Crown and other performers onstage.
These highly visible members of the production’s permanent cast impress the grandeur and importance of the court, and demonstrate the attentiveness that the rest of the populace should emulate.
Royalty and Landed Nobility
The Crowns and Coronets are the undisputed stars of the show. They’re always on stage, whether physically on a dais or not. They’re the main focus of the audience, as both the hosts of court and the fount of all honour. As such, royalty and landed nobility should take their roles seriously.
When on stage, the Crowns and Coronets should engage with the audience by speaking loudly enough to hear, making eye contact with the back rows, and interacting with the populace to keep them invested in the action of court. The populace is, after all, here to see them.
This is especially important when giving awards. The Crowns and Coronets will be tempted to speak in a natural conversational tone with the recipient before them. While this does create an intimate moment between monarch and awardee, it leaves out the rest of the populace. I advise the Thrones to instead tell the gathered court why the awardee is being recognized, at full volume. If necessary, take it in turns, as one of the Royal couple talks to the populace while the other engages with the recipient directly.
Each Crown and Coronet plays a theatrical role in court, a performance that’s a combination of their persona and the audience expectations of Royalty. Some play this role with sobriety and sincerity, while others take a more playful tone. However, as they bear the responsibility of their station, the stars of court should bear themselves with some measure of grace and dignity.
There’s a delicate balance that these starring roles face when preparing and performing court: being both regal and approachable. Behaving too much like actual Royalty will be off-putting to those close to you, and make it more difficult for your populace to relate to you. On the other hand, being too folksy, silly, or otherwise undignified will cause the magic of being in the Royal presence to fade. Helping new royalty and nobility find that balance is beyond the scope of this article, but I encourage the reader to speak with the Royal Peers or former Landed Baronage in your area to find what fits for your own populace.
The final part in our theatrical performance is the Herald, who has two separate jobs that have equal importance: stage manager and narrator.
As stage manager, the Herald collects and arranges the business of court in a way that best engages with the audience. Similar items are separated to break up monotony, or paired to provide better narrative flow. Awards appear in ascending order of precedence and prestige to build excitement throughout court, leading to one or two climaxes (e.g. a peerage elevation, a court barony, or similarly impressive recognition). Presentations or announcements from groups that contain an award recipient are placed just before the award itself, so that the recipient needn’t leave court only to be summoned back.
Heralds should exercise discretion in what gets placed on the court schedule. If a presentation is inappropriate, an announcer unpracticed, or an awardee absent, the Herald should strongly consider removing that item from the court docket (subject to the informed wishes of the Crown).
During court itself, the Herald as stage manager works with the retinue, guards, and other heralds to ensure the next item of business is ready for its turn. For example, a member of the retinue in the back of the hall, on the direction of the Herald, can prompt a presenting group or a peerage procession to organize themselves a couple of items before their cue. Another courtier can scan the audience looking to see if the next awardee is in sight and notify the Herald if the award needs to be skipped until the awardee is found.
Turning away from the logistics, the Herald is also a performer. However, though the Herald will likely have the most spoken lines in court, it’s important to note that the heralds are not the stars of the show. Instead, the Herald functions as a narrator. In this role, they help to connect the audience with what occurs onstage, describing through the text of the ceremony the significance of each symbol and act. The Herald introduces new items of business (which function as scenes) and moves seamlessly through court via the use of interstitial language. They quickly get out of the way of the Crown once the business has begun, returning to the stage only to continue the narration or to transition to the next item of business.
In this article, we learned the importance of audience engagement and suspension of disbelief, discussed staging techniques to minimize modernity and emphasize the medieval aesthetic, and explored the various roles of court from a theatrical perspective. With any luck, this information should lead to more engaging and satisfying courts for newcomers and seasoned veterans alike.