Creative Event Planning in the SCA
Let me just say it outright: SCA events are, for the most part, dull. Boring. Moribund. The reason isn’t that SCAdians are boring; it’s that the events themselves are. They suffer from a sameness that belies our self-identity as “creative”. For the most part, they follow a tried-and-true formula which doesn’t require much thought.
If you’ve been involved in the creation and planning of an SCA event, you know how it progresses. First of all, it’s done by committee. Everyone puts in their “must haves”. The list is so well-known, we can say it from memory:
– fighting (maybe rapier, definitely armored);
– archery (if the site allows for it);
– some kind of A&S thing (pretty much always a demo or competition);
– a court;
– a feast;
– some after-feast thing, usually a bardic or dancing.
These cookie-cutter events (CC events) happen every weekend throughout the Known World, and there are valid reasons for their existence:
— There’s a consistency to putting them on; everyone knows what to expect;
— They’re easy to put on; it’s the same event we did last time (every time), so problems are anticipated, and everyone knows what jobs are needed;
— They require no thought. There’s likely a handout that lists all the things needed so that even a fist-time autocrat won’t have too much trouble producing it.
The problem with these justifications is that they are arguments why they’re good for those putting on the event. I’ll suggest something radical here: events are not put on for the hosts, they’re put on for the guests. Sure, we hold a decent event that gives our guests an okay time. But why not hold an amazing event, that gives them a wonderful time, one they’ll remember and talk about for years.
There are good reasons for the group putting on a creative event as well:
— It allows a group to feel a certain amount of pride in what they have wrought;
— Creative events are more work than CC events, and the group might well consider putting on fewer events a year, particularly if the creative event makes more money (most of the creative, clever events I’ve autocrated or attended had large crowds, much larger than a CC event). Fewer events means more detail for the ones we do;
— With more people attending, per-capita costs are lower, while per-person costs to the group don’t increase, as almost all of those costs are paid by the attendees (lunch, feast and those sites that charge a per-person site fee). For sites that charge a flat fee for use, more people means more revenue.
BIGGER IS NOT NECESSARILY BETTER
As a Society, we seem to have embraced the idea that bigger is better, at least for events. At the core of this is the belief that we hold events to make money. While every group should have a cash reserve to pay yearly bills and provide an emergency fund, once that amount is raised, there’s no good reason a group should be profiting greatly from an event. I mentioned above that creative events would draw bigger crowds, and it’s true, but a smaller event has its advantages. You won’t make as much money (if any), but can still produce an excellent event.
TELL ME MORE
So how do we do this? First, throw away the cookie cutter. Ask yourself (and others) what kind of event would you like to see, to attend? Apply that to every aspect of the event.
Here’s a bit of heresy about tourneys: you don’t have to hold every kind of fighting at every event. Do some that are just armored and give the rapier fighters their own tourney later in the year. Or work it another way. We have held a Masters of Defense tourney, where fighters had to compete in both rapier and armored to win. At another event, there were 3-man teams of a rapier fighter, armored fighter and combat archer. Armored and rapier fought at the same time, in adjoining lists. Whoever won first tagged their archer, who started shooting at the opponent in the other list. There are lots of ways to limit or modify the traditional tourney.
Other parts of the event can be done differently as well. Hold feast in the middle of the day (you know, the way it was done in period). Are there logistics to work out? Sure, but probably not as many as you’d think. But everyone who’s eating feast stays after day trippers have left! Sure, now, but why can’t feast be for everyone? If you don’t serve a lunch, that cost can go toward the feast. The head cook may be able to lower the cost of the feast because of the economy of numbers: more people might mean cheaper food costs. I’m not suggesting every event could be done this way, but surely one a year could.
One way that has worked well in the past is themed events. Some of the best events I’ve attended were themed events — events that focused on a specific time and place. They can be centered around an activity, such as a pas d’armes, or be more freewheeling, like a town event. You can focus on a particular historical event, like a battle, or use an era, like the Court of Charlemagne. The easiest way to do this is to give one of your standard events a theme.
The true key to a successful themed event is to plan every activity around the theme. Tourneys, A&S, even the feast should reflect the time and place of the theme. At first blush, this sounds like it would exclude some activities; how can you have rapier at a Flemish Faire? Well, as I said above, you don’t have to have everything at every event. If rapier doesn’t go with this event’s theme, you can hold a Spanish or Elizabethan event later.
Looking deeper, however, allows you to creatively accommodate these anachronisms (see what I did there?). SCA heavy rapiers can be mounted with earlier period cross hilts; encourage fighters to switch to them (maybe even provide the swords). There are several groups that practice historical martial arts; invite them to attend and do a demonstration, or teach classes. There are ways around the apparent limits of our activities that will work, if the planners are willing to think outside the box.
None of this just happens. You have to plan it with a lot of detail. You’ll want to assign teams, or leaders of teams who’ll recruit their own henchmen. Parts or roles also need to be assigned in advance, and coordinated both before and during the event.
Giving potential guests notice ahead of time will go a long way to get folks in the mood. SCAdians love to dress up, and with enough time, many will create garb, accessories, and props just for your event. Pre-planning, and pre-event advertising, is vital.
One big fallacy with SCA event planning is believing that if we simply give everyone a time, place and theme, they’ll make their own fun. You could create a perfect setting, a beautiful recreation of a medieval town, but if you don’t give guidance, both overt and covert, and activities, your guests will not likely make up their own adventures. Again, think like a guest and not a host. Watching the fighting is not enough; you need to have activities for non-fighters to do. A&S activities get a lot of attention, but do something beyond a display or competition. Have a project that people can participate in (we once had a series of drawn wall hangings laid out that anyone could paint during the event; once completed, they were auctioned off for the Kingdom travel fund). Have quests or contests for prizes.
Encourage merchants to attend; set up a merchant area, particularly for a town event, or make the entire event a Faire. Ask local musicians to perform. When I autocrated, I would comp those from outside the group who provided a service, and factored the comps into the event costs. Have a venue or activities for gambling. We had two rooster hand puppets made and had cock fighting for folks to bet on.
The real magic is in the details. If you’re having gambling or contests, get coins. Put details into the event flyer, a map of the town, the details of the quest. If certain things have to happen at certain times, not only the actors should know, but assign a coordinator to make sure it happens when and where you need.
WORK, WORK, WORK
Without question, this is a lot of work and there must be group buy-in. Moreover, everyone has to understand that being the host means the group members aren’t going to be able to “attend” the event. Their presence is to ensure their guests enjoy themselves, not them. Clearly someone has to lead, but delegation is essential, else everyone gets to watch the autocrat have a meltdown, or watch the hosts re-create a flogging. If the group cannot commit to doing the event well, it shouldn’t do it at all.
I have a couple of general ideas to get your creative juices flowing. These are broad areas to consider; within each are plenty of possibilities for events, either small, big, or huge. Feel free to use them as starting points, or come up with your own.
— Right now, Steampunk is a popular creative endeavor that is, unfortunately, too out-of-period for the SCA. I would say, however, that the original Steampunk was Leonardo da Vinci. He created futuristic inventions based on the technology of his time, designing tanks, canons, flying machines and other devices that fit perfectly within our Society timeline. An event that used da Vinci’s machines (or ones that look da Vinci-ish) would be talked about for years.
— Arthur and the Grail is the penultimate quest story. Imagine using an entire site for teams to search for that or some similar object. The teams could be pre-made, assembled at the event, or both, and could include fighters and non-fighters, with different quests that require both.
— I heard of a Black Death event, held at a two-story site. As the event progressed on the top floor, Death would arrive unseen and take his victims to the Underworld (downstairs), which it turned out was where the real party was happening. Occasionally, ghosts would wander up to living world and mess with people. Eventually everyone ended up downstairs.
— An historical battle or war, such as the Crusades, would be a perfect setting for an event that would be more like a war. Pre-assignment of commanders and recruitment of armies would get everyone talking far ahead of the event.
— My still-favorite of the events I’ve done is the sea fairing adventure. We constructed a 16th Century Spanish warship out of fabric-covered PVC and attacked a town that was ably defended by combat archers.
I always wanted to do one where two (or more) ships fought against each other. Set on a school field with bleachers, it would be like the naumachiae of the Coliseum.
The battles could be between different groups (barony vs. barony), each of which builds and fights in a ship of their design. Having done this three times, I like this one enough that I’m willing to provide consultant services for anyone who wishes to put one on.
After the event, find out what your guests thought. Send out questionnaires, or build an online survey and ask attendees to submit their opinions. Use the information you get to improve that event for next time, or to plan other events.
The absolute hardest part about a creative event is knowing when it’s time to end it. An event that was creative at conception can be repeated, maybe several times (with improvements/upgrades each time). But eventually, it will just become The Quest for Attendance XXIII and will no longer be creative. Event themes have life spans; recognize when yours is up and let it go with dignity when that time comes.
As always, the views expressed here are my own. No barony, shire, college, hamlet or principality was harmed, at least not intentionally.