Scarlette O'Harlotte is a little girl with a big voice. Once upon a time, she was part of a trio of wenches calling themselves the Bawdy Balladeers. Scarlette, Bliss Goodbody, and Kissandra Serenade sang naughty songs at the White Hart Tavern and other venues at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in the 1990s for several years. Their repertoire included tunes with titles like "Roll Your Leg Over," "Nine Inch Will Please a Lady," and "My Thing is My Own." The shows were rated PG, needless to say, and the gals encouraged, nay demanded singing along to the chorus. Their following grew year to year, and they produced two albums before disbanding because of "creative differences."
Ten years ago, I took a class called Survey of Theater, a Gen-Ed class that filled a requirement. No, that's not true. I chose the class because I was a Drama Geek in high school, and it fit into my schedule nicely that semester. It was an easy A.
Although the Bawdy Balladeers sang dirty limericks and drinking songs, their signature piece came to be the lovely "Demeter's Daughter." It is the story of Demeter and Persephone of Greek legend, and the song is a sublime retelling written by Anne Lister. Scarlette was and is the voice of Persephone. Although Kissandra and Bliss sang harmony vocals to make the song a masterpiece, Scarlette gives "Demeter's Daughter" its life and power.
My instructor, Pam, was an effervescent little thing who would randomly perform bits of Lady Macbeth or Ophelia to demonstrate her point of the moment. While much of the technical knowledge flowed in and out of my brain like so much popular music, Pam impressed upon us the contradictions of live performance. It is a group experience, yet is individual to each audience member based on their own lives and loves. When a performance is over, it is gone forever, yet it still exists in the memories of its audience. A performance can be recorded, but doing so negates its singularity; its unique nature is blurred through repetition and static reproduction.
The Bawdy Balladeers splintered after they broke up. Bliss briefly enjoyed some success with Full Measure before health issues forced her retirement. Scarlette and Kissandra formed Caprizzio, Women of Whimsy, and performed together for a few more years, even made two albums of traditional and contemporary pieces. They revisited "Demeter's Daughter," just the two of them, with beautiful results. It wasn't enough to sustain, though, and Caprizzio stopped performing together on a regular basis within a few more years.
As an actor, singer, and performer, I had experienced both sides of "fourth wall." I had never fully understood why it was so exhilarating to perform, so wonderful to watch a live performance, until that class. I never witnessed live performance the same way again, not when I saw Miss Saigon on Broadway, or watched a couple of teenage boys with guitars sing Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey. To this day, I savor those moments that make me at once profoundly happy and terribly sad. And the few opportunities I get these days to perform in whatever available alternative theater space, I grab with a vengeance and run like hell.
In 2001, my brother Gordon and I had the pleasure of an impromptu semi-private performance of Caprizzio in a leather shop on the boardwalk of the Maryland Renaissance Festival. They took requests, and we all sang in harmony together. Kissandra did not return to the Festival after that year, but Scarlette took up residence at a custom cobbler shop called Catskill Mountain Moccasins on the Queen's Path, as a Sales Wench.
This year, visiting the Maryland Renaissance Festival for at least my sixteenth time with my family, I found things repetitive and vaguely unsatisfying. Johnny Fox has been swallowing the same swords and making the same jokes for how many years now? Are the turkey legs still as tough as they always were? Does Tideline Salvage actually sell any of those ravens sculpted from shells and crab claws? It was admittedly depressing to a diehard Ren-Fest fan. Yet walking down the Queen's Path, I came upon Scarlette, looking beautiful as ever and eager to sing as always. She grabbed her guitar and took requests from me and my family, though there was but one song that needed to be heard that night. Scarlette's real-life daughter and I stood as back-up, she singing Kissandra's lofty soprano, myself taking Bliss's soothing tenor. Scarlette sang her standard alto while playing gently the strings of her guitar, and the small, wooden sales floor of the shop became our stage. The crowd, already massed from her solo singing, was utterly enthralled by this impromptu rendition of "Demeter's Daughter" in complete harmony, and as we finished the last line—"...You can never have all you want, and you never want what's within reach..."—they applauded wildly and called for more. After a few more tunes and lots of well-wishing, Scarlette tightly hugged me goodnight, with an embrace warm and knowing. We shared a moment no one will ever share except us, and created a memory unique as we are as individuals.
Walking to the Hyundai in the dark wearing a glorified Halloween costume I bought at the mall, headed to a borrowed bedroom in a basement apartment, I could think of no greater fortune or wealth than what I had experienced on a cool autumn night. Knowing that is phenomenally tragic, yet utterly wonderful, too.
©2005, Robert A. Geise - May not be reprinted without express permission. Hot-linking welcome.