As Renaissance festival closes, performer marks 26th year
James Frank does it all, from flea circus to combat demonstrations
Jim Frank is a longtime jack-of-all-trades and performing/teaching fixture at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun / October 14, 2011)
James Frank, who at the festival goes by the name of "Nymblewyke" (pronounced "Nimble Wick"), is rounding out his 26th year at the Crownsville celebration, which closes for the season on Sunday. His repertoire has grown along with the festival.
"Every few years, [the event] adds something new," he said. "All of us grow as performers."
Frank didn't have an easy start, failing his first two auditions to be a performer at the event. He won a spot as a magician and juggler on his third try.
As the gates opened on a recent Saturday, thousands of guests streamed inside and were greeted by Frank dressed as a Renaissance ringleader.
"First flea circus of the day, minutes away, minutes away!" he shouted.
A small crowd gathered around his tiny circus to watch what appeared to be microscopic fleas perform tricks ranging from the high dive to being shot out of a cannon.
"It's the biggest magic trick you can do," Frank said.
Though he began doing mostly magic, Frank now spends a large portion of his days at the festival in the militia tent, teaching festivalgoers how to build longbows, arrows and leather goods.
He patiently answers every question asked of him and walks visitors through the process of building bows and arrows.
Frank uses the skills he's taught himself in leather working and woodworking to build props for other actors at the festival. He is constantly pushing himself to learn new skills and has a large, expanding library on combat, woodworking, puppetry and more.
He uses bows and arrows built by him and his co-workers in a demonstration on uses and effectiveness of the English longbow every afternoon in the jousting arena. Frank is one of a handful of stage fight choreographers employed at the festival and is responsible for planning the fights in many of the daily performances held there.
Frank works with his close friend, Geoff Thompson (also known as Captain Julian Romero), in a program that teaches festivalgoers the basics of Renaissance-era combat.
Thompson met Frank 18 years ago when he began his work with the Renaissance Festival. He and Frank formed "Fight School" 10 years ago with two other men, and Thompson says it's a miracle that they have survived this long.
"We're more like family [than friends]," he said.
One segment of Fight School focuses on the history of swords; a second segment addresses the strategies associated with dueling.
The actors spend hours researching and rehearsing choreographed fight scenes in which they demonstrate the use of different types of weapons. After a short description of each weapon and its uses, the actors perform a fight scene, slowly at first to highlight details of the combat, and then at "fight speed."
Thompson said that the men in the group butt heads at times, but even when they are frustrated with each other, they are still very close.
When Thompson's father died a few years ago, Frank and the other members of Fight School attended the funeral, even though Thompson had mentioned the death to one of the men only in passing.
Just when Thompson thinks Frank is going to stick to the same course of a show that they've always done, Frank surprises him by inserting a new joke or trying a new direction.
"He's reliably unreliable," Thompson said of Frank. "We all follow each other. … It's just the way we think."
Frank said one of his favorite memories from his time working at the festival occurred years ago, when he did a cut-and-restored rope magic trick for a young boy. He gave the rope to the boy after the trick as a sort of throwaway prize. The next year, that same boy came back to the festival, found Frank and gave him back his rope. Frank was amazed that the child remembered him so well that he was able to find him a year later.
"I can't believe I made that kind of a mark," he said. The festival is "going to be an event that someone will remember for years."
When he isn't working at the Renaissance Festival or helping maintain the festival grounds and buildings in the offseason, Frank does computer security work for the government.
He also performs with Fight School, and does shows as a magician and period actor. During the holiday season, he acts as a Santa Claus.
Frank plans to continue working at the Renaissance Festival as long as possible and said that he will continue to grow as the festival expands.
"So many people hate change," he said. "One of my favorite things is change."
For tickets and directions to the 35th Maryland Renaissance Festival, which runs through this weekend, visit rennfest.com or call 800-296-7304.