Everywhere she goes, Platte County resident Wanda Morris encounters smiles and looks of awe. “My lady,” a teenage boy says, and drops into a surprisingly graceful bow — as well he should when faced by the queen of England. Granted, Anne Boleyn served as queen about 500 years ago, but at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival she rules again with Morris acting out the reincarnation.
On a dusty day in Bonner Springs, Kan., Morris strolls down the lane with a small escort of costumed guards and ladies in waiting. She attracts attention, especially from the children.
Morris said she enjoys those moments — locking eyes with a little girl, who then points and squeals and wants a hug from a real-life queen bedecked in a crown and ornate gown of velvet, jewels and heavy embroidery.
“The best part of the festival is being able to let our patrons forget the troubles of the outside world for a few hours and enjoy a day with our cast. That is truly special,” Morris said during a recent out-of-character interview.
Although she had been active in community theater, Morris herself didn’t become involved in the 35-plus-year-old festival until she visited it herself more than a decade ago.
“My friend and I brought our kids to the festival,” she said. “We came across a dress shop that needed help so my friend, and I decided to split the weekends as I was in community theater and I also announced for professional wrestling shows. The more the cast came and interacted with the shops and patrons, the more I realized that I wanted to be in the lanes instead of selling clothes. Eventually, I auditioned and landed role after role, while my friend bought out the shop and now has her own business selling costumes.”
It’s a fairly common story for actors and artisans at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, which started in 1977 as a fundraiser for the Kansas City Art Institute. Re-enactors, artists and bohemians from across the region have returned year after year and often drag family and friends into the act.
Morris’ daughter, Erin, watched her mother perform in the theater and at the festival for several years then wanted in on the fun herself.
“When I felt she was old enough to at least come and shadow me, the director allowed it,” Morris said. “She has been on cast for half days for quite a while until about three years ago.”
This year, Erin performs as every young girl’s dream — Snow White. She, along with other Disney-inspired princesses, host a tea party and perform fairy tales on stage in the children’s area.
“It’s great to see her growth as a performer and even as a person because she’s never in the same group as I am,” Morris said. “There are many families that are at our festival, and each person provides an essential part to the cast. It’s a beautiful thing when you think about it...what other entertainment venue encourages a family unit to perform in their own unique way?”
This blend of historical and fantasy characters is part of what gives the Renaissance Festival its unique atmosphere. Generally set within 16th century England, it features characters adapted from history such as Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII and characters from folklore and fantasy.
“We hold auditions in the spring, and the entertainment department has a list of character roles to fill,” Morris said, explaining how each performer arrives at his or her character. “Essentially the director will place a person in a role, and it is up to the performer to breathe life into that character.”
Those actors who play village and fantasy roles have more flexibility in their characters and often start with an open slate to build up a history — strengths, flaws and personalities.
“The historical characters will research their person and work in quirks and flaws,” Morris said. “My character is Anne Boleyn, and we play that she and King Henry have been recently married but without being pregnant, and instead they are hoping for a baby boy. She is a flirt, loves to dance and has mixed feelings whenever she notices the executioner.”
Along with creating a character, performers must create their wardrobes, which in keeping with royal fashions of the 16th century, can become highly complex. Morris, who said she doesn’t sew, credits costumer friends for the queen’s ornate dress.
Along with a character and a costume, performers create a life — learning the customs of the period and how to interact in character with festival visitors from the modern world.
“I’ve learned to ‘see’ a certain material as a costume piece; I’ve learned to bead,” Morris said. “I’ve learned that I’m not a bad singer or dancer, and I’ve made many friends. I’ve met so many different people so it’s opened up my view of the world and my daughter’s as well.”
The Renaissance Festival runs through this weekend and is open on Columbus Day, Oct. 13.