Updated: Aug 15, 2019
Across the country, women are speaking out about abuse, assault, and unfair employment practices. So it may come as no surprise that female performers and actors are also speaking out… and holding festival managers’ feet to the proverbial fire.
RenFaires have always been governed by Rules of the Realm, or loose guidelines for participants, performers, and merchants. But now, women are breaking an unwritten code of silence by saying that such guidelines are not strict enough to prevent or even properly deal with the abuse they experience at faire. So women who have been subject to abuse and harassment are now bringing festival owners, directors, and coworkers to court over unequal power dynamics, harassment, and even outright assault.
One such woman is Michele St. Michael, a long-time Tarot card reader at the Colorado RenFest. She alleges that in 2013, a festival manager sexually harassed her one evening after faire. Although she reported the incident to festival management, she says that the director was never disciplined, and over the following years, she alleges that he began a campaign to sully her reputation, which ultimately led to her contract not being renewed.
Her attorneys argued that a merchant should be considered a formal employee of the festival rather than an independent contractor, and thus, governed by Title VII employment discrimination laws. But in late July 2019, she lost this argument when the jury determined that merchants are not legal employees of the faire. Even so, festival management says that it will consider implementing a sexual harassment policy for the 2020 faire season. Moreover, there are now efforts underway to change Colorado law to protect not only employees but also interns and independent contractors. (Since the #MeToo movement began in 2017, five states have expanded protections along these lines.)
But St. Michael’s case is not the first to be litigated this year. And it’s not the first to suggest that some festival directors have, over the years, swept accusations of abuse and harassment under the rug.
At the Minnesota RenFest, for instance, an unnamed freelance photographer alleges that Carr Hagerman, the festival’s artistic director and the man who flung insults to passersby as the popular Rat Catcher, beat her up and raped her at the end of the 2017 faire season. Hagerman has denied all wrongdoing and although the case is ongoing, five festival staff members have resigned since the allegation came to light.
A separate lawsuit filed by two women, one who played a fairy and the other a long-time actor, also alleged that Hagerman traded sex for preferential treatment, punishing those who spurned his advances. Although festival managers have denied these allegations as well, a settlement was reached before the suit was filed in court, according to an attorney for the plaintiffs. In response to the recent spate of lawsuits, this year, faire management implemented sexual harassment training for all cast members.
In still another example, an executive from with Kansas City RenFest is now on leave and several other former and current cast members are being investigated for inappropriate relationships, molestation, and even rape, some involving minors. Indeed, Entertainment Director Brandi Ogier recently acknowledged that previous management had not acted sufficiently to stop male performers preying on female cast members.
However, it appears that, like other festivals around the country, KCRF is making positive changes. Ogier is swiftly investigating each report of harassment and if the allegation appears credible, management now files a police report and immediately bans the individual from faire. Ogier also has implemented ongoing sexual harassment training for casts, which cover such topics as how to distinguish between in- and out-of-character conduct and how to assist victims of sexual assault.
Finally, although it is unclear whether the plaintiffs were associated with the faire, in 2017, eight women filed suit against Doug Waterbury, the owner of NY’s Sterling RenFest and a landlord of a number of rental properties. The women accused Waterbury of coercing them into having sex to keep or obtain housing. This year a settlement was reached: Waterbury is prohibited from making contact with any of the defendants, is barred from managing any rental properties in the future, and must pay the women $400,000. Moreover, in a separate lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice, Waterbury must pay out an additional $450,000, bringing the total to $850,000.