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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Getting Down and Dirty With the Classics at the Renaissance Festival

Renee Wilde

William Shakespeare famously said “ all the worlds a stage” and Jonathan Crocker has taken those words to heart. For the past 26 seasons, this Yellow Springs native has been performing in front of thousands of people from a pit of mud.  

Jonathan is the founder of the “Theatre in the Ground” troupe. Their original adaptation of Beowulf has been performed well over 2000 times at Renaissance Festivals across the country. Community Voices Producer Renee Wilde digs into the story.


I’m joining the throngs of people navigating between rows of cars in a crowded parking lot, making their way toward the entrance of the Ohio Renaissance Festival. This event, which runs from Labor Day weekend through October, is now in it’s 26th year, but this is my first time going.

The gates open, and the crowd surges forward into the 30 acre park that re-creates life in 16th Century England. It’s a little overwhelming at first. There is so much to look at, including the crowd; who are dressed in every imaginable interpretation of classic 16th Century fashion, including a large contingent of fairies and elves.

But I don’t have time to gawk, because I’m on a mission to get to the mudatorium. 

When I find Jonathan Crocker, he is trudging barefoot in a pool of mud, "Welcome to my world here. I’m mucking the mud this morning. Weather like this, good mud doesn’t just happen.It’s a little chilly I must say!"

Jonathan is one of three actors who performs 4 shows a day here....from a 12 foot pit of mud.

"We are called Theatre in the Ground," he says.  "That’s our company name, but pretty much everyone just refers to us as the mud show. And it has become one of the centerpieces of the festival.  I have a degree in history, and when i was between my last two years of college, I heard about this thing called Renaissance Festival in upstate New York. Was very intrigued with a blending of history and theatre, so I auditioned and got a role and was cast as the village idiot.

And it was much more than an acting job actually. Because I was on the street cast and that meant that I was interacting with people all day long. Improving all day long.

And there were a couple of guys who were beggars and they were doing a show involving mud. It was very intriguing because I saw the power that the mud had to galvanize an audience.

And I had just read Beowulf, and I thought the pit of evil, the pit of mud, there’s a great connection there, and it’s the perfect piece to put into a renaissance festival. It became a hit actually that very same season. We were picked up by another Renaissance Festival. And the following season another Renaissance festival and before I knew it, out of college I had this gig on the road performing at festivals as far away as Texas.

I figured I would give it a shot and see how it went for a few years, and that was......32 years ago. (laughs)"

Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO

John says that once the show gets started, everyone gets involved. 

"Theatre at first was a way of separating people from the action so that they could feel comfortable watching and looking and being involved in other peoples lives, which was sort of taboo. These days we have all the isolation need. What we really are hungry for is interaction and places where we can feel comfortable with other people and making spontaneous connections. And this festival environment really fosters that.

It’s our tool. Once my foot goes in that mud, there’s a visceral, vicarious response to that.  We refer to [the mud] as a character in the show. It definitely plays a very big part. It’s makeup. It’s costuming. In Beowulf, I transform from a good little boy into a monster. And once I’ve got mud all over me, I am truly frightening to people."

By the end of the show, Jonathan is covered head to toe in thick brown mud. A wide smile stretches across his face as he places a muddy arm around a young woman and strikes a pose for the camera.  It’s easy to see that this...... is an actor in his element.

"You know I have been here since day one. There’s a level of participation in the show for people that you don’t get. You certainly don’t get at a movie and you don’t get it at most staged performances, either."

This will be the last weekend for the 2016 Renaissance Festival. The event is open Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 - 6pm. You can find more information on their website at renfestival.com.

Renee Wilde is an award-winning independent public radio producer, podcast host, and hobby farmer living in the hinterlands of southwestern Ohio.
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