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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #87, Summer ’88. Now that we’ve abandoned the distinction between “official” and “unofficial” events, most demos do class as Society events. (See “EVENTS AND PARTIES.”) The comments about individual judgment in the conclusion to this column are still sound, though—the Society can make all the rules it pleases, but people remain responsible for their own words and deeds, and the Society can only hope they will speak and act well when they use its name.


My cousins, most SCA branches get asked for at least one public demonstration a year, so it’s worth the time to think over why we do demos and what makes them succeed. It’s not for our status as a tax-exempt organization—that’s assured by the education involved in our own activities and publications. We don’t (as is sometimes alleged) need to cultivate a demo program to justify our existence, but effective demos are still vital for our health and growth.
     Beyond the obvious purpose of promoting our chosen period, the Society has three basic goals for any demo. To be a success, a demo must:
     ◊ Enhance the participants’ appreciation for the SCA. This is a high-sounding way of saying “be a lot of fun!” Demos can be richly rewarding to stage—and the better they are, the better the people in them will feel about the SCA, and the more energy they’ll bring to other projects.
     ◊ Enhance the SCA’s image as a responsible and con-structive group. This translates to “don’t make us look like jackasses!” Have fun with the Current Middle Ages and the audience, but don’t make fun of them—a careless word can drown your branch and the whole SCA in trouble.
     ◊ Make the audience want to play, or at least empathize with us. Part of our message has to be “we’re not so strange after all!” If we allow our appearance to cut us off from our community, we also cut ourselves off from new members and from the halls and fields we need for our events.

     Tailor each demo to the audience you expect. If your shire or barony meets regularly, draft the members to roleplay the demo lecture beforehand. Let the branch take the part of the Boy Scouts, the Rotary, or whatever, while the speaker tries to make the subject appeal to people in that kind of group. The branch will probably come up with more and better questions than the demo audience—and if the speaker can cope with them, the real thing will be easy.
     If nothing else, this exercise will give you a chance to keep embarrassing moments inside the family! Whether or not you have a branch to help you, challenge the information you plan to present—did you read it in a primary source? In a secondary source with reasonable references? If you picked something up in conversation or deduced it from your own work, try to check it fur­ther—or at least tell your audience how you came by the idea. It does the SCA no good at all to trot out old myths and chestnuts in the guise of facts.
     Unless you’ve been asked to make the SCA itself the subject of the demo—say, at a school planning an on-campus chapter—allocate most of the time to the original Middle Ages and Renaissance, not the current ones. Compare your work with what would have been done in period, and be as clear about what we don’t know as about what we do. On fighting, for example, point out that our armor and weapons have the same weight and balance as the originals, so they pose similar problems in combat, but also point out that our skills are based on pictures and on the demands of the equipment itself, not from guides written in the Middle Ages. And if you don’t know much, don’t talk much—fill the show with fighting and dancing and garb and crafts, which have their own reality.
     If you’ve got something really huge to plan, get in touch with An Tir—they probably hold the record, with 7,000 people a day visiting the pavilion Expo ’86 allotted to them for a weekend and 5,000 per performance watch­ing their fighting demo in the adjacent amphitheater. (Got something bigger? I’d love to hear about it! Actually, I’d welcome any news about demos, as I’m always looking for ideas to share.)

     Most demos involve at least some fighting, but you can also hold a large audience with dancing, or with a historical fashion show or a performance of period music. For smaller groups, you can stage a memorable program by teaching basic heraldry and then helping people design devices for themselves, or by introducing a calligraphic hand and letting them begin to play with it. And you don’t even need pens for the latter—two pencils taped together will give a reasonable sense of the way a flat nib behaves!
     For the typical civic demo, I’ve found that a reliable formula includes 10-15 minutes of talk, about half an hour of combat—with a narrator for part of the ac­tion, at least—and 15-20 minutes of audience participation. You can make do with two fighters and a narrator (who doubles as herald and marshal), but you’re much better off with at least five fighters, two or three decorative non-fighters, and a narrator who can concentrate on keeping the show moving. If you want a reliable handout without the effort of writing your own, ask the Registry for their “Welcome to the Current Middle Ages” flier. They’ll send you a free copy on request, and you can add a local contact address at the end and print up as many as you need.
     My standard opening gives a very brief intro to the SCA, then discusses the history of arms and armor and some of the practical details of construction and use, referring to the fighters arming up in the background for examples. I like to have some steel weaponry on hand, to compare to the rattan replicas. The combat segment includes a bit of slow work, then as many combinations of weapons as the demo team can muster, winding up with as big a melee as numbers and space allow. Audience participation can either be a simple dance—a six-unit montarde is ideal, as the demo team can show how it’s done and then capture spectators to make up sets—or a game of some kind.
     If your fighters are very experienced, you can let a member of the audience try to hit one of your team, who is armored as usual but armed with a boffer. Insist that the spectator must use a shield, and must strike only with the edge of a rattan sword—that keeps your fighter safe from baseball players, fencers, and karate experts. The fighter should let the spectator attack for a bit, then reach out and touch him with the boffer—after which someone else gets a turn.
     Do NOT try this game unless your fighter is good enough to have an absolute edge on any newcomer. Novices should never take part, and neither should anyone who relies more on strength than skill for success on the field. With due care, this can provide a safe and effective climax for a demo. However, it only works if you have a fighter who is so confident he gets no charge out of the ability to touch anyone who comes up, and so competent he can’t be disturbed by off-the-wall attacks. (Note: if you wander into a demo in a strange town and see this game in progress, resist the temptation to slouch over and see if they’ll let you play! There’s no sport in rattling someone’s cage when he’s concentrating on perfect restraint.)

     Whether or not you indulge in audience participation, set up your demo to be as safe as you can. Keep the spectators well back, and enlist their aid in calling hold if the fighters approach the boundaries. Talk about the training the sport requires, and warn people not to try it on their own. Pass around a heavy helm, explaining why the mass is essential for safety. Inspect all the gear, especially lanyards and straps, to keep weapons and odd bits from flying through the air. And if you do any skits involving maneuvers not normally allowed in SCA combat, make sure you’ve figured out how to avoid the problems that got the moves banned. Most demos are not official SCA events, and the participants are bound only by their own judgment—but they’re not welcome to speak for the SCA unless their judgment is good!
     Good judgment and good fun go hand in hand at successful demos. When your team is relaxed and happy and having a wonderful time, your audience will have a wonderful time too—but pay attention to what you say and do. Avoid bloodthirsty jokes and bizarre statements, because no matter how obvious the inverted humor may be, somebody is going to go home believing they’re the Awful Truth. It’s really part of knowing your audi­ence—and the first thing to know about your audience is that they’re NOT in the SCA, they know almost nothing about it, and they think it looks weird. Half of them suspect that the word “medieval” has something to do with “evil”—don’t say anything that could be twisted into confirming their suspicions. Your job in a demo is to reassure, entertain, and teach all at the same time. Each of you who takes part in a demo is the SCA as far as the audience is concerned. Help us put our best foot forward, and we’ll all prosper.

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