The Complete History of Renn Fayre Part V: 2008–2018

Content warning: drug use, overdose, student deaths.

Parts I–IV of “The Complete History of Renn Fayre” by Brian Click and Alejandro Chavez were published in the Grail in the spring of 2016. The series recounts Renn Fayre’s fifty-one year history, from its humble beginnings as an actual Renaissance Faire to the infamous property damage disaster of RF2K and everything in between. Now, in the Grail’s latest installment of “Complete History,” Guananí, Lauren, and Claire pick up where Brian and Alejandro left off, diving into how Renn Fayre has changed from 2008 to the present.

The period from 2008 to 2018 at Reed was marked by major shifts in approaches to drug culture, consent, and physical safety, prompting much community soul searching. Many questioned the worth and potential harms of particular aspects of Reed culture, and these concerns were then reflected in attitudes toward Renn Fayre and how the risks and harms it presented were handled. The changes that came as a result can be interpreted as a decline in the wild fun and free spirit of the festival or as a series of necessary reforms that reigned in the harmful aspects of Renn Fayre and made the weekend safer and more welcoming than ever.

Rethinking Drugs

To the public, Reed has a reputation, captured well by Reed’s president from 2002-2012, Colin Diver: "When you say Reed, two words often come to mind. One is brains. One is drugs." This quote was used in a controversial article by Portland neighborhood newspaper Willamette Week, which sent reporters onto Reed’s campus in 2010 to investigate the “permissive” drug culture that had recently come under public scrutiny in the wake of three heroin overdose deaths.

On April 5, 2008, the death of a freshman in his dorm room from a heroin overdose shocked the community and put drug use at Reed front and center in conversations regarding campus life, including Renn Fayre. President Colin Diver wrote a letter for the 2008 Renn Fayre Quest, urging students to take extra precautions in order to keep drug dealers off campus during Renn Fayre and reduce Friday binge drinking. Several Senate meetings were dedicated to addressing drug culture at Reed addressing what was presented as an extremely concerning trend: a sophomore had suffered a nearly fatal overdose in December 2007.

In 2008, the Willamette Week published an article which has since been taken down about Reed’s purported “tolerance of drugs,” and the next year the newspaper sent another reporter into the 2009 Renn Fayre celebrations to write a follow-up article, revealing not only rampant drug use but also criticizing the student body’s lack of “social responsibility.” Other media outlets began to pick up on the issue, and two more student deaths from heroin overdose, within two weeks of each other in March 2010, shook the community once again. Increased outside attention toward drug use at Reed, including articles from Oregon Public Broadcasting and the New York Times, followed.

A federal court mandate ordering the college to crack down on drug use following the 2010 deaths prompted major conversations about Reed drug culture as well as the future of Renn Fayre. According to an article in the New York Times, students received “threatening and overly-sensational” emails from United States Attorney for Oregon Dwight C. Holton and Multnomah County District Attorney Michael D. Schrunk warning them about the use of illegal substances on campus. The email, forwarded by President Colin Diver to the student body, stated that “It is time for the Reed community to embrace the notion that drug use is not safe and it will not be tolerated—without fine print, without provisos, and without conditions.” President Diver was informed that undercover FBI agents and police would be sent to Renn Fayre 2011 celebrations.

The New York Times article stated that after his meeting at the federal courthouse, Diver sent the community a message of his own, cautioning students about drug use and relaying the message that “during next weekend's Renn Fayre celebration, undercover Portland police officers will be circulating on campus, uniformed Portland police officers will be on alert to respond immediately to calls, and prosecutors stand ready to process criminal charges.” The idea of a police presence at Renn Fayre incited fears among Reed students, that anyone having a problem with substances during Renn Fayre would not seek help from CSOs or other campus resources under the new police scrutiny.

A “Message from Your Queditors,” published in the 2010 edition of the Renn Fayre Quest, acknowledged these apprehensions, emphasizing that “manifestations of hostility [to the police] can risk everyone’s Renn Fayre experience and derail the college’s relationship with the local government for years to come,” and “as the local government and media pay close attention, this is an opportunity for us [to] display that we are the community we say we are: that we can balance personal liberties with communal responsibility, discretion with celebration.” Luckily, the Quest reported afterward that the “presence of police was virtually unnoticed, seeing as no arrests were made at all ... and none of the lodges were shut down because of open drug use.” While no further instances of undercover law enforcement at Renn Fayre have been reported, the whole affair had a lasting impact. In the summer of 2010, Gary Granger was hired as the new director of Community Safety as part of a wide-ranging effort to address campus drug culture.

Later Czars and Renn Fayre Quest editorials began to address the use of substances during Renn Fayre very differently than in years past. Half-page detailed drug safety information that used to appear, including which drug combinations were dangerous and pleasant, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, several articles emphasized “discretion.” In a 2012 message published in the Renn Fayre Quest, Czars stress that “not everybody does drugs. In fact, a lot of people don’t do drugs. And some of these people are not comfortable with drug use. Be respectful of this please. Please use DISCRETION.” These messages also emphasized the idea of Reedies taking care of Reedies and pointed students toward the multiple sources of assistance available on campus during Renn Fayre, such as Bagel Watch, White Bird, and CSOs.

In a 2011 Renn Fayre Quest article “Message from Your Dean of Students Mike Bro-Day,” Brody reflects on Renn Fayre 2010 and commends the community spirit that persevered despite the ongoing scandals related to drug use. “We didn’t stop them. We told them to come and see what Reed students, staff, and faculty who unite for a common purpose can do. Our purpose was to heal, to grow stronger, and on that particular weekend, to throw a big phat party that was as fun as it was safe.” The message goes on to celebrate the students who led the push for the revisions of the DHSM policy and the urgency to addressing and responding to sexual assault at Reed, all in a similarly triumphant tone.

 The alumni of Meatsmoke parade toward Sallyport with their float of non-vegan delicacies, picters in tow. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

The alumni of Meatsmoke parade toward Sallyport with their float of non-vegan delicacies, picters in tow. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Consent is Reed, Consent is Renn Fayre

One of the earlier mentions of practicing good consent at Renn Fayre, though not by that name, appears in a brief Quest article from 2008 titled, “Show Your Ass, Don’t Be One: Honorable Picting.” The article cites picting as “one of the most divisive traditions at Renn Fayre.” A tradition muchloved by those who participated, the pre-2008 world of picting also irritated onlookers, with picters painting “everything in sight” and anti-picters hitting participants with plastic bats and spraying orange paint on their clothes. The authors of the article, picting enthusiasts themselves, diplomatically urged everyone to tone down the aggression during picting.

“Don’t touch people who don’t want to be touched. Don’t scatter softball games. Don’t get paint all over people’s clothes unless they tell you it’s okay.” Presumably, this effort to focus on the friendly rivalry between picters and copters while emphasizing consent worked, as picting is now advertised as a body-positive event, the route is marked with cones so that anyone who does not want to engage with naked blue Reedies can avoid the entire affair, and only those who actively consent risk getting paint on their clothes. Picters continue to escort the meatsmoke crew and their array of delicacies through Sallyport, and they still win the coveted prize of first in line for Feast, but there are no unfriendly anti-picters anymore. As the authors pleaded, “Revel in your blueness—but respect those who do not.” The idea of consent expressed here was just a beginning.

“Soon it will be Renn Fayre and I will ask to kiss all of you.” While this phrase is a now-familiar sight on posters and spelled on the windows of the Student Union, the conversation around consent at Renn Fayre has not always been so well-advertised. In 2008, the original version of this sign appeared for the first time, with signs posted on campus claiming “Soon I will kiss all of you.” Since then, ideas of consent during Renn Fayre, and especially during Thesis Parade, have evolved thanks to policy changes and the efforts of student advocates.

In 2013, a Peer Health Advocates announcement in the Quest explored how Renn Fayre presents difficult situations for navigating honor in general and consent in particular. “AOD use and open expressions of sexuality distort the reality of situations and can lead to harmful outcomes for us and our fellow Reedies.” This message is now voiced through a number of other platforms, including the mandatory first-year Renn Fayre meeting, where Czars list the many ways you can ask for and turn down a kiss during Thesis Parade.

The Discriminatory Harassment and Sexual Misconduct (DHSM) policy revisions, along with the student-driven movement that built up to them throughout the 2010-2011 school year, encouraged major changes in the realm of consent culture and attention to sexual misconduct issues at Reed, and Renn Fayre was a time where the changes established seemed especially important. In editions of the Renn Fayre Quest following the 2011 DHSM revision, most prominently in 2015 and 2016, notes from Assistant Dean for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR), Rowan Frost, instructed students on how to have a safe and enjoyable Renn Fayre by emphasizing consent at all times. The policy has since been revised again, most recently in 2015, and conversations around consent at Renn Fayre continue to evolve.

 Scaling the infamous Chvnk Tower during the 2008 Renn Fayre. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Scaling the infamous Chvnk Tower during the 2008 Renn Fayre. Photo courtesy of Special
Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Lost and Found Traditions

Current Reedies would probably be unfamiliar with many of the landmark projects and events of Renn Fayre celebrations from years as recent as 2009, such as the flaming Iliad toss, lube wrestling, human chess, and the much-anticipated Chvnk Tower. Even the fireworks were not as memorable as they are now: in 2008, a self-proclaimed pyrotechnics geek, Brian Brooks ‘08, was so disappointed with the 2007 fireworks show that he convinced the Czars to switch companies and designed the entire show himself as a thesising senior. Brooks warned Reedies in a Quest opinion piece that the 2008 show would be “intense,” and that “there won’t be much sitting around and chatting between shots like past years.” Brooks’ show lived up to his word, setting a spectacular precedent for those that followed. Now, the fireworks show tends to be one of the most anticipated and impressive displays of Renn Fayre.

Other traditions, too, have evolved since 2008. In those days, the now indispensable Renn Fayre Stop Making Sense started at 3:00 a.m. instead of 5:00 a.m, serene White Lodge and sub-free Blue Lodge made their first appearance, and tall bike jousting was a favorite, featuring massive foam lances, triple-tall bikes, and cheering crowds. The 2009 Czars hailed a new internet feature in their list of amazing things they learned in the unique position of organizing a massive all-campus three day festival: “google.com/docs is the shit,” they proclaimed, a sentiment many Czars since can surely agree with. In the decade since, projects and practices of all sorts have come and gone.

How exactly a Renn Fayre activity grows beyond a fun idea to become a beloved staple is a mysterious process. Some ideas seem to have fizzled after a first run, such as the 2016 Renn Fayre postal service that advertised a Renn Fayre postmaster who would help distribute notes anywhere on campus and whose “delivery is guaranteed to delight!” One of the most recent developments was the 2017 Renn Fayre fashion show on Friday night, which offered a second place to show off theme-inspired costumes after Thesis Parade, complete with a runway. The fashion show will happen again this year, and could become either a Renn Fayre staple or enjoy a quick run of a few years before it becomes another lost tradition in the Grail’s archives.

As recently as 2014, projects listed as “traditional” in the Renn Fayre project application form included a maze made out of trash bags behind Eliot with a trampoline in the middle, an “air sock” inflated by the steam tunnel vent in front of the Admissions office, and the infamous Chvnk Tower. According to Gary Granger, CSO records, and reports from staff present at Renn Fayres past, hazardous projects and activities were much more ubiquitous than nowadays, such as an incident in which a student had to be taken away in an ambulance after being struck in the face by a backfiring potato gun.

Of the lofty Chvnk Tower, the 2014 project application states,  “there were a lot of scary things that happened, but we can make it fun again.” The celebratory destruction of the Chvnk Tower, usually made of nailed together scraps of wood that people could climb while engaging in enthusiastic (and often inebriated) combat during Thesis Parade, involved two teams, one to attack and destroy the tower, and another to dutifully defend it. Gary Granger was told by staff that one year, a student impaled himself in the neck with a golf club atop the Chvnk Tower. While attempting to hit the tower with the club in order to bring about its demise, the student slipped and struck a wooden shaft instead, breaking it. As the student fell from the tower, the broken shaft went through his neck. Afterwards, the student was alert and ambulatory, and was taken to White Bird and then the hospital for treatment. By the time Gary Granger arrived at Reed in 2010, Chvnk Towers continued to exist in progressively smaller forms and were often set aflame as effigies rather than being clambered on and obliterated by students.

“The notion that the Chvnk Tower was "shut down" is false,” reported Granger. “I've been part of the RF committee every year now, and there was never any suggestion that Chvnk should not construct something on the lawn.” Instead, the presence of massive structures that encouraged climbing, combat, and splinter-strewn mayhem were phased out gradually. The implementation of the general Renn Fayre project safety guidelines we are familiar with today prohibited nails and other sharp objects that could cause penetrative wounds, set height restrictions, and required that projects be approved by a committee including Facilities staff.

“There seems little doubt that the safety guidelines may have changed the course of the Chvnk Tower's trajectory,” said Granger, “but within the guidelines for safety, I think I can represent for the committee's members who are staff that we welcome creative and ostentatious constructions.”

Under the current regulations, projects are no longer allowed to involve structures over twelve feet tall, any project that involves supporting people’s weight is carefully regulated, and structures must be specific distances away from buildings and walkways, all rules that the Chvnk Towers of years gone by most certainly did not abide by.

The Opera Glows No More

Glow Opera, once a beloved tradition and must-see Renn Fayre event, is now a dying ember of Renn Fayre’s past. After Saturday night fireworks in the amphitheater or on the old West Lawn-turned-Performing Arts Building, the Glow Opera performed an original play with all-glowing props and costumes. “Glow Opera will pretty much be the coolest thing you have ever seen,” proclaimed alum Peter Shroeder in a Quest article. “It speaks to the best and most original aspects of our nature.” During a discussion with a long-time Reed custodian that turned to how Renn Fayre is just not what it used to be, it became clear that Glow Opera was epic. One year’s performance apparently involved an extended glow battle between Jesus and the Devil. It was the kind of event that the whole school seemed to show up for.

Each Glow Opera was clearly a labor of love, with a time-intensive production process involving detailed scripts and choreography done in darkness, a soundtrack, and many rehearsals in the months leading up to Renn Fayre. It seems safe to assume that such a labor-intensive process completely run by students at the end of the semester may have simply run out of enough dedicated participants and fizzled out. The last Glow Opera we were able to find record of was in 2014.

Alternative Renn Fayre

In 2013, an alternative Renn Fayre trip was introduced as an option for Reedies looking to enjoy a celebration away from the overwhelming atmosphere dominating campus over the weekend. Spearheaded by the Office for Institutional Diversity and Student Services. Students not interested in the wild festivities overrunning campus could go on an excursion that promised to provide an “inclusive, celebratory space” for students to celebrate another year at Reed, according to Assistant Dean for Inclusive Community Dayspring Mattole. The original iteration of Alternative Renn Fayre offered two trips, one that allowed students to be off campus for the entire weekend and another that left shortly after thesis parade. Now, the trip is mostly advertised as a sub-free alternative to Renn Fayre, with excursions included camping, gallivanting around Portland’s Albina Arts District, and an activity-filled trip reminiscent of Gray Fund to Sunriver, Oregon in 2013.

While many Reedies’ experience of Renn Fayre involve substances, many people do enjoy the weekend sub-free. Teo Rogers, who celebrated Renn Fayre Heaven Electric sub-free, was initially disconcerted. “I knew a lot of people … were going to do drugs, or start drinking during Hum lecture, so my first taste of Renn Fayre was not so good.” Fortunately, he found himself pleasantly surprised, being nothing but entertained by the bug eating contest, CSO lounge arcade games, and spectacular fireworks. “It was the most relaxed I’ve felt all year. I had a positive experience the whole time.” Rogers recommends hanging out with sub-free friends, checking out the projects, and taking advantage of all the free food. While he wasn’t aware of the off-campus sub-free trip last year, Rogers believes there is something very special about staying on campus. “There’s this community collective consciousness of celebrating all together, even if you do it in a different way, even if you do different stuff.”

Sustainability

Despite the advent of Klean up Krew shifts and greater student awareness of caring for campus during the festivities, deconstruction and project clean up continued to be an issue. The 2008 Czars even offered invitations to a special dinner if project organizers actually got their materials off campus by Monday evening, and a separate group of volunteers known as Salvage Krew was formed for dismantling Renn Fayre projects that were too big for regular Klean Up Krew to handle. With the dawn of a new chapter in Renn Fayre history also came a new emphasis on making sure the celebration remained sustainable. Project applications urged students to consider the environmental impact of their projects, make use recyclable and reusable materials whenever possible, and obtain supplies from Renn Fayre storage, Portland Scrap, and the Bins.

More recently, student pushes for a more sustainable Renn Fayre have centered around the heavy amount of glitter scattered during Thesis Parade, with Greenboard members ordering and distributing biodegradable glitter for the 2017 Renn Fayre as an alternative to plastic-based glitter.

 Student bike jousting during the 2010 Renn Fayre. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Student bike jousting during the 2010 Renn Fayre. Photo courtesy of Special
Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Going Forward

Traditions come and go, and in light of all the hazards and unwelcome attention that Renn Fayre has provided Reed over the years, it seems miraculous that it has continued as long as it has. But just like the student body and the wider Reed community, Renn Fayre changes with the times. Renn Fayre may be fundamentally unrecognizable from the gentle spring Rennaisance Festival it was in 1968, and who knows what changes, scandals and traditions future Reedies will write histories in decades to come. I can only say one thing for sure, in following with the oft-repeated refrain: Renn Fayre will continue to be what we make of it.

 

Cover photo courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.