Blood sport has been an important part of cultures across the globe for centuries. The Romans congregated in the Coliseum to watch gladiators murder each other for spectacle, the Spanish come in droves to watch matadors challenge and flay wild bulls, and Mexican cartels are forcing their kidnap victims to fight to the death. As long as people have been gathering to watch spectacles, those spectacles have included violent displays that tickle the innate human desire to watch things get killed. Although the physical toll of being a Medieval Times jouster is a teeny tiny bit less extreme than the activities mentioned above, it requires far more skill and dedication than an outsider would guess.
Max Shkvorets was a friend of mine in high school. Part of the drama clique, he was the kind of happy-go-lucky kid that bordered on annoying most of the time thanks to his perpetually cheerful attitude. I remember him trying out for our school’s improv team (yes, my school had an improv team) and absolutely bombing the audition. He loved acting, but just didn’t have the confidence at the time. He was a good guy to be around, but like most friendships at that age, it didn’t survive graduation. One day a few years down the line, a mutual acquaintance told me that of all the dramatic hopefuls we studied with, he was one of the very few who managed to get a paycheck for his craft. Not only that, but his day job now required him to wear plate armor and ride a horse—my friend Max had become a knight.
Medieval Times is kind of a weird place to work. While most of the people they employ are cooks, servers, or general event staff, the whole operation revolves around the few people—mostly trained actors and stuntmen—with the skill and dedication necessary to perform in the weekly shows. Becoming one of these rare individuals is not an easy task. It requires an intense dedication to something most of us would never even consider trying (or watching, probably).
The first stepping stone to becoming a knight at Medieval Times is temporary employment as a squire. You’ll tend to the horses, help load the weapons, and set up and take down various props and effects for the show. It’s not glamorous, but it’s a foot in the door. The real benefit is the training you recieve from the rest of the crew on stuff like fight choreography and not getting trampled to death by horses mid-show.
According to head knight Sean Delaney, not everyone’s got the drive for it. “Part of it’s the dedication; part of it’s the ability. We’ve had some people come here with all of the ability but no ambition, and they just fall by the wayside. Then we’ve had people with nearly no skill who come and get it because they try their guts out. It’s those people who are willing to learn as much as they can, ride as hard as they can, and try as hard as they can who make it.”
When Max started as a squire a few years back, he was faced with a very typical problem for newcomers to the show. He had some acting ability, but most of the specialty work needed for the show was foreign to him, and training time can be exceptionally rare. “A lot of it was an uphill battle. When I started as a squire, there were a fair number of them here and most of the training time goes to those who prove themselves. It makes sense to train the guy who’s been here for a while rather than the guy who might leave in a month. You sort of have to fight for training time, so I had to go to Sean every day and ask if rather than wash horses for a bit I could do mock tests to become a knight. You just need to keep pushing for it and pushing for it. It’s cool how this job puts your advancement in your own hands, but you have to own it. It’s definitely made me a stronger person. It’s made me understand that you can’t wait for people to offer you something—you just need to go out and do it.”
For Delaney, whose job is to recognize passion and talent in the squires, training them from being art student graduates or general enthusiasts to trained professionals is the joy of the job. “Taking Max, who had zero riding or combat training, and teaching him how to perform well as a knight in the show—that’s really fulfilling. I can say, ‘hey, I taught that guy how to fight!’” If all of this serfdom paid toward a group of guys who are essentially glorified ren faire nerds seems insane, you have to realize that the absolute commitment to the show’s medieval illusion on all levels is the only way it works. There has to be a suspension of disbelief, because, frankly, everything else in the show is a little bit shitty. One careful glance from within the audience and you can see it’s a shiny leotard, not chainmail. Look hard enough and you’ll notice that the swinging flail is closer to a softball wrapped in a pantyhose than a deadly weapon. Catch one of the performers at the right angle and you’ll see that the devastating blow he took from a lance (designed to splinter on impact) was nothing, and the dive he took off his horse wouldn’t even be believable in an old episode of Bonanza.
This unwavering commitment to authenticity in the face of slight crappiness can be found throughout the entire show, from the waitstaff who refer to diners as lords and ladies, the salespeople posing as traveling merchants hawking plastic Medieval Times collectables, and the strict no-tech policy for all workers at all times during show hours. Delaney tells me that's the only way the show can work, “The bulk of the entertainment here is aimed at children and families, but a big part of the reason most of the knights want to perform in the 7:30 Saturday show is because we get a lot of adults who are willing to suspend their disbelief, have a few drinks, and have a good time essentially watching us beat the crap out of each other. In that sense, it’s up to the audience and it’s up to us to allow that suspension of disbelief to take place, otherwise people are quick to dismiss it as casual entertainment.” The show faces a great many challenges when crafting this illusion, most of which aren’t helped by the nature of the performance Sean details, “We can’t really rely on special effects, and this is theater-in-the-round, so virtually every aspect of our performance counts.”
The thrill of the performance is what makes the entire process worthwhile to someone like Max. “It’s so different from other theater in that it’s completely visceral. It’s not like other gigs where you do the show and then you wait until the end to hear applause. If you’re by a crowd and you yell, they yell back; raise your hand and they cheer for you. It’s just so much more of an immediate experience.” When I asked if he ever got too invested in the imagination of the show, Max told me, “It’s a little bit of an unhealthy way to think about things, but I remember the very first time I won a fight as the red knight and I got to kill a guy. For a split second after I killed him, I felt in it—completely in it—I had just killed a man for someone’s amusement and felt the glory of the Earth.” Glory like that doesn’t come easily, and the internal competition between performers plays a big role in the satisfaction of getting to perform, which isn’t always guaranteed, explains Delaney. “Internally we’re fairly competitive. Most of the knights are vying for the top spots or the most glorious spots during the weekly highlight show, which is typically the evening performance on Saturday. That’s usually our favorite show of the week because it has the largest audience and gets the most feedback, which is the greatest form of reward.”
Although I had only seen the show once before meeting the cast, I completely understood their sentiments. As Max explained it to me, “Combat is literally the purest form of drama.” It’s the reason you get a thrill when watching a clip of a lion taking down a zebra and the reason folks gather around to gawk at people brawling in the streets. Medieval Times just distills this down to its raw elements, adds a lot of spectacle, and wraps it all in an illusion that makes the failings of the performance unrecognizable. Sure, it may not be as brutal as its historical predecessors, and odds are if any of the cast ever got in the ring with Chuck Liddel they’d get their asses handed to them, but what the show delivers for a hefty ticket price is the excitement of violence without all of the nasty ramifications. It lets the audience bask in their natural desire for carnage without any of the first world guilt that comes from watching people permanently destroy themselves for someone's entertainment. For Max, I think the show represents a small desire to live in fantasy and soak in the acclaim that often doesn’t come to those who choose performance as a profession. It’s weird for me to look at this goofy kid I knew in high school and see crowds of people cheer him on as he pretends to fillet someone with a halberd, but that’s what his life has become. Whether he recognizes it or not, the show’s definitely changed him for the better—even outside the armor he carries a much stronger sense of confidence than I saw in him before. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he jousts for a living to much applause, or maybe it’s simply because he finally found something he’s really good at.