Renn Fayre

Renn Fayre is Reed College’s large end of the year festival. It begins on the Friday of the last day of classes for the spring semester and continues through the weekend until the beginning of the Reading Week (a week after classes end and before finals begin that is designated for preparing for finals). The tradition of the festival began in the 1960s and for many years had a Renaissance theme, but the contemporary festival has a different theme every year. A group of students, called the Renn Fayre Czars, are responsible for planning the entire festival. They reveal the theme for the festival in the fall semester, generally at a school sponsored event with many students in attendance. The Renn Fayre 2010 theme was unveiled during a dance at the Student Union. The Renn Fayre Czars positioned themselves on a balcony above the dance floor and projection screen. Amidst fog and strobe lights, they projected a movie onto the screen that consisted of a montage of scenes from movies that took place in outer space, while the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme played as background music. Throughout the showing of the movie, there was an intense atmosphere of excitement; students yelled, cheered, and clapped at the beginning and end of the movie, and maintained a respectful silence during the movie’s duration. Once the movie concluded, a student in a full space suit walked across the balcony. Finally, the Czars unrolled a sheet over the projector screen that said that year’s Renn Fayre theme: The Final Frontier. The crowd roared.

Weeks, and sometimes even months, before Renn Fayre, students begin planning costumes. Costumes during Renn Fayre 2010 included characters from the television series The Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, various interpretations of aliens, and anything with metallic material or that looked somewhat futuristic. Also in preparation for the festival, students can volunteer online to be part of the “Border Patrol” or the “Karma Patrol.” As part of the “Border Patrol,” students take shifts walking along the borders of campus to ensure that no one without an official Renn Fayre bracelet comes onto the campus. If someone without a bracelet is found, the “Border Patrol” students will either escort them off of the campus, or call the Community Safety Officers, Reed College’s security team, who will then escort the unauthorized visitor off of the campus. Students on the “Karma Patrol” walk around campus with water and bagels to give to students, with the hopes of preventing over-intoxication. The “Karma Patrol” also seeks out students who may be dangerously intoxicated and escorts them to the temporary White Bird Clinic on campus, where the student in danger can receive professional medical attention. Both positions are regarded with high respect, and many students see it as their responsibility to volunteer. Few students will graduate from Reed College without having volunteered at least once for one of the positions. Lastly, in preparation for Renn Fayre, a website is created that counts down to the beginning of the festival. On this website is a link to volunteer for either the “Border Patrol” or the “Karma Patrol.” These links are written in small font, and on the very bottom of the web page. Except for the links, the only thing written on the website is “Renn Fayre T-00:00:00” in the center, in big font, counting down until the kick-off event: The Thesis Parade.

Thesis Parade begins in front of the Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library. The parade is meant to celebrate and congratulate the Senior students for completing their thesis projects, which they have worked on since the spring semester of their Junior year and throughout their Senior year. Everyone wears their costumes to Thesis Parade, and the Seniors also wear “laurels.” The “laurels” are headbands made of plastic gold leaves that Seniors receive from the registrar when they hand in the final draft of their thesis paper. Often, if a Senior hands his or her thesis in early, that student will wear their “laurels” in the week leading up to Renn Fayre. Since theses are not officially due until 5:00pm on the Friday of Renn Fayre, the Thesis Parade is the first time that all Senior students wear their “laurels” together.

The Czars place an outdoor fireplace right in front of Hauser Library, where the entire student body convenes for Thesis Parade. Senior students take turns running up to outdoor fireplace and burning their theses. Occasionally, professors who have completed major works of scholarship will also burn a manuscript. Professors, without costumes and with sheepish expressions, look somewhat out of place at Thesis Parade, but students are happy to see professors and welcome them into the festivities. The student body stays outside of the library for about an hour, although at this point the festival feels outside of time. The whole school is in a state of celebration. Students bring bottles of champagne to spray on the Seniors, but almost everyone at the parade is quickly drenched in champagne. A group of musicians, called the “Drum Corp,” play music, mainly covered versions of popular songs that are preformed in the style of jazz music and with a heavy drum beat. One commonly played song during the 2010 Thesis Parade was a cover of the hip-hop song So Fresh, So Clean by OutKast. Students dance, often to their own beat, and sing along. Many students bring their own noisemakers to add to the joyful din. Some students stand on roof of the Hauser Library or on other raised platforms and shoot confetti and glitter onto the students below. Amongst the flying confetti, loud music, and spraying champagne, students kiss one another. (Professors do not participate in this part of the festival.) There is no real rhyme or reason determining who kisses whom; if two students, of any gender, make eye contact they will generally begin kissing. Students tend to kiss other students that they are friends with, or have spoken with before, but kissing complete strangers is not uncommon or even seen as strange during Thesis Parade. Prior to Renn Fayre, upper classmen give new students various tips for avoiding kissing someone, if they do not want to participate. These tips range from simply saying “no, thank you” to carrying a water bottle and taking a drink when the other person looks like they’re going to kiss you. Few students, though, do not participate in the kissing as a part of the general revelry of the Thesis Parade.

After the Seniors have burnt their theses, they run through the Hauser Library. The rest of the student body, still celebrating, goes to the back of the library and creates a human tunnel for the Seniors to run through after they exit the library. Once all of the Seniors have left the library, they run through Eliot Hall, where most of the administrative offices are located. The rest of the student body gathers outside of the building to greet the Seniors as they leave the building. After all of the Seniors have left Eliot Hall, some students continue the Parade towards the Commons Dinning Hall and the Quad, but the majority of the crowd disperses.

It is nearly impossible to accurately describe all of the events of the Renn Fayre festival that occur over the next two days. There is always something happening on the campus, and often multiple events happen at the same time. All of the academic departments and various student groups form softball teams and play in a softball tournament continuously through the weekend.  Also throughout the festival, students are encouraged to build and experience various art projects related to theme. For example, a group of students used some sort of chicken wire and black plastic trash bags to create a tunnel over “The Blue Bridge,” a bridge that extends across the Canyon, connecting the two halves of campus. By poking small holes in the trash bags, sticking glow-in-the-dark stars onto the trash bags, and hanging streamers at both ends of the tunnel, the student artists created the illusion of night sky for students walking across the bridge. This was one of the less-elaborate art projects. Different bands, both student and professional, play all over campus throughout the weekend. There are also a few “lodges,” such as “Black Lodge,” “White Lodge,” and “Green Lodge,” that play a specific genre of music twenty-four hours a day. Lastly, commercial Food Carts are stationed outside of the Hauser Library twenty-four hours a day.

In addition to the weekend-long activities, there are three traditions worth mentioning: the Fireworks, Glow Opera, and the “Pict-ers.” On the Saturday night of Renn Fayre, students gather on one of the sports fields to watch an elaborate fireworks display set to music. Students travel to and from the field in a pack, and “oooh” and “awww” together as the fireworks explode in time to the music. The show was as grand as any 4th of July celebration that I have attended, and with the music the display took on a majestic and otherworldly feel. Students squash together wherever they can find a good vantage point, usually on the field itself, but often on the balcony and roof of the dorm next to the field.

Once the fireworks display concludes, the students traipse back across the Canyon to the other side of campus to watch Glow Opera. At the bottom of a hill, a group of students put on a show, similar to a puppet show, using only glow sticks. The glow sticks are creatively glued together to represent different characters, sets, and props. One particularly memorable design was the bus from the popular cartoon “Scooby Doo” with all of the main characters seated inside of it. Music plays in the background of the show, and because of the lack of acoustics the dialogue, often sung in a mock Operatic style, is almost impossible to hear. Most students simply watch the lights.

The “Pict-ers” are a group of students that one morning of the festival runs around the campus completely naked and covered entirely in blue paint. They run around the campus trying to hug as many people as possible, and in particular another group of students dressed entirely in white clothing.  The students in white clothing, whose name I was never able to discern, and the “Pict-ers” are “fighting,” although I am unclear of how the students in white clothing “fight back.” Some students suggested that the group in white clothing tries to get white paint on the “Pict-ers,” but I could never get this confirmed. In addition to hugging people, the “Pict-ers” aim to create general confusion as they run through the campus.

During Renn Fayre, the campus has an atmosphere of freedom. Students are joyful and relaxed. Despite being so close to final exams, no one discusses schoolwork or shows any sign of stress. This carefree attitude contrasts sharply with attitudes at any other point in the academic year. Reed College students pride themselves on being scholars, and during the academic year schoolwork consumes their lives. “Reedies,” as Reed students refer to themselves, love learning and the college provides them with an intense academic and intellectual environment. Simply put, Reedies work hard. For the most part, Reedies truly enjoy their work, but it is undeniable that all of this hard work creates a stressful atmosphere on campus. Walking into Hauser Library during the normal school year, I could feel the tension and taste the caffeine in the air.

Renn Fayre, in many ways, is seen as a light at the end of a yearlong tunnel. The festival is Reedies’ reward for surviving the year. The Czars need to reveal the Renn Fayre theme in the fall semester to give the student body hope, to remind them that all of their hard work is worth it. Whenever students complain about schoolwork, someone will most likely exclaim, “I cannot wait until Renn Fayre!” Likewise, the Renn Fayre count down website gets posted just as due dates for major assignments begin arriving.

The major events of the festival help students release tensions built up during the academic year. Thesis Parade, the most popularly attended event, is the pinnacle of this release. The burning of the theses simultaneously represents and releases the frustration of writing such a demanding piece; many seniors working throughout the year, frustrated with themselves, wish they could burn their computers and their theses right then. By burning their theses, they get to let go all of their stress and frustration and symbolically give into it. The other aspects of Thesis Parade allow students momentarily to go crazy and release any and all physical tensions, including of course sexual tensions. The “Pict-ers” serve a similar purpose: students, unembarrassed by their bodies, get to create chaos free of guilt. Many of the weekend-long activities, such as the softball games and concerts, allow students to simply relax and give into their desire to be worry-free. My most peaceful memory from Reed College is watching the softball tournament final game. My friends and I sat on the sidelines, drinking lemonade, cheering on the Political Science team, and forgeting completely about the stresses of being a student.

Renn Fayre also creates a sense of community and defines what it means to be a “Reedie.” The Fireworks and Glow Opera events, for example, are celebrations of the end of the school year, but more importantly they are also one of the few times when a vast majority of the student body gathers together. (This is also true of Thesis Parade.) Similarly, positions like “The Border Patrol” and “The Karma Patrol” allow students to protect and look out for one another, and take ownership over the community. Traditions like the “Pict-ers” remind “Reedies” that the community is accepting of eccentricities and liberal. Student directed aspects of Renn Fayre, such as the student concerts and art projects remind students that “Reedies” are not just smart; they are also creative and want to share that creativity. Lastly, by the end of Renn Fayre new students feel a new sense of belonging within the Reed community. After Renn Fayre, they know that they can survive Reed College and they too will count down the days to the festival during the next school year.

Essentially, Renn Fayre creates a weekend outside of time when Reedies are free to be free and to celebrate themselves. “Reedies” have one weekend where they can escape from all the worries of life, imposed by their academically intense school as well as the expectations of society. Renn Fayre provides “Reedies” with a supportive environment in which they can come together as a community and act without inhibitions. Reed College will likely never stop hosting Renn Fayre, in some variation, because it creates and enforces the community’s identity while acting as a release valve for the stresses of being a “Reedie.”