-Reflections On My Sixteen Year Journey in the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Thursday (August 8, 2019) was a long day at the Pennsic War. I woke up at 8:00 AM, took a class on Venetian Masks in the late 1500s. Then I hustled to acting practice with Commedia All-Stars, a theater group composed of actors from all around the Known World for the next two hours. After rehearsal, I spent roughly six hours writing, teaching, and directing a new commedia play which was subsequently performed at six o’clock pm that very day. Then I had a couple of hours to shower, eat, and report to the Performing Arts Pavilion for stage manager duty. At 9:30 PM, I knew I needed to save some energy to play Isabella in the All-Stars Commedia dell’arte show. Even though Pennsic is never the same for any two people, to say I keep busy at the war is undoubtedly an understatement.
Our backstage is filled with the typical pre-show hustle. Oratio, the young lover in the scenario, made sure he was ready to fawn over me. Pantalone, the miserly curmudgeon, was prepared to hobble on stage for his scene. Brighella, the sleazy mountebank, hung signs to advertise a business where he’d do “whateva it takes” to make an extra ducat. Capitano polished his sword and bathed in seaweed. One last scan of the script, all these characters, and several more ones were ready to star in this new play between costumes, one last scan of the script.
I sat backstage feeling a bit overwhelmed, tired, and emotional from this day. My thoughts shifted to think about my mother; I wished she could be in the audience this year. Living in Butler, there have been years when she tripped to Pennsic two years ago. That year, I had an iconic scene in that scenario where my character, Isabella, unknowingly disguised myself as my long-lost brother, Capitano… Chocolate, Panna Cotta, Canoli, Struffoili, Tiramisu del DOLCE. I strutted across the stage, rocked an amazing codpiece, and had a phenomenal opportunity to practice different movements I learned from a theater class I took the previous May. My mother told me she’s never been more proud. A few things didn’t just didn’t seem to work out this Pennsic, and sadness engulfed me. My thoughts shifted briefly to think of two friends of mine who died from cancer previous Pennsic Wars. Thanks to a combination of my nerves and anxiety, a flood of sweet, melancholic moments from grief and loss permeated my heart.
A quarter past nine, an unusual mix of brass fanfare filled the theater. A booming, boisterous voice announced the king and queen of Atlantia had entered the pavilion. Still drowning in my thoughts, I didn’t hear much more about the exchange. Then as I set a prop backstage, I heard someone call my SCA name, “Avelina del Dolce.” I walked on stage. Unbeknownst to me, a couple of my friends were searching for me. At this moment, my comedic theatrical life meshed with real life. It was like a sketch comedy scene where the characters looked frantically for someone who was already where they needed to be.
I’m no stranger to the stage lights; I have a voluntary job as a manager at this theater, and I’ve performed here many opportunities years prior. However, that night, the lights seemed to stun and disorient me like a deer trapped by car headlights. I tried to assuage my teetering, tumultuous, incessant mental toil. It’s the esteemed presence of the Atlantian Royalty; they found me here to hold some special ceremony in my honor. I know I should be kneeling, bowing, or whatever, but I can’t even think. I failed miserably at court etiquette and stood crying a cascade of ugly tears instead. Their Royal Majesties, Christoph & Adelhait, were very kind. They stood on either side, supporting and hugging me, and told me I didn’t need to kneel in their presence.
“Lady Avelina del Dolce, we have heard tales of your devotion, skill, and passion in commedia dell’ arte theater and dance. We want to welcome you into the ‘Order of the Pearl’ to show we treasure and appreciate you.”
Sixteen years in the Society for Creative Anachronism led me here to this moment; it was my moment to shine brighter than ever.
Once upon a time, I was a ten-year-old girl who never quite fit in among the rest of Butler, PA. As a mini intellectual, I read many books and gravitated toward every geekery from sci-fi, anime to theater and fantasy. I loved unicorns, and I developed an obsession regarding The Unicorn Tapestries from a book called “The Truth About Unicorns,” found in the bargain bin of Walden Books at the Clearview Mall. My friends challenged me to write a book review for fun, and I not only met but exceeded their expectations. From this point onward, I enjoyed diving into historical research to find amazing, genuine, obscure historical facts to teach others.
Every first two weeks of August, The Pennsic War transformed the quiet town of Butler into a mystical fantasy realm. Pennsic War is an annual medieval / renaissance-themed camping event held by the Society for Creative Anachronism — a “war” between two large regional SCA groups: the Kingdom of the East and the Middle Kingdom (thanks Wikipedia). The event accumulates nearly 10,000 people from many states and even countries around the world. When my family ventured to Walmart, we saw Nordic hoards storming the store for Gatorade or an Elizabethan lady scouring through the beef department to find enough ground beef to bring back for her camp dinner. An impressive, colorful cast of characters paraded throughout the store. Simply observing these folks and imagining their stories brought me unparalleled merriment; these two weeks of August became one of my favorite times of the year.
My parents and I frequently traveled Route 79, where I’d stare out the car window to view Pennsic from afar. A wooden fort could be seen peeking through trees by the highway. Hedges on the hill were shaped to make roman numerals — the landscape speckled with an assortment of many colorful and white canvas and modern-style tents. Pennsic was primarily in my backyard, but it felt like a mystical secret; I had no clue how to join in the fun. I asked my parents if we could drop by to see how we could visit for the day. We drove to the North Gate, and the staff told us if we wanted to join the war, we had to pay for both weeks. My parents both worked full time and weren’t able to take a last-minute vacation, and we traipsed home just as clueless as we were before.
When I was sixteen years old, I went on a few dates with a twenty-year-old guy I thought was terrific. He excitedly told me that a college staff member was “one of those Cooper’s Lake reenactors” in an organization called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). We attended a business meeting for the local group called the Shire of Sunderoak, and I eagerly looked forward to finally learning more about this mysterious organization.
The Shire of Sunderoak was very kind and welcoming to us. An older lady, Gabby, explained the SCA is an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. Butler county resides in the Kingdom of AEthelmearc, and the “Known World” consists of 20 kingdoms, with over 30,000 members living in countries around the world. Participants dressed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance clothing attend events that may feature tournaments, art exhibits, classes, workshops, dancing, feasts, and more. Dancing? Feasts? I knew I wanted to learn and experience EVERYTHING!!!! It was a bummer that Sunderoak did not have individuals to teach dancing, theater, or any of the arts I truly wanted to learn at the time. However, everyone told me I could learn anything I wanted at the Pennsic War.
The guy I was dating turned out to be a jerk (story of my life) and essentially broke up with me because I didn’t want to sleep with him. I felt crushed, but it was all for the better he was out of my life. The main issue I had was determining how I could get back into the SCA after our breakup.
The SCA had captured my heart; it was where I truly belonged. My mother knew nothing would make me happier than becoming a member of this organization. She drove me to the next business meeting, and we continued to learn about the SCA together.
Sunderoak encouraged me to attend an SCA event called “The Fool’s Event” around April 27, 2002, to experience a small celebration before my first Pennsic War. A chatelaine, the individual who lends garb and helps SCA newbies get started, gave me a beautiful, flattering dress. I asked her to tell me more about the style, and she explained the dress was 15 century Italian-styled Renaissance clothing. From the moment of my very first event, I fell in love with Italian gowns, and they are still a garb style I frequently wear in the present day.
My adventures at The Fool’s Event were recorded thoroughly in this Livejournal Entry: https://queeneamidala13.livejournal.com/9790.html . Reading it now, sixteen years later, I still feel the glimmer of adventure from this lovely day. In short, A young fencer named Sir Jeffrose Stiller, perhaps twenty-five years old, came over to myself and my group. He bent down on one knee and inquired, “My dear ladies, I travel from afar without a consort. I humbly beseech one of your greatness to be the lovely consort I may fight for during this tournament.”
Looking back, I believe many people were responsible for making this small event, my first SCA experience, a magical experience. IT WAS EXCITING TO BE A CONSORT AT MY VERY FIRST EVENT! And I received a token rose from the queen for inspiring the bouts. My heart palpitated but became muffled beneath the clash and clatter of fencing swords. An excerpt that captures this excitement is shared below.
Going through the line of fighters and consorts, soon we came to the queen’s royal announcer. She declared to the audience and fellow fighters, “Amanda of Sunderoak and Sir Jefferose Stiller!” Reaching the second step, my fencer and I took a bow in front of the queen, and like a polite gentleman, he held my hand. Reaching her royal threshold, we knelt before her. Luckily, my fighter did all the smooth-talking, saying precious words that shall remain enclosed in my heart forever. “Your majesty, today I shall battle in honor of my dear consort, an exquisite specimen of beauty only second to yourself….” He then gave her the rose the messenger had given him. Quite flattered, the queen seemed pleased. I briefly added, “Your majesty, this is my very first event, and I feel quite honored to be here in your presence.” She told me she was thrilled I had come. Then the queen reached over on the table and gave me a rose followed by the words, “For your inspiration.” Kindly I thanked her, and Jeffrose and I got up, bowed again, and left. The queen indeed was very nice.
After all, fighters introduced themselves to her majesty, the fighting started. Some fencers were good, others weren’t, and some were just plain boring, always using the same techniques. However, on the other hand, I do admit, there were a few that had never ceased to keep me entertained. One fellow was an actor from Pittsburgh, and he always shouted out taunts like, “Shall you give up the fight? Or shall I force you to see endless night?” Also, to lower the other guy’s guard, he would start dancing on the court to distract his opponent. When he would suffer an injury, he would act out fighting until his fellow fencer dismembered every limb or stabbed him in the heart. I was also amused when my fearless fighter dismembered both an opponent’s legs. Taking him by the shirt and putting his sword to the fellow’s neck, Sir Jeffrose Stiller shouted to the queen, “Your majesty, I have severed both of this gentleman’s limbs. I leave his life in your hands.” The queen said, “Off with his head!” It was a very amusing decapitation… I had the greatest time of my life!
Following that event, I became enthralled with the SCA. I attended a few smaller events, such as a Sylvan Crusade, because I needed my SCA fix; Pennsic couldn’t come soon enough.
August 5, 2002, I trolled into my very first Pennsic War. I found 34 classes I wanted to take, a mix of “Welcome to the SCA” classes, theater, and bardic arts classes, but nearly 80% of the types were dance classes. I learned everything I could about English and Italian dance, including an unforgettable dance class called“ Sex on the Dance Floor & “Prexonera.” I’m proud to say I took nearly all the courses I planned to take. I learned many new skills, including receiving a hand kiss, story-telling, the art of imagination, and becoming an Italian Renaissance Lady. I finally entered this whole new world of the modern middle ages.
During my very first Pennsic of 2002, I discovered not only dance but commedia dell’arte theater:
My sis and I rushed over to watch i Genesii, an Italian Commedia group. A few members from my camp were participating in the show. It was such a good laugh! I really enjoyed watching it, although it had a somewhat scandalous scene involving a sexually explicit plot that covered both stripping and penis growth… I mentioned to my fellow Sunderoak mates that I would highly be interested in rehearsing with the Commedia troupe in the future. They graciously invited me to meet the coordinator, and we arranged a time I could audition for an open role. They told me they need someone to play the sweet, shy, and innocent girl in their next play. So, I can handle that…and am rather excited!
But commedia was a difficult journey for seventeen-year-old me. I attended a few i Genesii rehearsals to gear up for my very first (and only) Commedia performance with i Genesii at a Celtic New Year event on December 2, 2002:
Arlecchino kidnapped me from the feast table. He gave me a zanni mask, and I went to the bathroom to transform into a servant character. I wore a mask. It was a deep black with an intricate red design upon the front. I felt so much power as I placed the mask for the first time upon my face.
The lazzi went well. It started with Arlecchino presenting food before the king and queen. To be sure the food was safe and poison-free, it was most necessary to test it. Then Capitano, Dottore, Colombina, Vittoria, and Sylvia (myself) casually entered the room and overheard Arlecchino’s announcement. Dottore spouted all the nonsensical scientific reasons regarding the probability of the poisoning of the meal, and Vittoria took Sylvia aside and discussed with her which poisons might be hidden in the food. She did know the different toxins, for she had used a few on her own husbands in the past. Colombina danced around erotically with a French loaf of bread. The few who had set aside their food to watch us entertain found her to be the most unforgettable. This lead to the king and queen demanding we freeze. The queen declared that despite our thoughtful motive, we were in a tremendous amount of trouble eating all of their food. Hastily we scurried out of the room, and that was the end of the lazzi. I returned to the bathroom to transform back into myself, for Sylvia had vanished for the time being. Overall, I held quite a satisfying feeling from my very first performance and can’t wait to do it again! What fun!
A week after the Celtic New Year event, I received a call from the capocomico, the troupe manager of i Genesii. The individual crushed my heart and told me he did not want me to join the other troupe members. Primarily, they didn’t feel great about a seventeen-year-old girl performing at Pennsic in their highly sexual innuendo scenario. Secondly, they didn’t feel I had grasped the art of improvisation necessary to produce an excellent commedia show. This rejection was heart-wrenching; I couldn’t stop crying for days. I realized if I wanted to do commedia again, I needed to make it happen myself.
In the fall, I moved to college, and the campus became my sole microcosm. My college didn’t have any clubs close to the SCA, so I started a Medieval and Renaissance Appreciation Guild during my sophomore year. We made costumes, did many arts, but I taught this group everything I knew about commedia, and my peers learned to love it as much as I did. We performed two or three plays on campus. There were performances. I did everything, including writing the scenario, making costumes, running the light board, and ushering our audience into the theater. We transitioned from students to graduates, but the commedia still lived on. My group of actors mostly went “on tour” and performed at local renaissance fairs, dinner theaters, and even the Pittsburgh Zoo.
I fondly recall when we decided to engage in “kamikaze commedia” by taking our final dress rehearsals to our community. At the park, there is a beautiful amphitheater that seldom is used for events. As capocomico for this group, my idea was to perform our final two rehearsals at this space to practice our audience interactions.
As we started our performance, two teenaged girls walking on a nearby trail joined our audience. Engaged, they laughed fervently, and we called upon one to participate in our play. We dressed her in a Spanish Captain uniform, and she danced with us.
After the play, the two girls approached us. One said, “That was so much fun! Is your group ever going to perform here again?”
I responded, “Yes, actually, we will be back with this same play next Thursday. Same time, the same place.”
“We’ll be there!” the girls jubilantly exclaimed.
Now I know how busy life can get, and honestly, I didn’t expect these two girls to return as they had promised.
A week passed, and we started to set up for our final dress rehearsal. Lo and behold, the two girls returned! They laughed at our theatrical encore, joined in as our loyal audience participants donned their Spanish garb. A few other strangers joined, including an adorable boy who surprised me with a bouquet of wildflowers at the end of the performance. When I think about my favorite memories from performing, this memory appears at the forefront of my mind. It was one of the greatest days.
Fast forward sixteen years, and I’m finally on this stage. I’ve finally earned the title, “The Honorable Lady Avelina del Dolce.” My surname, “del Dolce” means “the sweet,” and I love the persona I am in the SCA.
I first received a Hawaiian lei medallion with a clown’s nose and pearl mirror in comedic tradition. We all laughed, and the royals asked for the real one. My Scholastica, my Maryland mom, presented me with a beautiful medallion from her and my beloved friend, Sophie. It was passed from Sophie’s sister Lucia to Sophie the Orange, to Scholastica, who then passed it to me. I cried tears of joy as the ceremony ended. The Order of the Pearl greeted me with hugs, and backstage the hugs continued from my commedia colleagues.
After our performance, I left the performing art pavilion to get hugs from my beloved friend, Patches, who led an event at the dance tent, and we did a celebratory dance together.
Eighteen years later, through theater and dance, I’ve had the opportunity to perform in the East, AEthemearc, Atlantia, and the Midrealm. I led The Wandering Fools (Vagando Stolti) near Baltimore, MD, for nearly five years. We performed at Spoutwood Faerie Festivals, conventions, SCA events, and professionally at Artscape, the largest free art festival on the east coast. All the memories, people I’ve met through the SCA over the years are my family. I cherish the time we spend together and the future memories to come.
More about my SCA story can be found here: https://aethelmearcgazette.com/2021/02/21/populace-in-focus-avelina-del-dolce/