Renaissance fest an outlet for Unity actor
An upwardly mobile former “pirate” who is now part of the royal court, Shawn Howland usually is cheering on the bad guys when it comes time for jousts at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival near West Newton.
But the single father from Unity cannot help but respond when the youngest members of the audience display adorable tendencies.
Howland, 41, is in his seventh year as a cast member with the festival that depicts a world combining the European milieu of the early 16th century with a few fanciful elements such as fairies and an invisible unicorn.
Following previous appearances as a member of the king's guard, a Scottish lord, a shire deputy and a pirate captain, Howland has portrayed Admiral Howlin' Mad Jack Howland, warden of the Cinque Ports, for four years.
Though he lacks a ship, Howland's favorite prop is a small paddle he carries with him as he circulates around the festival grounds, judging contests and engaging spectators in conversation.
On the sidelines of a joust, when a preschool boy began tugging on his paddle, Howland let go of it, and the youngster began to make rowing motions with it, singing, “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat.”
“I go from screaming for blood to ‘Oh, that's so cute,' ” he said. “It was the most wonderful thing. As far as I'm concerned, the kids are why we're there.”
For Howland, the Renaissance festival provides the perfect outlet for his lifelong interest in acting.
“I've been involved in performance since I was 3,” he said, noting it's a skill passed down by his parents, who appeared in community theater and on the professional stage.
College studies on a vocal performance scholarship and a stateside stint in the Army have taken Howland from his native Connecticut to New York City, Washington, D.C., Texas and Arizona, where he attended his first Renaissance-themed event as a patron.
Settling in Western Pennsylvania in 1998, he became involved with theater groups in Greensburg and Pittsburgh. He continued his education at Seton Hill University and auditioned there for the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival cast.
Howland said cast members look for imaginative ways to comment when they witness a visitor with an electronic device that is out of step with the historical period being portrayed. If a guest is taking snapshots with a digital camera, he might remark on “the really large mega-pixies inside the box that are drawing the pictures for them.”
Howland plays on his name with a running gag: Every time someone pronounces his name, he howls — and encourages others to imitate him. During a joust, he said, “I'll get 300 people howling with me on the hillside. That's the most fun.”
Howland is “very interactive. He's always out and about and making people at our festival feel a part of what we're doing,” said Jim Paradise, vice president and director of marketing for Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Festivals, which operates the Pittsburgh event.
Howland said his “Mad Jack” character has allowed him to be involved in all levels of society portrayed by the festival cast. As an admiral, he is a member of the royal retinue and has the power to rule on mock court cases. But he pointed out that the character began as a pirate from the lower classes.
“He was technically peasantry, so he kind of spans the whole thing, which is nice,” he said.
After four seasons, the pirate-turned-admiral has developed fans who message him on Facebook to make sure he'll reprise his role at each year's festival.
Howland may be best known to many for his work at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, but it's not his only gig. Joining the community of vendors, he's traveled as far away as Texas to sell kilts at other renaissance events.
Early this year, he teamed with Matt Hughes of Pittsburgh, whom he met at the Pittsburgh festival, to perform Celtic tunes and sea shanties as the musical duo Crossed Cannons. They've appeared at the Enchanted Lakes Renaissance Faire and Marketplace in Angola, Ind., and at a venue in upstate New York. They're hoping next to enter the recording studio, Howland said.
Howland noted the immersive, improvisational nature of the Renaissance festival is what makes it so appealing for attendees and cast members.
“It's one thing to be on a stage 50 feet from the closest person, performing the same lines each day,” he said. “But to perform within arm's reach of somebody and to make them part of the performance, that's magic.”
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622 or firstname.lastname@example.org.