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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Taking another stab

Jousters relish roles in 18th annual Northwest Renaissance Festival

Sara Mcmullen The Spokesman-Review

Brian and Tieg Thornton are father and son in reality, but for five weekends a year the two men are mortal enemies in the fictional realm of the Northwest Renaissance Festival.

“Basically, he hunts me down and tries to kill me,” Brian Thornton says of his 22-year-old son, who is the joust master for the annual event held each summer in Nine Mile Falls. Someone may die at the end of a sword, but because the fair is improvisational, anything goes.

For the cast and crew of the 18th annual event, it is the ultimate role-playing game that allows immersion in the Middle Ages, “without the plague,” Brian Thornton jokes. The fair runs Saturdays and Sundays through July 22.

The number of participants in festivals like the one here is booming, a trend that likely owes some credit to several mainstream television series, movies and novels set in medieval times, festival organizers said.

Many of the cast members of the festival in Spokane were scouted for the movie “Knights of Badassdom,” a low-budget flick filmed at Riverside State Park in 2010. The characters in the movie are involved in live-action role-playing, also known as LARPing, similar to the culture found at the Northwest Renaissance Festival. Peter Dinklage, one of the actors of the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones,” was in the Spokane-based movie, helping increase exposure to the culture.

The film is expected to be released this summer, much to the anticipation of the cast of the Renaissance festival here.

“One of my dresses can be seen on a lady who dies. You can see the dress go rolling by on the ground,” said Tienne Rogers, the 64-year-old who donates her 20-acre wooded property 18 miles north of Spokane for the festival. She is also the grandmother of Tieg Thornton.

Rogers said this year attendance at the fair went up at least 10 percent after dropping by nearly half in the last several gatherings.

“We’ve lasted through the harsh years, when people had to re-evaluate what they wanted to do with their entertainment money,” Rogers said. “People cut back but we still survived.”

On Friday the jousting team practiced in “the lists,” the area of the property where the fictional royalty and fair attendees come to watch the gruesome medieval sport involving two armor-clad combatants on horseback charging at each other with lances.

As temperatures soared near 100 degrees, the jousters dressed in 16-gauge steel breastplates and helmets and layer upon layer of cotton. As one jouster smacked the other with the tip of a lance, causing the wood to break into pieces, onlookers responded with shouts of “huzzah” to show approval.

“I do this because I love it,” Tieg Thornton said. “We basically only make enough money for our materials.” The annual festival costs about $10,000 each year, Rogers said.

In years past, there have been only a few jousters, but now more are coming forward, Thornton said. It’s not easy to balance on a horse with a suit of armor while worrying about an opponent stabbing you in the chest.

Alex Johnson-Tull, 18, is the only female jouster. She’s barely 5-foot-2 and has trouble finding armor to suit her.

“They don’t make battle-ready children’s armor,” Johnson-Tull said.

This year the storyline at the fair is set in the 1300s, a departure from the usual Tudors-era setting, Rogers said. Tieg Thornton plays a Welshman who has been living in exile in Scotland and desires vengeance toward the English.

Brian Thornton is hunting William Wallace, the famed Scottish knight.

“I have always felt uncomfortable with the world I’m living in,” Thornton said. “Things are much clearer when you are facing another man at the end of a sword.”