Shawn Shelnutt has the best job, if you hear him tell it, at the Sarasota Medieval Fair in Myakka City.
At every festival, Shelnutt walks up to his spot, pokes his head through a hole in a fence, and heckles the crowd while they bombard him with tomatoes.
“If we’re talking about glancing blows, I probably get hit 50 times a day,” Shelnutt said. “If we’re talking (direct hits), that’s usually five to 10 times a day that I wish I wouldn’t have taken those hits.”
Shelnutt performs in the traveling Renaissance festival industry, moving from city to city and helping to bring medieval landscapes to life with a team of fellow performers. The Sarasota Medieval Fair runs every Saturday and Sunday in November.
It’s common for festival employees to cycle through jobs over the years — some have run the gamut from jesters to jousters — but Shelnutt has kept with his very specific role for nearly a decade.
He’s had other fields of interest that include a background in psychology and some experience in stand up comedy, but the Wisconsin native has decided that festival life is right for him.
It’s a fine line to walk, playfully heckling the crowd while being pelted by tomatoes, but Shelnutt said he does it well. Even in the aggressive (and sometimes messy) environment, Shelnutt cherishes the chance to connect with people.
“I know I’m going to have a good conversation (every festival) and I know I’m going to make people laugh,” Shelnutt said. “I think my purpose is to bring cheer and happiness to people and if that happens while tomatoes are being thrown at me, I love that.”
Shelnutt is far from alone in his passion. Thousands of visitors attend the Sarasota Medieval Fair.
Many of the patrons dress in fantasy and medieval costumes just for the occasion. Vendors sold a number of types of mead, food, period-appropriate weaponry, crafts and much more.
“It’s a fantasy world,” vendor Mark Hawkins said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a cool kid or not.”
Those in attendance sit in shaded bleachers to watch knights from days of yore charge one another in bouts of jousting.
Sarasota resident Kyle Larsen said he was impressed by the day’s jousting. He was dressed as “Encanto’s” Bruno complete with a poncho from South America, accessories from Goodwill and a mouse plushie that rested on his shoulder.
“I had family invite me and I had this costume on me so I thought, ‘Let’s go have some fun,’” Larsen said. “The jousting is good here, and I got a mug that matches my outfit.”
Mark Hawkins is a festival worker who’s been traveling in the Renaissance circuit for years.
He said he’s played peasants and kings, but these days Hawkins has a more narrow task as he helps sell swords, maces, katanas and other weaponry with the Legacy Forge company based out of Texas.
“I was working as a mechanic,” Hawkins said. “I decided to quit my job and join the circus. I needed a change.”
St. Petersburg resident Hunter Craig donned an impressive suit of armor and met up with a band of friends he attends conventions with a few times a year.
“There’s such a sense of community," Craig said. "Everyone comes here and is a little off kilter and having fun. There’s no judgment.”