It’s not often one makes a living falling off a horse and sword fighting to the death, but that happens on a regular basis for Kent Shelton and the performers from the Hanlon-Lees Action Theater.
Shelton and his company put on the jousts each season for the Texas Renaissance Festival in Todd Mission, just north of Magnolia.
“Something always hurts. We try to take the fall so to speak, but yes, we’re falling and it’s all part of the joust,” he said.” People want to see someone get knocked off the horse, that’s what jousting is.”
Based out of Luther, Okla., the troupe tours the country performing their jousting act at renaissance festivals. When they aren’t wearing suits of armor and falling off horses, they shoot ’em up in a Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.
Shelton is the star of the show at TRF, playing Sir Thomas, the English knight. For four shows a day each weekend he competes against knights representing France, Germany and Spain.
“This is what we call theatrical jousting as opposed to that wham, bam, slamming stuff, which to me is not that interesting. We try to put a storyline with it and we do three to four different shows a day. They’re all different and they build to the finale show which is usually the joust to the death,” Shelton said.
The weekend of Nov. 11-12 featured a new theme for the Texas Renaissance Festival and to play along with the Heroes and Villains concept, they adapted their performance to incorporate Medieval-looking superheroes and bad guys.
“I am Sir Clark of Kent, Super Knight, Man of Steel,” Shelton said.
“I am Sir Phillip, the Duke of Lorrain, France, but today I am playing Doctor Doom,” said Jarrod Listiak of Globe-Miami, Ariz. “When I am at TRF Renaissance Festival I normally play Phillip. I have been Phillip, this will be my sixth year, but not in a row. The last time I was here was in 2009, 2007, 6, 5, and 2004, I believe.”
Shelton said they have a basic storyline they follow but do alter it from time to time.
“This weekend is Heroes and Villains, so we did change it up a bit for that and we change it up a bit for some of the themes but not every single one of them. We have pretty much a formula that we stick to and that we have found out works for us for over 40 years,” he said.
Listiak said he enjoys being a part of the group.
“I do this because I like the physicality of it, the choreography, how hard it is being in a group with everyone else working together and flowing together for the show part,” he said.” I think I do it to be a part of something greater than myself. Jerrod, everyday he’s an alright guy but he doesn’t touch too many people, but here I can touch thousands of people and hopefully inspire them to chase their dreams and do what they feel they’d like to do when they grow up, or if they’re grown to do what they really want to do with their life.”
What people see in the arena is just a small portion of what goes into putting on the show.
“It does take a lot of rehearsal,” Shelton said. “We work Wednesday through Sunday. We take off Mondays and Tuesdays but we work the horses, we break a lot of things, we scratch up a lot of things so we have to paint things and fix things, and train new horses, and even on Monday and Tuesday we still have to feed the horses.”
On top of that, they’re salesmen as well.
“We do a lot of supplementary things for our show, like sell the pennants and we sign them after the joust and we do the warhorse rides as well,” Shelton said.
He said it takes a lot of people behind the scenes to make the act work.
“We have to have several people and horses in our company and we have to have sometimes 20 people working for us and a dozen horses. I actually have a dozen horses here right now because we’re doing these warhorse rides,” he said.
Listiak, 38, used to work for Hanlon-Lees full time, but he has since cut his schedule back.
“I used to do it full time, now I only joust half the year and the other half I work on a cattle ranch in Oracle, Arizona, working cattle, and welding, and mechanicing and all that good stuff,” he said.
The man in the middle of it all is James Ellis, originally from Chicago.
“I am the master of arms, the ringmaster, you know, the emcee of the show. The big voice. That’s because I’m too old to fall off the horse anymore,” he said.
He said he has been performing for 40 years and “I’ve never jousted. I’ve never held a lance.”
Crowds love to see the long, wooden lances shatter on impact. Shelton said that’s not always by design.
“Some of them are a little weaker than others. So we go through probably five a day, depending. Some of those solid hits out there, they’re solid pine but, like I said, some of them are weaker than others,” he said.
Ellis said he is content to leave the violence to his comrades in armor.
“I have a one-man show that I do, but I’ve been working with the Hanlon-Lees now a good couple of decades, mainly working with Kent on our Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. We have America’s favorite Wild West Show and I play the emcee for that also,” he said.
Ellis started young and has kept going all these years.
“I was 14 years of age when I started working, did my first renaissance faire, paid professional, learned to juggle, learned to eat fire, learned to walk rope, learned to ride horses, learned to, learned to, learned to and just haven’t stopped,” he said.” I’m blessed my entire professional career. I’ve been semi-retired, I like to say.”
He said he enjoys performing as much as the crowds enjoy the act.
“They have a great time,” he said. “There is nothing like it. To ride out in this arena particularly, when it’s full and there’s standing room only in the arches we’re looking at about 9,000 people. And to be out there in the middle of all those screaming people, you know they’re having a good time. It’s a wonderful thing.”
If you go:
Texas Renaissance Festival
21778 Farm to Market 1774,
Todd Mission, TX 77363
Celtic Christmas theme
Nov. 25-28, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.