Chimney sweeps, Father Christmas and the Queen of England await you at the Cow Palace this holiday season.
Picture yourself wandering bustling 1800s London. Shopkeepers invite you to peruse their vintage books and violins, candles and corsets, garlands and gowns. Bands of motley gin picketers and sooty chimney sweeps rove the avenues and alleyways. Christmas carolers serenade you in the streets, and dockhands beckon you to join in a sea shanty. But, believe it or not, you haven’t inexplicably transported yourself back in time. You’re at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, an interactive experience brought to life by 750 costumed participants. Channeling figures from the life and imagination of famous British author Charles Dickens, they collectively re-create 19th-century London in all its grime and its glory.
In this regard, the Dickens Fair elevates immersive theater to a whole new level. It takes the empty expanse of Daly City’s Cow Palace, and transforms its three acres into a make-believe city with historical figures, fictional characters, and shopkeepers. Then it welcomes the audience to join those performers on its expansive stage.
The event acts as breathing history and living literature. And the production is so detailed you can walk around in it and still “believe” in the illusion. We chatted with a few factual and fictitious Victorian figures at the fair about the wonder and the world building that goes into the largest immersive theater experience offered in the Bay Area.
Meeting Charles Dickens
Let’s start at the heart of things. At the center of this little universe is the famed author himself. The fair’s Charles Dickens — a gentleman with a thick bottlebrush mustache, grizzled beard and red flowers tucked into his lapel — can be found performing sections of A Christmas Carol throughout the day. If you join him at a vintage parlor at the Greenman Inn, he’ll regale you with tales of the jolly Mr. Fezziwig, the heartwarming Tiny Tim and, of course, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge — all of whom might just walk past the window as he describes them.
As he spins the classic tale with expressive hands and a passionate voice, he activates it in a way a classroom never could. Robert Young, the actor behind the role, has studied transcripts of the famed author’s speeches and eyewitness accounts of his public appearances to pinpoint those mannerisms. Also in the name of research, he’s tracked down places in England the writer used to frequent: his home in Portsmouth, the residence of his dear friend Lord Cobham, the Leather Bottle pub where he presented readings. Young has stood in Dickens’ library and sat in one of his favorite chairs.
In this regard, Young has a thorough understanding of his subject. He can tell you of Dickens’ difficult childhood (of his days in an unregulated, rat-infested blacking warehouse during his father’s imprisonment). He can speak of the years Dickens enjoyed rock star status (at one point, some of the writer’s lady fans followed him down the street with scissors in hopes of obtaining a piece of his coat). And he can discuss Dickens’ influence on the world around him (like how his incompetent judge in Oliver Twist held such an uncanny resemblance to a real magistrate that it cost the man his position at court). After channeling Dickens for 30 years, you could say he’s a bit of an expert.
“He’s an engaging enough and interesting enough creature that it’s kept me in the role this long!” Young asserts. His eagerness toward the historical figure and his works is contagious. His audience leans in to catch every word.
A History lesson through immersive theater
The entire fair seems intent on proving that history holds much more flavor than your typically dry textbooks have let on.
The interactive nature of the fair makes passive observation impossible. While you may be able to tune out an auditorium lecture, you can’t ignore immersive theater. The environment and the people are the lesson. So unless you walk around with a blindfold and earplugs, you’re going to end up learning something.
“All you have to do is look around and you can see the way people dressed is different and the way people spoke is different and the way people lived is different,” says San Jose local Malaya Goris who successfully brings Mrs. Cratchit from A Christmas Carol to the dimensional world.
As the audience joins the performers on one expansive stage, they’re free to explore the world and interact with its inhabitants however they choose. They can take a fencing lesson or watch culturally relevant shows like Punch and Judy. They can visit historical places like The Great Exhibition (where Victorian scientists eagerly share their discoveries) or stop by the Adventurer’s Club (where literary peers of Dickens present readings).
“And [a history lesson] only sounds better with a British accent and a costume,” Goris chuckles.
Life lessons through laughter
Another key element in the event’s continued success is humor. As Phyllis Patterson (co-founder of the fair as well as the Renaissance Pleasure Faire) once explained to the Los Angeles Times. “The whole idea [of these events] is to get people to play the living history game,” she explained. “Our motto is to tickle into learning with a laugh.”
Fittingly, this also happened to be a strategy in Charles Dickens’ stories. Take his protagonist Mr. Pickwick for instance, a character who gets tangled in all sorts of misadventures (from being caught in the midst of a mock combat of several regiments to getting locked in a closet by a bevy of hysterical women who mistake him as a robber). Underneath the antics, the author explored legal corruption, ignorance and problematic debtors’ prisons. “Dickens had a very wry sense of humor. He would look to teach his lessons by tricking you into them,” says the fair’s very own Pickwick, Karsten Agler. The South Bay native can be spotted cheerily striding the streets in a tailcoat and his adventure-ready Wellington boots.
Jessica Grist (who dons a stunning snow and cerulean gown and crown as the fair’s Queen Victoria), also contributes this as the reason behind Dickens’ lasting legacy. “He was really good at creating these hilarious characters, but also calling out some of the social injustices of the time (in a way that was really funny, but also timeless and relevant to today).”
And today, the upbeat attitude and high-spirited antics throughout the fair certainly offer ample opportunity for laughs alongside the life lessons.
The performers say they gain something from visitors too, contributing unscripted guest interactions to be some of their fondest memories. Mr. Pickwick/Agler fondly recalls the time “Mother Goose” brought over two kids who had just read The Pickwick Papers in school. “To them, I was coming alive out of the pages. I will be the Pickwick that they remember. I got to shake their hands and talk to them about Pickwick-ian things. The smiles on those kids’ faces was so worth it.”
In a previous role, Agler recalls a pleasant interruption while dialoguing with another actress. As they strolled along a street quoting The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a passerby who knew the lines from the story shot in a response. “They jumped in and wanted to play too so we included them!”
Queen Victoria/Grist volunteers a favorite moment as well. “Last year, there was this 10-year-old kid who came up to me and took out a little flute. He’d prepared a little musical piece to play for me!… I was so touched.”
Dickens/Young notes the enjoyment he finds in playing with visitors who attempt to pull him out of character. A favorite strategy is trying to get him to acknowledge their smart phone technology. “I get the person I’m dealing with to explain [their phones] to me.” Young switches to a British accent and exclaims, “I have no idea what you mean! Please, tell me more.” Then he switches back to his regular voice, “You put it back in their court. It’s the game of wit… You can direct it into something where they learn something in the process as well as have fun. That’s the best of all possible worlds.”
Dressed to the Nines
Some guests, rather than try to pull performers out of Victorian England and into the modern world, will plunge into the past — ostrich-plumed hats, voluminous period gowns and all. Often, you can’t tell actors and visiting enthusiasts apart.
“A guest who’s dressing up is a guest who’s saying, ‘I want you to play with me!’ ” interjects Frederik Goris who acts as the cheerful Mr. Cratchit. “They want to be a part of it,” Pickwick/Agler agrees. “And so absolutely we include them. This is their fair as much as it is ours.”
Dickens/Young has an interesting outlook on how alter egos are an informative experience in their own way. “I think it’s interesting to note how that helps one’s sense of oneself, one’s knowledge about oneself, one’s ability to see oneself,” he explains. “When you play another character like that, it sets out the kind of watcher in you that isn’t either your current character that has developed over all the years of your life or this other character that you’re now portraying. [It drives you to ask,] ‘What’s the difference?’ ”
The Dickens Fair allows people to explore interests they might not normally get the chance to embrace at home or work. Still hesitant to hop into hoopskirts? We’ll let you in on a little secret. “Dickens” is an educator at MTI College. The “Queen of England” is a software engineering team lead at a tech company. Anything is possible.
So say yes to the adventure and take a trip back in time. Enter into the beautiful chaos of this world within a world where characters peel themselves off the pages of their storybooks and historical figures heave themselves out of textbooks.
Check out the Dickens Fair on weekends until December 22nd for your 1860s adventure. Find more details here.
Stay up to date with other coverage from The Six Fifty by subscribing to our weekly newsletter, featuring event listings, reviews and articles showcasing the best that the Peninsula has to offer. Sign up here!
More local culture from The Six Fifty:
- Meet the 7 ladies taking the Silicon Valley art scene by storm
- Foothill College’s KFJC radio station celebrates 60 years of outsider audio
- How Menlo Park’s star triathlete wound up on LeBron’s new TV show
- Angora rabbit or alpaca? Silicon Valley knitting group unravels the ins and outs of #yarnlife
- Catching the Golden Snitch: Meet Silicon Valley’s star quidditch players
- 11 local Silicon Valley photographers you should follow on Instagram right now