Hall Decorating in the SCA

The SCA holds regular events where members can congregate in an attempt to recreate the niceties of the middle ages. We hold tournaments, feasts, tavern nights, archery shoots, revels and many other occasions of various themes. An event can be greatly enhanced by creating an ambiance with the use of heraldic display. This article is intended to help people run a hall decorating crew for SCA events. The examples discussed are all relating to the hall decorations constructed for victory feast at May Crown ASXXXIX which was held in St Florian de la Riviere at the White’s Hill State School (Brisbane). Working To A Theme

The theme of your event may already have been determined by the event steward, so you will need to coordinate with your steward and ensure that everything you want to do is homogenous with the rest of the steward’s master plans. The theme of our May Crown event was based on an actual event of 1513, it was an outdoor feast held in the town square where the participants were seated in the round , and the populace was invited to watch and partake in the ‘leftovers’.

In 1513 the Patrician of Rome celebrated the return of the Medici family to prominence in Florence with a magnificent feast! Sparing no luxury, the Medici entourage was treated with tastes and sights that have not been seen in living memory

So with our theme defined as Italian, Renaissance (Medici family in particular) - we were looking to create an outdoor courtyard type feel and as extravagant and grand as we could manage.

Spend some time looking through your libraries for images within the time frame to get a feel for the sort of environment that you want to create. Once you have an understanding of the steward’s concept, there are things you can do immediately to help you work out where to start:

  • Identify current resources - reinventing the wheel for every event can be costly and unnecessary.
  • What sort of banners and hangings do you have access to that suit the theme?
  • What other props are available to you? Be creative with this one, a bit of castle wall from last year’s fort battle or a prop from last festival’s play could come in handy!
  • Soft furnishing can add to the ambiance - How many rugs, cushions, tablecloths, etc do you have?
  • Will you need to make anything new to create the right atmosphere?

When making new items for the event, whether it is large banners, or small serving cloths, try to see if you can fit them into the general theme of the event.

Investigate Your Space

First things first - you need to get access to your hall and do a decent reconnoitre. This may need to be done months in advance if you are planning a large kingdom event. When going for your first look around, don’t forget to take paper, pens, and tape measures. It can also be helpful to take some digital pictures, as it can help you explain things to people who have difficulty visualizing things in their head. Your floor plan or layout design needs to take many things into consideration, such as:

  • Room Dimensions - lengths, widths, ceiling height, doorways, window heights etc
  • Exit and Entrance points
  • Possible hanging points for banners/drapery etc
  • Identifying mundane items to hide
  • What is wrong with your space that you want to overcome?

Taking away as many measurements of your space as possible, it will give you a good framework to start working your decorating ideas into your space - nothing worse than coming up with a grand plan and then realizing it just wont fit where you need it to. The hall we used for May Crown was massive, it holds an indoor basket ball court (complete with ugly floor markings), has a large stage area at one end, and a canteen/kitchen and bathrooms at the opposite end. It echoes terribly as it has approx 6 metre high ceiling, and it felt too big and cavernous (it seats up to 2000 students).

Before

Problems identified at the initial inspection:

  • how can we visually create smaller intimate spaces?
  • could we disguise the ugly sliding windows?
  • what could we do to distract from the floor markings?
  • how could we hide the kitchen entrance and the canteen servery?
  • what can we do to give the impression of an outdoors space?

Team

Doing a large decorating job like this is never going to be accomplished by one person. It is important to get a team of reliable and motivated people to work with you in getting it all together. People often want to be involved in preparing events. Find out what aspects of the event your volunteers are interested in, what tasks they WANT to do, and assess their skills and preferences to see how they can best be assimilated into the grand plan.

  • Decide if you need a small team or workers or a larger number of helpers is required
  • Check if there are an insurance issues re volunteers working on the day or night before an event
  • Look hard at any safety issues that may affect your helpers
  • Ensure no damage is done to the hall or the halls’ equipment
  • Make sure your volunteers are well shod, well fed, and well watered while they are working.

For the May Crown event, I had a small and very hardworking crew - some wanted to be more involved in the artistic and creative elements required to make props, and others were there to help with the ‘heavy lifting’ on the setup night. The setup for this event did not require a great horde of people, as things needed to be done sequentially -the chairs had to be removed before the banners could go up, the banners had to go up before the canopy could go up, the canopy had to go up before the tables could be arranged, the wall had to go up before the bunting could go up, and so on). If we had a large set up crew, we would have had people standing around unoccupied waiting on certain tasks to be completed before they could get to their part. It is important to keep an eye on what everyone is doing during the setup which is easier with a small group - if you see people engaging in unsafe practices put a stop to it.

Lorcan, Wendall and Henri start the construction on the garden wall. Mynjon getting ready to erect the canopy.

Floorplan Design

Drawing out a floor plan is a great tool for explaining to your crew how things will look and ensuring your whole team is on the same page. Be specific with your floor plan, how many tables are going where? Which banners do you want placed in what spot? Some elements to take into consideration in your floor plan may include:

  • Dimensions of floor space and space between doorways etc
  • Placement of feasting tables
  • Any space requirement for entertainments
  • Serving crew entry and access points from kitchens to tables
  • Dance space requirements
  • Placement of thrones for court
  • Sitting areas and leaving space for people to place belongings
  • Leaving exits identifiable and accessible
  • Placement of lighting - candle issues

The floor plan drawing for the May Crown event (attached) was done to approx scale, so we could see how the room would be arranged when finally decked out. One of the things I included in this plan was to designate places for personal banners based on colour. Many of these personal banners were already in existence, and only a handful were made (in the same style) for this event. I also included the lay out of the tables and some desired reserved seating for visiting landed gentles. The tables immediately surrounding the high table were seated only on one side such that none had their backs to the royalty. The placement of thrones with Kingdom Banners was also on the plan to provide a focus point at that end of the hall, and hopefully distract from the large unused stage area.

Major Decorative Elements/Features

Early on in the planning stages, it needs to be determined if any major decorative items or features need to be constructed to achieve the desired environment. If you want to do something extravagant, move on it quickly, so you aren’t reduced to either cutting back on your plans or doing a rush job. Being organized on the layout and design means you can get others enthused about working on larger projects.

One of the things I felt we needed to do in this hall was to create the illusion of a smaller space by visually lowering the ceiling. To do this we created a large decorative canopy, which would also mimic the outdoors feel we were trying to achieve. The plan with the canopy was to alleviate the feeling that we were rattling about in that huge room. I was also hoping that those sitting under the canopy would experience a lot of reflected light from the canopy, making the ceiling appear black as it would outdoors. The canopy measured 6x 4 metres (the fact that this was the exact distance between the structural beams on the ceiling that we were going to hang it from was no accident!) The design for the canopy was loosely based on a 14th C. Italian mural painted by Simon Martini (Binski pg 44).

The canopy was made from bleached calico and the tricolour binding was made from red, white and blue damask. The design painted onto the canopy was based on a design seen on a fresco commissioned by the Medici family (unknown artist, Micheleitti, pg 50).

Banners & Hangings

SCA events are attempting to recreate a medieval environment in a modern day setting. Pageantry and heraldic display can greatly enhance the atmosphere of an event and give your event a much more ‘medieval’ feel to it. We need to recognize that it doesn’t matter how hard we try, it is nigh on impossible to remove all mundane elements from our events - and it is not necessarily practical or safe to do so.

When using banners inside your hall, don’t get too hung up on whether or not it is an appropriate use of that type of banner -if is going to look good and add to the atmosphere and indirectly, to people’s enjoyment of your event - feel free to do it. Try to collect, in one place, all the banners you intend to use well in advance of the event - this saves hectic running around looking for things at the last minute. In addition, if you are borrowing things from other people, they generally appreciate knowing well in advance that their things will be required. Some things to consider when deciding how you use banners in decorating your hall:

  • Authenticity vs spectacle - what is more important for your event?
  • Creating grandeur for royal tables and thrones - Kingdom banners and colours
  • Creating focus points - use banners for misdirection - encourage people to look away from mundane things that can’t be helped
  • Hide modern or unsightly things with banners.
  • Creating intimacy - make ‘rooms’ or separate spaces using drapery or other soft furnishings.
  • Clean the floors before you start - strangely enough the floors in any hall will never be very clean, and if you plan to lay your banners etc all out of the floor you won’t want them dirtied.

The personal standards we encourage gentles to make in St Florian are more appropriate for use in the war field. However, they mostly see use in hall decorating. We encourage members of the barony to make a standard, (even before their heraldry is registered) using their preferred colours and devices. This style of banner has been chosen for it’s ease of construction, economical cost and amazing impact when hung en masse. We used the canopy, bunting hanging from the ceiling, banners hanging from the upper window casements, and large kingdom banners placed high over the stage to draw people’s attention upward in hope that it would add to the sense of grandeur we were trying to achieve and as an added bonus - distract from the markings on the floor and the blue chairs we had to use.

This is how the ‘garden’ seating area looked once completed, the banners have been arranged mostly to break up the colours. We have used gonfalon banners for this space as they were perfectly sized for the space. We have thrown some plants into the area also, and nailed some ivy to the wall to give the impression of a garden wall. The bunting was hung overhead to visually bring the roof down and to make the space feel more intimate, and had the added advantage of distracting from the floor - this bunting arrangement is not a particularly period practice to the best of my knowledge, but it served our purposes and added to the spectacle. Overall, it helped create a comfortable and intimate space that was well used throughout the evening.

Other Soft Furnishings

Soft furnishings, such as throw rugs, drapery, cushions, curtains and carpets can be added to a space to cover mundane chairs, provide comfortable seating and assist in reducing noise/echo, and to distract from mundane things that can’t be change or removed.

Hiding Obtusively Modern Items

Modern things in your room can be visually jarring to the atmosphere you are trying to create. Wherever possible remove modern items that distract from the theme and the ambiance. There will always be things in the hall that you can’t change or hide - for example, line markings on the floor, aluminum sliding windows, plastic chairs etc. Be as creative as you can to eliminate as many of these as possible to reduce the number of mundane items impacting on your feasting environment. Whatever you can’t remove - try and hide or cover.

Don’t forget to stop around about now and take ten minutes to breathe and remember this is supposed to be fun!

For our event, we used quite a number of different ways to hide (or remove) mundane things as best we could for example:

  • A section of timber fort wall was erected using a pallet racking structure within the room. This created a backdrop for a seated garden space and did double duty in hiding the entrances to the toilets, and providing storage behind it for mundane items.
  • All the connected chairs (below) were lifted onto the stage which wasn’t being used, as they didn’t fit into the plan and we had no use for them.
  • Another section of wall was erected also. This time, a disused play prop that resembled an old castle wall was used down one side of the hall to hide aluminum windows.
  • Small gonfalon banners were used down the other side of the hall to hide the windows also
  • An internal frame tent (one of those freestanding garage tents, but with a natural fabric canvas roof and walls) was erected to hide the kitchen entrance to the room - serving the dual purposes of being a serving crew mustering area and minimizing noise and light from the kitchen entering the hall.
  • Large split coloured banners were hung over any other obviously mundane fittings or items.
  • Solid coloured sheets of fabric were used to cover hall signs that we couldn’t remove

Table Settings

The table settings may or may not be included in the hall decorating crew’s sphere - some kitchen crews have specific plans for laying out the tables with decorative greenery, candles and or bread/food before the feast starts. Negotiate with the kitchen crew as to what their preferences are, and whose responsibility decorating the tables will be. A couple of things to consider when contemplating the table decorations:

  • Candles - are candelabra or smaller holders more suitable? Wax can be a BIG issue, make sure candles aren’t going to cause destruction. Investing in good dripless candles can save heartache.
  • What decorative items are going on the tables? Greenery? Bouquets of herbs? Bread?
  • Does any seating need to be reserved - visiting landed gentry? disabled access etc?
  • Period as possible vs adding to ambiance - much feasting imagery would indicate that the ususal mode of decorating table in period is to add expensive plate, as this isn’t necessarily an option for an SCA event, what can we do instead?

Hall Set Up Bits Kit

Stationery:

  • Scissors,
  • Blu-Tac,
  • Masking tape, Sticky tape,
  • Bulldog clips (small and large),
  • markers

Hardware:

  • Nails and screw in hooks
  • Zip ties,
  • Gaffa tape,
  • Rope, twine and/or string,
  • G-clamps etc

Tools:

  • Hammer
  • staple gun
  • tape measure

Essentials - chocolate, chips and coke oh my!

Things To Remember…

Here are a few little things to keep in mind when running your next hall decorating crew…

  • How will things look under candlelight?
  • To accept things you can’t change - ugly blue chairs, markings on floors etc and try to work around them.
  • To recognise your limitations - you don’t have hundreds of peasants at your disposal = don’t have load of * money at your disposal. Doing things the most period way may not be viable.
  • If you want to keep people out until you are ready for them, have everything completed well in advance and appoint trolls to discourage people from coming in until the appointed time.
  • To smack the steward around for having chosen such an ugly hall in the first place… it will make you feel much, much better!!!

After

A lot of people assisted in the hall decorations at the May Crown event 2005 which is discussed in this article and held in the fair Barony of St Florian de la Riviere. I want to thank you all, you know who you are.