‘No sweeping under the rug’: KC Renaissance Fest women speak up about sexual assault

Aislynn Quinn was 15 years old when she started working at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival.

Almost immediately, she said, older men employed at the festival began “grooming” her.

They gave the vulnerable teen gifts, compliments and attention so that when they made sexual advances she would be flattered, she said, rather than seeing it as clearly inappropriate.

In Quinn’s second year at the fair, she said, one of those men pushed her into a small room where he violently kissed her and tried to take her clothes off.

Quinn mostly kept her mouth shut about the incident. Last month, however, she joined the ranks of current and former cast members stepping forward to tell their stories of being sexually assaulted by men they met at the festival.

In the span of a week, dozens of women from festivals across the country spoke out — some anonymously, and some under their own names — to share their stories on Facebook. The stories went back 20 years and described a pattern of behavior by about a dozen men.

A 15-year-old getting her first kiss from a 40 -year-old forcibly shoving his tongue down her throat.

A teen harassed and groped so often she thought that was how all men treated women.

A woman raped in the shower.

Many of the stories were publicly shared on the Facebook page of Amber Lee Bartlett, another former performer. Bartlett did not respond to The Star’s request for an interview in June.

Those who visit the Kansas City Renaissance Fair come expecting to eat mutton, drink mead, and interact with actors dressed in suits of armor and ornate gowns. Many of those actors are taking a break from their day jobs to help create a medieval world every fall.

But beneath the surface, former performers and current management say the festival is grappling with reports of sexual assault and harassment that, until recently, were accepted or ignored at the expense of the victims.

Mid-America Festivals, the parent company of the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, confronted this issue at another fair last year: an entertainment director in Minnesota is charged with sexual assault. The company said it has improved its policies on sexual assault and harassment.

“It deeply saddens me to read my Festival colleagues sharing on social media about mistreatment,” Kansas City Entertainment Director Brandi Ogier said in a written statement. “Neither the Festival nor I want a workplace in which people feel harmed.”

Ogier acknowledged that some male performers had preyed on other cast members and that previous management had not acted sufficiently to stop it.

Sexual assault and harassment

The women call them “broken stairs.”

The phrase describes men known to be dangerous, but whom the community works around by privately warning each other rather than getting rid of them.

“What was happening for so long is a huge part of rape culture,” said Quinn, the performer who joined the festival at 15 and posted part of her story on Facebook. “Sexual assault and harassment was getting swept under the rug.”

Many of those “broken stairs” who were identified last month had already been banned from the Kansas City Renaissance Festival in the last 18 months, according to Ogier, the entertainment director.

Others are under investigation, Ogier said.

“There’s no sweeping under the rug anymore,” said Quinn, who no longer works at the festival but has spoken to friends who do.

Despite the changes in Kansas City, Quinn said, the victims felt a responsibility to warn people about these men.

Quinn said it was not uncommon for the men to move on to other festivals after being banned. Since the social media outcry, she has seen festivals in other parts of the country announce plans to ban those accused.

Officials at the Scarborough Renaissance Festival in Texas told The Star that one of the accused men had attended their fair as a visitor since being banned in Kansas City. He is no longer welcome at the festival, they said.

The Minnesota Renaissance Festival, which is owned and operated by Mid-America Festivals, suspended its entertainment director last year after he was charged with criminal sexual conduct for allegedly raping a freelance photographer on festival grounds. The case is pending.

A separate lawsuit was served to the company with broader allegations of a “decades-long sexually hostile environment” in Minnesota. Mid-America reached a settlement with the women before the suit was filed in court, according to John Klassen, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Contacted for comment, Mid-America referred questions to Sheila Engelmeier, an Equal Employment Opportunity consultant who has worked with the company for 15 years.

Engelmeier said the allegations in the suit dated back 10 to 20 years and the company has increased sexual harassment training at festivals since the court cases.

She said the company already had strict policies for handling sexual assault and harassment allegations, which she believes may have been violated by Kansas City’s previous entertainment director.

“The festival is a family-friendly venue with eclectic humor and edgy humor and they don’t want anything bad to happen,” Engelmeier said. The festival couldn’t address some offenses from 5 to 10 years earlier that had not been reported at the time, she said.

“The festival wants people to come forward because if there’s a problem they want to fix it.”

Engelmeier said Mid-America Festivals does not require background checks for individuals working at the fair but requires every person to sign a statement promising they have no history of harming people in the workplace.

Management of allegations

As actors at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival evoke a simpler time filled with princesses, jousts and knights in shining armor, they also make use of bawdy humor.

Their comedy acts are inherently sexual and the use of adult humor is common, said Tabitha York, a former assistant entertainment director at the festival in Kansas City. She now runs a nonprofit organization that performs at the festival each year.

York spent 11 years at the festival serving in various roles.

She said the sexual nature of the show, combined with the accepting nature of the cast, led to many instances in which an actor or actress didn’t know where the line was.

“There were people using it to prey on people and sexually harass them or make people super uncomfortable — or take it way too far,” York said.

Because of this, she said, nearly every woman who has worked at the festival for more than a decade has a story.

Those stories include instances of groping, unwanted sexual attention or comments, inappropriate relationships between adults and minors and, in some cases, assault and rape, she said.

For a long time, York said, the behavior was expected. Women would complain about it, but with an attitude of “it’s a minor thing.”

That attitude shifted over the years as women have become less tolerant of sexual abuse and a series of major scandals have exploded into public view. But at the Renaissance Festival, York said, former management failed to keep up.

York, who is a personal friend of the former entertainment director, Jim Stamberger, said she fought with him often over how to effectively handle such allegations of harassment and assault.

“He had a bad habit of putting the show above the people,” she said.

Often, York said, Stamberger would simply move performers around so that the accusers didn’t have to work with the accused.

Stamberger did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

“He totally is at fault for a lot of this,” York said. But, she said, “he wasn’t sure what else to do.”

Quinn said she experienced this firsthand when she was assaulted.

She said she was harassed or assaulted multiple times in her two years at the show, especially after she changed positions at the fair and joined the cast when she was 16.

“When I was cast ... a lot of the older men, that were grooming me, started to reach out to me more and were trying to seduce me,” Quinn said.

The worst incident came when she was 17, at the hands of a man she thinks was twice her age.

After months of messaging her on Facebook, asking for nude photos and Skyping the teen while he was naked, the man offered to walk Quinn from a cast party to a storage area on the other end of the fairgrounds where she had left her staff ID.

Quinn said she didn’t consider the risk. She took him up on his offer. When they arrived at the storage area, where no one could see, he assaulted her, she said.

“The only reason he stopped was because I told him I was on my period,” she said.

“I talked to one person about it,” Quinn said. “They basically told me to shut up or leave. Because they knew that if I went to management nothing would be done or I would be told to go. I would be fired by management.”

In another incident, when an older cast member pressured her into sex, she was told to keep quiet, she said.

“I was sat down in a room with my abuser and we had a conversation about him never doing it again and that I wouldn’t talk about it,” she said.

Now, Quinn is proud to be talking about it.

“Personally, all I want to see is that we’re seen,” Quinn said. “I’ve always been a huge advocate of protecting people that have been hurt in this way.”

Improvement at Renaissance Festival

Things began to change, York said, in December 2017 when Brandi Ogier was hired as the festival’s entertainment director and quietly began working to “take out the trash.”

Ogier was quick to respond to the flood of stories shared last month. She started at the festival at age 13, in 1999.

“In retrospect, with 20/20 hindsight, I also acknowledge that some issues raised to my predecessor were not addressed as I would have,” Ogier said in a statement.

“The Kansas City Renaissance Festival may not have been where I wanted it to be with regard to ensuring a respectful workplace 5 to 10 years ago, but, a lot has changed in these last years.”

Ogier is much of the reason why the individuals who have been accused are no longer affiliated with the festival, according to York and Quinn.

Under the current management, the man who groped York in her early days at the festival would, at minimum, be required to sit down with Ogier and undergo additional sexual harassment training, York said.

When Ogier took over as entertainment director she attended training sessions on how to handle sexual assault and harassment in the workplace and immediately made it clear that anyone with a complaint could come to her, York said.

“Starting even before I began in my leadership position, there was increased focus by senior Festival leadership (above my current position) on avoiding harassment and discrimination at the Festival,” Ogier said.

Those who are accused are investigated, and if the accusations are deemed credible the misconduct will be addressed, Ogier said. In many of those cases, she said, allegations of violation of festival policy result in perpetrators being banned from the festival.

When appropriate, Ogier said, the festival contacts law enforcement or encourages victims to file a police report.

She said that if the festival is aware of an alleged crime that took place on festival grounds policy is to contact the police.

Other allegations of mistreatment are handled on a case by case basis, Ogier said.

Companies who contract with the festival need to affirm that they have no history of harming others, Ogier said.

Under her management, Ogier said, performers get 15 to 20 minutes of sexual harassment training before each rehearsal.

Topics covered in the training include how to recover from a negative experience and assist victims, prevention of sexual harassment and assault, and distinguishing between in-character and out-of-character conduct, Ogier said.

“Senior Festival management and I share a core value that is of the utmost priority: that everyone know all Festival participants, including me, are accountable,” Ogier said in an email to The Star.

York said she hopes Ogier’s actions and the public discussion of sexual assault and harassment will help make the festival a safer place for performers.

The measures are a great first step but are not perfect, said Clara Kientz, assistant director at the Kansas State University Center for Advocacy, Response and Education, a university office that seeks to prevent sexual assault on campus.

“In the field of prevention, best practice is that there is multiple doses (of training), which it sounds like they are trying to incorporate in their work,” Kientz said.

“However, 15 minutes is not really a great amount of time for this kind of thing. It needs to be the appropriate length of time which in the field of sexual violence, at least for college campuses, is nothing less than 60 minutes.”

Kientz said the festival also should ensure it is easy for women to report. It should provide access to advocates, explain consequences for perpetrators and explain the victim will not face retaliation, she said.

Especially after Ogier’s efforts and a shift in culture, York said, she believes the renaissance festival is now “as safe as any place that you can have a teenage girl” in a society that tends to sexualize young women.

York said she is proud of her community for grappling with the difficult issue of sexual abuse and hopes they will come out on the other side stronger for it.

“My hope is that by the time my daughter is a teenager, I don’t have to worry about sending her out in pairs (with a male cast member), that she won’t experience this the way we have,” York said.

“That the young people … now don’t say ‘this is part of life’ but say ‘my community is going to protect me and keep me safe.’”

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.