Armed with a metal shield and a 10-foot-long lance, Kent Shelton gallops into the arena at the Lawton Renaissance Festival in Lawton, Okla., atop a mighty steed.
“Lords and ladies,” shouts Master of Arms Tawn Jones, “the queen has issued a challenge. There will be a tournament pitting two of the greatest knights in the land.”
The armor-clad knights—Shelton and Joseph D’Arrigo—eye each other from opposite sides of the arena before charging with raised shields and lowered lances. Again and again, the knights pass and take aim at each other until an explosive crack rips the air and Shelton’s wooden lance explodes in a shower of splinters against his opponent’s shield, knocking D’Arrigo from his horse.
The crowd roars.
For Shelton, 53, re-creating the drama and gallantry of medieval combat is all in a day’s work. He’s been earning a living as a professional jouster for nearly 30 years.
“It’s choreography, though the horse can change everything,” says Shelton, president and co-founder of the Hanlon-Lees Action Theater, the nation’s oldest theatrical jousting company. Shelton began acting and wrangling horses after graduating in 1978 from the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and moving to New York City to pursue his acting dreams.
“Instead of being a waiter as most aspiring actors do, I started driving a carriage,” Shelton says. “I was sitting on Fifth Avenue at the Plaza Hotel and saw advertising for the New York Renaissance Faire.”
Having learned sword fighting, juggling and acrobatics in acting school, Shelton auditioned and was hired to create a jousting match, along with Robin Wood, a friend from acting school.
“We got them to rent some horses and we researched jousting at the library and literally came up with our own way to joust,” Shelton recalls. “I loved the action, the horses and the history.”
In 1979, he and Wood founded the Hanlon-Lees, borrowing inspiration, ideas and even the name from a team of 19th-century British acrobats. Today, the theatrical troupe is composed of 25 entertainers—about half are jousters—who perform at dozens of Renaissance festivals, corporate and charitable events, and on television and movie sets each year.
The performers spend nine months a year on the road, camping in tents and RVs, preparing and repairing their props, and rehearsing for weekend shows. Shelton lives in his vintage 1969 Avion camper and pulls a horse trailer with the four-legged stars of the Hanlon-Lees.
“We audition the horses just like people,” says Shelton, who maintains the herd at his ranch in Luther, Okla. (pop. 612), when he’s not traveling. “We take a flag and shield and wave it around them. The horses need to be level-headed.”
Likewise, the jousters need to be composed, and possess the skills of a horseman, stuntman and actor. Being a knight in shining armor requires stamina, too, because wearing 60 pounds of armor is physically grueling, especially in hot weather.
Shelton, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds, prepares for combat by guzzling lemonade as he girds himself into 14th-century-style armor to protect his body from his opponent’s lance.
“It’s a rough-and-tumble sport,” says Shelton, who hasn’t broken any bones, but typically suffers multiple bruises during several hundred performances each year.
Along with Renaissance festivals, Shelton has appeared as a knight in about a dozen movies and television shows, including the movie Black Knight in 2001 and more recently in Secrets of the Koran for the History Channel.
The modern Hanlon-Lees have a vast repertoire, too, keeping one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot in the Old West since adding Western and cowboy shows in 1997. “I may not be able to joust when I’m 70 years old, but I’ll still be able to play Buffalo Bill,” Shelton says with a laugh.
Performing a live show with its inherent surprises—Shelton calls it a “Renaissance rodeo” when the horses stray from the script—is his favorite part of being a Middle Ages knight and jouster.
“We’re out there entertaining the audience,” he says. “It’s show business.”