LYNDHURST, N.J. — In 11th-century Spain, a nobleman trying to put his hand up the queen’s skirt after a royal feast might be subjected to medieval torture methods.
But at the Medieval Times just off Route 3, dealing with that kind of behavior has been accepted as part of the job for too long, said Monica Garza, one of several actresses who plays the queen at the dinner-and-a-tournament attraction.
Garza said management made her feel like a “diva” for requesting additional security protocols after she pointed out increasingly bold behavior from guests. It was only after an incident in which a rowdy ticket holder got close to her throne and tried to shout into her microphone, Garza said, that management installed a chain to block access to her.
The desire for bolstered security and other safety measures at the castle — where falling off horses can be part of the job description — was one reason that queens, knights, squires and stablehands at the Lyndhurst castle voted on Friday to unionize.
The unionization effort, first reported by The Huffington Post, prevailed on Friday, when the employees voted, 26 to 11, to join the American Guild of Variety Artists. The medievalists will join a wide array of performers represented by the guild, including the Radio City Rockettes, some circus performers, and the character actors who perform at Disneyland — including Mulan and Aladdin, for example — in California.
The employees are also seeking higher pay (Garza receives $20 per hour, and squires start at about $14 per hour), and for higher-ups to treat them more like skilled workers — trained stuntmen who perform intricate fights with lances, swords and axes, and experienced actors who do more than just read lines. Medieval Times management did not respond to requests for comment.
“A huge point of the union is just basic respect,” said Garza, 25, a trained actor and self-described history nerd. “People will always exploit you when it’s something you love, because they know you’ll do it for nothing.”
Many performers ultimately fall in love with the job, even if they didn’t initially dream of working at the concrete castle, with its vast hall of arms and seemingly endless supply of tomato bisque. The two-hour shows are staffed by a motley crew that includes an ex-Marine, an erstwhile Elton John backup singer, a musical theater student turned stuntman, a former zookeeper and an actor known for his voice work on the video game “Grand Theft Auto.”
“We are a bunch of misfits,” laughs Sean Quigley, 33, the backup singer who is also a classically trained actor from London, giving him no need to fake a British accent. (The show is technically set in Spain, but New Jersey audiences aren’t picky.)
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Taking orders from their corporate headquarters in Texas, the Lyndhurst shows are engineered to follow the same structure each night. Visitors here put on the same paper crowns and eat the same four-course meal as in Atlanta and Baltimore. The queens are paid to say the same lines as in the company’s other nine castles, where a reported 1.5 million guests visited last year.
“Good nobles, welcome to the hall of my forefathers,” Garza says as she rides atop a white Andalusian into an arena of shrieking children wielding light-up swords.
The queen hasn’t been in charge of the realm for long. The show had always cast a king as the lead, but about five years ago the company rewrote the script, putting a queen on the throne to accommodate requests for more substantive roles for women.
The new story goes something like this: After inheriting the realm, the queen stages a tournament in which six knights on horseback compete for a vaunted title, but her power is threatened by a sleazy adviser who plots to marry her off. The dialogue is often drowned out by the aforementioned shrieks and the bustle of the “serfs and wenches” (Medieval Times-speak for waiters), who are known to end the evening with, “Cash or card, milady?”
For the actors, who can perform the same script several times a week, year after year, the lines start to feel tattooed on their brains — so they find ways to entertain themselves.
“I’ll do a show where I’m pretending I’m secretly in love with the queen; I’ll do a show where I’m secretly in love with one of the knights,” said Quigley, who plays Lord Marshal, the show’s emcee. “In order to keep it fresh, you can tell a different story in your head.”
Quigley, who auditioned for a job at Medieval Times after struggling to make a smooth transition between London’s West End and New York’s theater scene, also amuses himself by assuming various accents. He’s tried a cockney drawl, performed the whole show as if he were Sean Connery and put on a voice like Jon Snow from “Games of Thrones” — it was only when he tried doing the entire performance with a lisp that the sound department sent a runner to tell him to cut it out.
For Christopher Lucas, the video-game voice actor who has also appeared in daytime soap operas, his improvisational frisson comes during a scene where, as the queen’s slimy adviser, he goes on and on about his adoration for oranges from Valencia in an oration that verges on the unhinged. For reasons that even Lucas can’t quite understand, the audience loves it, sometimes starting a chant — “Oranges! Oranges! Oranges!” — and bringing him fresh fruit on their next visit.
“As a performer, these are the types of things you live for,” Lucas said.
Ultimately, the enterprise of Medieval Times, which started in Spain and came to the United States in 1983, revolves around the knights, who parade around the arena on horseback before jousting and dueling for the queen.
One of New Jersey’s most veteran knights, Antonio Sanchez, 31, had grown disillusioned with the idea of a long-term career in the U.S. Marines when he saw on Facebook that Medieval Times was hiring. On a whim in 2014, he drove to the Lyndhurst castle, walked into the horse stables, and soon, he was mucking out stalls and saddling up the steeds before showtime.
“From the back of the stables, you could hear the crowd roaring,” Sanchez said, recalling the moment he started dreaming of becoming a knight.
To get the job, no experience with horses is required. As knights’ apprentices, the men undergo hundreds of hours of training, learning both how to ride and how to roll off into the sand safely when rival knights “knock” them off.
“I don’t think I had ever been face to face with a horse before,” said Joe Devlin, 28, who started as a squire after he returned home from a stint as a touring musician and was in desperate need of a job.
Protecting themselves with aluminum shields, the apprentices learn fight choreography that will gradually become committed to muscle memory.
Still, accidents happen. The fact that the show is dependent on a stable of about two dozen horses adds an element of constant danger, said Purnell Thompson, a stablehand who was hired after losing his job taking care of farm animals at a local zoo. In an arena of boisterous revelers, there are many potential triggers for a horse to spook, including if audience members flout the rules and bang their metal plates and bowls onto the tables.
Once, when Devlin was in training, he fractured his ankle learning how to jump off a horse. And Jonathan Beckas, a knight of two years, has dealt with an injured knee and two head injuries, including one that involved taking a wooden lance to the head. (Full-time workers receive health insurance.)
One reason the knights are unionizing, said Beckas — a 27-year-old trained stuntman who is paid $21.50 per hour, up from $12 when he started working as a squire — is that they feel acutely underpaid considering the risks they take at work. “I am a knight, but I’m also a human,” he said.
This isn’t the first time a union vote was held at this castle. There was a similar effort in 2006, where complaints largely centered around a lack of job security and fears that squires were becoming knights too quickly. That vote narrowly went against forming a union.
Even before the vote on Friday’, employees said, they were seeing changes. After news of the unionization effort went public, garnering support from Gov. Phil Murphy, management installed a more robust barrier to her throne, Garza said.
Now, the knights have bargaining power, and they plan on using it.
“Being a knight is every little kid’s dream,” Sanchez said. “But I got older, and fun doesn’t pay the bills.”
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