Michele St. Michael, who worked at the festival for over thirty years until her contract was not renewed in 2016, alleges that the festival’s umbrella company, Rocky Mountain Festivals, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by engaging in discriminatory employment practices. She says that her termination was retaliation for reporting sexual harassment at the hands of one of the festival’s managers.
In the opening statements for the jury trial that started July 22, attorneys painted a picture of a complicated case that brings the modern “Me, Too” movement’s stand against sexual assault and gendered power dynamics to challenge the strictly controlled “Rules of the Realm” that govern the Renaissance Festival.
“This case is about fantasy,” Julie Bisbee, one of St. Michael’s attorneys, told the jury — not Renaissance-era lore about dragons and mermaids, but Colorado Renaissance Festival’s “fantasy that it is not an employer under the law.”
To win the case, the plaintiff's lawyers will have to show that the Colorado Renaissance Festival can be considered an employer and that “crafters” like St. Michael are employees. Although technically crafters are independent contractors who sign leases that give them the right to build and work at booths at the fair, St. Michael’s attorneys allege that they should be considered employees, partly because the festival’s owner, James Paradise Sr., maintains such tight control over the workplace. He regulates the costumes performers and crafters can wear down to their shoes and hairstyles, the way they're supposed to interact with customers, and the hours they have to be there. Yet the festival has no sexual-harassment policy or formal human resources system to deal with workplace problems.
“In his fantasy world, people like Michele have no rights,” Bisbee continued. “He thinks this is the end of the story, that federal law does not apply to him...because he is the King.”
On the other side, defense attorney Thomas Rice argued that on one level, the festival is a fantasy land, and in fact Paradise's stringent Rules of the Realm are what has made it one of the premier renaissance festivals in the country. “Patrons come to see a European marketplace, not a European marketplace, sort of,” he said. “They want to dress up and play pretend.”
Thus, Rice argued that Paradise was completely within his rights to terminate St. Michael for reasons having to do with her conduct toward patrons and the appearance of her booth. The defendants also argue that Paradise never heard of St. Michael’s alleged sexual harassment before ending her contract, that she filed her employment discrimination complaint too late, and that she wasn’t a proper employee, anyway.
The lawsuit stems from harassment St. Michael says she endured late one night in 2013. She alleges that as she was attempting to leave the festival, David Walker, one of the festival managers, took her entrance pass and demanded oral sex: “Suck this bitch if you want your pass back,” he told her. St. Michael fled and reported the attempted assault to her supervisor the next day, who says she reported it to Paradise, but nothing was ever done about it.
Instead, St. Michael alleges, Walker began smearing her reputation and attempting to have her removed from the festival. Eventually, at the end of the 2015 festival season, she did not receive an application to renew her lease, and learned the next spring that she was not being invited to return. Meanwhile, the festival destroyed the wooden structure she had built and paid for without compensating her. St. Michael, who is 63, also alleges that her employment was terminated because of age discrimination.
Although this is the first time the Colorado Renaissance Festival is being taken to federal court, it’s not the first time a renaissance festival has been accused of creating an employment dynamic that is prone to sexual harassment and loose on protections for victims. The Kansas City Renaissance Festival is currently under investigation after multiple women came forward with stories of being sexually assaulted by older male employees, and last summer five employees resigned from the Minnesota Renaissance Festival after its director reportedly sexually assaulted a photographer on festival grounds.
“Our understanding is that festivals across the country are watching this,” Diane King, another of St. Michael’s attorneys, told Westword. As for the Colorado Renaissance Festival, King says, “it really is run like a fiefdom from the 16th century. ... [Crafters] are really terrified; they don’t have any rights.”
The jury will hear testimony from the festival, St. Michael, and employees who have been involved in her case throughout the week. Ultimately, they will not be faced with the question of whether the sexual harassment occurred as St. Michael describes, but rather whether the Renaissance Festival violated Title VII by letting her go in retaliation to her reporting of the incident.