In Arts & Entertainment

Ann-Elizabeth Shapera never thought late-night television was in the cards for her. (PHOTO: John Karpinsky)

Milwaukee's official jester lands on "The Tonight Show"

Milwaukee's Ann-Elizabeth Shapera has performed at Renaissance fairs around the world for 23 years, including the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, but for the first time ever, she will appear on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on Thursday, May 17.

Two weeks ago, Shapera performed at the Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale, Calif. She returned home to Milwaukee, and within a few days, received a call from one of the fair directors, telling her a crew from "Leno" was coming to shoot a segment and they wanted Shapera to be involved.

"They called me last Thursday night and said, 'Get back on a plane!' So I flew back and got taped in a segment with a guy from Leno's show," says Shapera.

The premise of the bit is that a man wants to learn how to "handle the ladies" and Shapera, dressed as a jester, was asked to give him advice.

"This is strange and hilarious in its own right," says Shapera. "I don't know how much of our exchange will actually be broadcast, so it's going to be as much of a surprise to me as it will be to all of the 'Phooligans' who are my insane, loving and devoted fans."

In 2004, president of the Common Council Willie Hines named Shapera the Official Municipal Jester of the City of Milwaukee. "I have an official plaque and everything," she says.

At fairs, Shapera plays a queen's jester based on a real-life jester to Queen Elizabeth I, named Jane the Phoole. According to Shapera, Jane was also known as "Jane the Bald" because she kept her head shaved.

"She was what was called a 'natural' – in other words, she was differently-mentally-abled – and she was known for blurting out random things. I play her as a bit more coherent but at least as nonsensical. My version of Jane has been called a 'witty nincompoop' and I like that description very much," she says.

The Bristol Renaissance Faire is Shapera's home show and she performs for nine weekends every summer. She also performs at a variety of regional fairs, parades, charity events, fringe festivals and Shakespeare festivals, including the International Festival of Fools at Muncaster Castle in the United Kingdom.

Shapera's favorite part of interactive performance is talking to people. "I meet thousands of people every time I perform, and we have the most insane conversations and adventures together. No performance day is ever the same as any other, and I make new friends constantly. The randomness brings a delicious element of danger, and the joy of meeting and laughing with so many people is completely, utterly addicting," she says.

Recently, Shapera wrote a book called "Easy Street: A Guide for Players in Improvised Interactive Environmental Performance, Walkaround Entertainment and First-Person Historical Interpretation." Shapera says it took her 23 years to prepare for the book, but then wrote it in its entirety last November. The book is available through

Shapera says she received her love of performance and improv through her father, Dan Shapera, who was a jazz musician in the Chicago area. "He had a lot of gigs and didn't believe in babysitters, so I sort of grew up in a lot of jazz clubs," she says.

The 16th Century is appealing to Shapera because it's full of women with what she calls "surprising" occupations. She says the Victorians re-wrote Tudor and Elizabethan history in their own cultural image, reducing women to wives, wenches or whores, but that in truth, women had a dynamic range of fascinating work, could own property and were educated.

This year is the Bristol Renaissance Faire's 25th anniversary. Shapera – who met her husband, Tom Charney, at the fair – thinks it's a well-kept secret that shouldn't be such a well-kept secret.

"It's like a Rembrandt in the basement of the Midwest. People from Southeastern Wisconsin often don't even know it's there, and then they visit it and go, 'Why haven't I been coming here forever? This is awesome.' It's 19 days of fun in the 16th century," she says.



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