Welcome to Crucial Questions, a series in which Times columnist Stephanie Hayes asks people things she’s dying to know. Got a suggestion for a subject? Drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Avid ren-festers know the things you must do at least once. Probably more than once.
Joust. Turkey leg. Wax hand. Picture in the Game of Thrones chair. And at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival, now open in Dade City, you must watch Ichabod Wainwright flail his body 30 feet in the air on his wooden Wheel of Death. The act is just like it sounds, a 100-year-old circus art that resembles a flying, spinning hamster drum of terror.
I cherish the Renaissance Festival in all its quirky glory. And I catch Wainwright’s act every time, fascinated by his strength, balance and ability to, you know, not fall to a terrible fate. He wears no shoes, helmet or padding and swears he’s never had a bad accident.
Wainwright, 33, real name Grant Murray, lives in Gainesville. He grew up on the festival circuit with his animal trainer parents. He’s proficient in acrobatics on chairs and ladders, stunts with fire and axes. His knife-throwing set made America’s Got Talent. He runs a Roaring ‘20s circus called the 20th Century Circus and travels with his wife, a musician, and their 1-year-old son.
He saw his first Wheel of Death a decade ago and felt called to it. He decided to build one out of wood. It took him 650 hours.
“The research for it was mathematical,” he said. “I did a lot of checking on load-bearing structures, what a four-by-four can handle, what kind of welding rods I needed.”
Then, he spent six hours a day on the thing, walking back and forth, figuring out momentum and weight. He is proficient now, posting stunts on TikTok and Instagram, wowing those of us mouth-breathing over a Viking drinking horn.
What are you afraid of?
The internet. I think everyone should be a little afraid of that. I am afraid of heights. I don’t like going to the edge of tall buildings. It’s frightening, but it’s one of the things that helps me do what I do and have a healthy respect for where I am. I don’t skydive or do anything I would view as an unnecessary risk now that I make my living professionally with my body.
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What do you eat before doing the Wheel of Death?
Absolutely nothing, to the chagrin of my wife and everyone around me. I don’t eat on fair day until 7 p.m. I’m normally a once-a-day kind of eater as it is. I drink a lot of coffee, though. Man, do I drink a lot of coffee.
How do we look down on the ground?
Well, definitely on a good day it makes me happy. On a less busy day, it makes me sad because I’m egotistical. From 30 feet up you can see every gap or open space in an audience you want filled.
How are the bottoms of your feet?
Oh, highly calloused. Oh, man. You know how on a hardwood floor, if you wear socks you can slide? My feet are calloused enough that I can do that without socks.
What things go through your mind while you’re midair?
Normally I’m pretty focused on what the audience is saying. I like to have a quick response. But sometimes my mind will wander to, “That was really funny this morning when you were watching that movie with your son and he got on a broom and tried to ride it and … no, focus!”
Has becoming a father changed the way you approach your act?
Yeah, it gives me a real good reason to do it right.
Is there any circus act that you will not do?
I was trying to build a human cannon, but I was a poor, 20-year-old kid. I would love to finish constructing that cannon. I don’t know if my wife would let me now.
If you go
The 2022 Bay Area Renaissance Festival is open and runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 3. $11.95 and up. 12838 Auton Road, Dade City. bayarearenfest.com.
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