SOUTH BERWICK, Maine – The king, in all his benevolence, sits before me, wearing a kindly smile and a pale red T-shirt emblazoned with words that he lives by during this most royal of seasons:
“I believe in Make Believe.’’
He’s 57 now. His curly hair is a mixture of salt and pepper, while his beard still skews most decidedly toward pepper.
And Kirk Simpson, who portrays the title character at King Richard’s Faire in Carver, Mass. – a Renaissance festival of handsome knights, wandering minstrels, and frolicking fairies – makes it clear that a truism that has survived down through turbulent centuries remains true today.
It is good to be king.
“It’s a fantastic gig,’’ he tells me as he sits crown-less and out of character at a coffee shop here. “I am blessed.’’
And, as he talks about the journey he has taken to his theatrical throne, you can tell that this is no cookie-cutter proclamation.
This is a royal ruler who has seen what it’s like to be a peasant. He knows what it’s like to be king. And, as the crowd streams toward the gates at the fair this season, he knows this:
Being king is better.
“I’m doing everything I love to do,’’ he said. “I’m part of an ensemble. They would probably say, ‘Oh God, he really thinks he’s the king. But in all honesty, we work as a great ensemble giving entertainment to people who love it.”
The man who would be king was born in Lowell, Mass., in 1966, the youngest of four sons born to a father who worked as a contractor and a cop, and a mother who cleaned houses, preparing them for their new owners.
His dad moved the family to Florida in the 1970s, so he went through elementary school in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. With his parents’ permission he returned to Massachusetts, living with his grandmother, to attend high school.
One day he saw a TV commercial advertising King Richard’s Faire.
“And I was like: What’s that?” he recalled. “And so, my friends and I went to the faire and it was magical. It was absolutely magical. This was in 1983. I was about 15 or 16.”
And he was hooked.
The road that would carry him back to this land of knights and maidens was a circuitous one, that meandered through jobs as a word processor, to a gig as an apprentice in a theatrical production in Florida.
He learned about music and about how to build and shape a character. He sang songs from the “Jesus Christ Superstar’' album.
“I knew I had a decent voice,’’ he told me. “But I didn’t want to share that with anybody.’’
In time, he would.
At age 19, he discovered the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in Largo, Fla. He stayed for more than a decade. He met the king and the queen. He enjoyed life in this make-believe land of royalty.
“Amazing actors,’’ he recalled. “Amazing singers. They had jesters and jugglers. They had a human chess match. To take a piece, you had to do this choreographed fight and that’s how the piece would be taken. It was really amazing. I even had to walk behind the elephants and pick up the crap.’’
So clearly this king has walked among the peasants. He knows what it’s like to serve food to the king and the queen.
“So, yeah, it changed my life,’’ he said. “It really changed my life because that was the point where I started to perform. My friends at the fair were like: ‘You need to do some community theater. You should be singing. You should be performing. You should be acting. You have the chops to do that.’ And I was like: OK.”
He auditioned for a local production of “Brigadoon,” playing one of the lead characters, Charlie Dalrymple.
“So, I did that and just kind of blossomed,” he told me. “I was totally miscast because I’m definitely not a tenor.’’
As it often does, one thing led to another.
“From 1986 to about 1995, I started doing community theater,’’ he said. " I was doing regional theater. I was doing theme parties for major Fortune 500 companies. They were huge. I was cast in a murder-mystery party.’’
Gigs began to present themselves. Opportunity was knocking.
Want to be a pirate? Sure.
“They would have guests get on this big cruise boat,” he said. “I’m talking about 300 people. We would get in these little speedboats and we’d be in total pirate regalia. Black powder pistols. With swords. ‘Arrrgh! We’re coming for you!’ ”
He was earning up to $300 a night. In the morning, he was performing at a children’s theater group – all while keeping a steady gig at Computer Sciences Corporation, where he would work as a graphic designer by day while acting at night.
So, this king has been around.
He knows what it’s like to work in the trenches. He’s surveyed his kingdom from a gilded throne.
And the king is pleased with life throughout his kingdom.
“I’m here around 6 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “We drive down for breakfast. We get to the site and I get my costume on. We have to be at a meeting at 9:45 and go over stuff for the day. There are birthdays. There are weddings. There are lots of special events that people can come and purchase and that I’m a part of.”
He gathers all that information. Polishes any rough parts of the performance. And by 10:20 a.m., he’s in his royal position at the front gate.
“I remember my first year, one of the first days that we opened,” he recalled. “And I’m a very exuberant king. I’m very out there. Animated. And the king prior to me was a different king. So, they weren’t used to me.
“And everyone was kind of like: ‘What’s he going to do?’ The music would play and I would get out there and dance. And I’d get everyone to dance with me.
“But this one child came up and he wanted to meet the king. He was all dressed up in his armor and his sword. He was maybe 7 years old. And I remember I went to shake his hand and I pretended his was like the strongest knight. And he brought me to my knees”
Those are the moments the king remembers, keeps stored away in his royal memory.
“I told my story when I was a really shy kid,” he said. “And I said, ‘You know, there was a boy who came here back in 1983. And he was really shy.’ And I said, ‘He came to these gates.’ And I said, ‘And he became the king.’ And the little boy was like, ‘Wow!’ ”
Kirk Simpson is in his late 50s now, still young enough to reign well into his 60s when the royal magic will remain in the crisp air in his kingdom deep in the woods of Carver.
They say that heavy lies the head that wears the crown.
Not for Kirk Simpson.
He wears his royal crown with a lightness and a joy that comes from a nobility that has been well earned and polished to a perfection.
No soothsayer worth his salt would foresee an abdication.
Long live the king!
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at email@example.com.