Get the latest from TODAY
Erin Zapcic and her fellow castmates anxiously waited backstage before their first performance. The lights turned on in the arena and the crowd started to roar. Suddenly, she was no longer Erin Zapcic. Instead, she was Doña Maria Isabella, the sole ruler of her kingdom.
She took one last reaffirming look at the knights surrounding her and rode out into the center of the stage on her specially bred Andalusian horse. The show had begun.
In the 34 years that Medieval Times has been in business, there has always been a king at the forefront of its productions — until now. For the first time, the dinner theater extravaganza, which features jousting and other Middle Ages-themed games and intrigue, is replacing all of its kings with queens.
"It's been a long time coming," Zapcic, 34, told TODAY. She's been with the company for seven years: first as a "wench" in the gift shop; next as a bartender, until she won the role of the princess, which she played for six years before she became queen.
This performance, directed by Leigh Cordner, was first launched in Dallas this past October. Since then, the show has opened in Chicago and Lyndhurst, New Jersey. By this summer, fans will be able to see the reigning queen at all nine Medieval Times’ North America locations.
Show scripts are changed every four to five years, and in this version, a new queen, the daughter of the previous show's king, oversees a tournament to find the best knight in the kingdom. Over the course of the performance, the queen’s power is challenged, but each time she asserts herself as the ruling woman.
Although this gender shift comes on the hinges of the #metoo and #TimesUp movements, Cordner, a former Marine from Florida, insists that the timing is purely a happy coincidence. In fact, he started writing this version of the show over 18 months ago after Medieval Times received numerous audience requests for a show with more female leads.
“We’re not in politics; we’re in show business,” Cordner told TODAY. The new show was just the “natural progression of things.”
But fans of the old show needn't worry; everything that makes Medieval Times special is still intact. Audience members will continue to enjoy a night full of horses, jousting and food that they've always flocked to.
That involves a four-course feast, which includes tomato bisque, garlic bread, half a chicken, corn on the cob, roasted potatoes and lemon pound cake. And just like in the medieval period, diners aren't given cutlery to use, but instead must eat the meal with their hands.
When writing the new show, Cordner made a conscious effort to give the queen a fully formed character arc that displayed her as a strong yet accessible and warm ruler whom women of all ages can look up to.
Zapcic, one of three actresses playing the queen at the New Jersey location, has already felt the impact of her role. After her first performance as queen, she says a middle-aged woman approached her and simply hugged and thanked her. And since the show is aimed at families, it has its share of kids in the audience. "Things that you see as a child are the things that stick with you the rest of your life," Zapcic told TODAY.
As for those recently "demoted" kings? They've now taken on new roles as knights, who are central to the show's action.
In a pivotal moment, one of them challenges the queen's authority. On a typical night, the crowd erupts into a huge round of applause, and mostly female voices can be heard cheering from the stands.
The queen proclaims, “The decision lies with the queen and queen alone. And I am queen here.”