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Town crier competition coming to Anacortes

ANACORTES — If men and women dressed in 18th century garb begin bellowing from the street corners this weekend, don’t be alarmed.

And don’t call them pirates.

They’re town criers, and they’re here to compete in an age-old championship that’s being held for the first time on the West Coast in Anacortes.

Town crying is nothing new to residents of Anacortes, who have had their own crier for more than a dozen years now.Though the original purpose of crying the news — or reading it extremely loudly — was for those who could not read themselves, many European towns have maintained their criers for tradition’s sake.

The purpose of modern-day criers, at least in America, is largely ceremonial. They kick off city festivals, appear in town parades and represent the city in competitions.

Judy Jewell served as Anacortes’ first and longest crier. She was replaced four years ago by Richard Riddell, a classically trained opera and theater performer who took easily to the art form.

The pair is hosting the 2011 North American Town Crier Championship and the 13 criers who will be competing in it here, finding places for them to eat and stay. Competitors will come from Canada, California, New Jersey and Maryland. Riddell’s status as host means he will not be competing. He selected the judges and created rules for the competition.

Other criers have welcomed Riddell in a similar fashion when he’s traveled to competitions as far away as Bermuda and Nova Scotia. He happens to be reigning champion from the last American crier competition, a title he’ll have to pass on to whomever wins this weekend.

“I’ve been to competitions in England, on the East Coast, in Canada, and I thought it was just my turn to host,” he said.

The American Guild of Town Criers has about 30 members.Anacortes is the only Washington town with a registered crier.

Embracing the role

Riddell — whose performing career includes stints at the Zurich Opera House in Switzerland and the National Shakespeare Company in New York — said his performing skills come in handy when crying.

He warms up his voice before beginning and sometimes starts a cry with a few lines of opera to get folks’ attention.The town crying gig is mostly volunteer, though the Port of Anacortes paid Riddell for weekly appearances at Cap Sante Marina this summer.

An Anacortes High School graduate, Riddell settled here again with his wife and two kids after a long performing career elsewhere. He recently finished his teaching degree at Western Washington University and is student teaching in German and theater at Stanwood High School.

Being “loud and sustained,” one of the criteria for competitions, is not really a problem for the 6-foot-3, 47-year-old.Though he won’t be competing this weekend, he and Jewell will be setting the pace with their own cries at the start of each competition.

Each cry will be limited to 120 words, though opening attention-getting statements, like the traditional “Oyez, oyez, oyez,” are counted as one word.

Performers also must stick to their scripts and display a proper amount of “deportment” during readings.

For information about this event, visit www.towncrierchampionship.com