All-Con 2011 Convention Report: Steampunk Themed Fun and Fiction in Addison
As you may already have heard this year’s theme for All-Con 2011 was “Steampunk” – a special genre of retro-futuristic science fiction that takes the elegance, innovation, and indomitable spirit of the Victorian age and the science fictional imagery of it’s most imaginative writers and transplants it into very unlikely places in very unlikely ways. Steampunk has also attracted very creative and imaginative people that have turned what was at first a special science fiction loving society into a real world subculture that strongly promotes “Maker Culture”, ecology, creative expressions of individualistic art in all it’s forms, and encourages forceful rebellion against the marketing messages that encourage mindless consumerism and the following of an endless stream of fashion trends.
Local groups like Kali’s Hourglass, The Steampunk Illumination Society, Airship Steel Rose, and Airship Nocturne came to teach, explain, and enlighten others about learning to make things the way they want them instead of settling for whatever Wal-Mart has to offer, doing it on a budget, rebelling radically against consumer zombie cultism, and having great fun doing it! They did this with about 17 panels, two film screenings, a dance performance, a comedic play, a demonstration table, and general spontaneous fun throughout the convention! They also announced plans to host an all Steampunk event on June 4th called the “Difference Engine” to further this liberating message for Texas and the surrounding areas.
With 3 panels in 5 hours the first day, Kali’s Hourglass said they were running from the time their boots hit the ground in Addison! Actually they even did an improvised half hour extra panel on improv comedy and spontaneous character acting when the panel ahead of us labeled “hit the talking piñata” failed to show. Admiral Ramon felt bad for the substantial audience that had assembled to find out what a panel labeled “the Talking Piñata” would be as they got disappointed when the panelists failed to show up.
As such he stood up and declared it was his solemn duty to entertain them until the panelists arrived! Vice Admiral Radha said it seemed entirely reasonable to her that any piñata smart enough to talk would soon realize he didn’t want to show up to a panel about someone hitting him and may have talked someone into calling a cab to get him out of here, so why should they be surprised? While they assured the audience it was probably a good panel, but they just couldn’t resist having a little fun with the whole idea of a “talking piñata”.
The conversation went something like this: “I mean really…can you imagine how a party with a talking piñata would go? … Whack! Hey! What did I ever do to you? … Whack! Hey! If you have anger issues related to being bullied as a child, hit that guy next to you! Hit him not me! … Whack! Now look…I am certain that whoever it was that abused you as a child was human…am I right? … Whack! Stop that! I mean … it’s not like pinatas go around attacking unsuspecting children in the school yard do they? … Whack! Would you just stop for a minute and think about it? How many paper mache creations have you seen beating up small children and stealing their lunch money?”
Next Kali’s Hourglass gave their panel on “Steampunk Alchemy,” which was next on the schedule for that room (and the real reason they were hanging around). This panel turned out to get more compliments about actually teaching new and useful things that it received considerable praise and enthusiastic thanks afterwards. (and was good fun for all-without even murdering a pinata or any mass child arena fighting afterwards-imagine that)
They also gave a panel on acting, multicultural Steampunk, and on Trends in Steampunk Music and Dance. Unfortunately no one discovered that all the sound equipment in the panel room was missing until the last minute. The courteous and rapidly responding con staff and their own preparedness (bringing a backup dvd player), saved the day (or the panel at least). Feel free to take a look at photos and their “Steampunk Dance” video on the Vimeo site (similar to YouTube, but better picture quality: http://vimeo.com/21393289. But please read the description first so it isn’t taken out of context).
Kali’s Hourglass reportedly had a number of other exploits including some goofy woman with delusions of grandeur attempting to take over the “Multicultural Steampunk Ensembles” panel right after it started. She strode in briskly right after it started, sat at the head table with them, and announced to the audience that she “had been asked last minute to sit in on the panel due to her Master’s degree in anthropology and expertise in the field”. As there was no way to call her a liar and throw her out without looking like very rude, uncouth, boors, and they were unable to pull her aside to make certain she wasn’t the well meaning victim of a practical joke. Admiral Ramon simply gently redirected the conversation each time she interrupted their scheduled lesson plan content with convention war stories and self promotion. She then vanished mysteriously, perhaps because she wasn’t allowed to self promote enough, when they presented a short comedic play as a practical demonstration of use of multicultural ensembles in Steampunk and to bring up fertile topics to discuss multicultural competence figures into even comedy as difficult as that can be.
The thing that is most recognizable, and in many ways, the most fun about All-Con is that it exposes each fandom culture to others they might never have encountered otherwise. Stormtroopers and Jedis conversed with gunslingers, Starfleet Officers, and Klingon Warriors while Steampunk time traveling Pirates, “Maids” and Roller Derby teams rolled by in an endless stream of wonderful mad fun! It was a bit like ending up in Alice’s Wonderland, but with a science fiction twist.
People in Medieval Renfair “Garb” (but wearing Steampunk accoutrement) and many other colorful characters obtained, hid, then handed over “droids” (simulated by laminated cards with droid descriptions) to Stormtroopers that were on sort of an Easter egg hunt for missing droids going around to people and asking “Howq long have you had this droid?” Many of the droid cards were found partly hidden, yet still visible, in people’s hats or on their person. Some of the Renfair “wenches” even had a bit of fun with the Stormtroopers by leaving the cards just peeking out of their cleavage. When the con participants handed over the cards (or allowed them to be taken) they were given tickets for a raffle drawing for prizes. They could then go to a table and get more droids to stash and then hand over again. It gave the storm trooper battalion something very visible to do that had them interacting with all the other con goers. Before this, they had been visible mostly for showing off weapons and elaborate armor suits for photos and in their Stormtrooper combat skills contest.
Anne Lockhart, (aka “Sheba”) and Richard Hatch, (aka “Apollo” original and “Zarek” new version), of Battlestar Galactica fame were present and very charming! They gave panels on both Friday and Saturday in addition to autographs and Q&A sessions. Ms. Lockhart recent roles include a feature film called Revamped which may not yet be released. She plays the part of “Celeste” in this. Until then you can check her out on stage until August 6 in Othello as “Emilia”
Mr. Hatch was still socializing and entertaining fans and con goers in the small hotel bar after his official presentations had ended. I had to pleasure of meeting him there and mentioned that I enjoyed the intensity of his Tom Zarek character in the new Battlestar Galactica as much or even more than his Apollo character in the original series. He said that he enjoyed playing that character and really did try to portray him as more of a visionary and freedom fighter that truly believed in what he was doing than as a typical villain or terrorist, so it made the character really interesting. He said it wasn’t as hard as one might think to do in that, as wonderful as the protagonists of the story were in some ways, in other ways they really were crossing the line a lot and overriding human rights in ways that he could focus in on to really “get into character and make himself think of Tom Zarek as the true champion of human rights in a dictatorial regime that the character believed himself to be”. We then exchanged funny stories about difficult acting roles and contact information. I enjoyed this meeting and exchange much more than expected.
The Roller Derby Teams showed off skills in some rooms that were pretty impressive including specific attacks used to take out opponents that sounded a bit like a discussion of some fighting video game. It was a bit disconcerting to think that these same charming ladies would soon be using these “baseball slide” attacks on one another’s bodies just to “win at their sport, but that’s roller derby for you. These female gladiators were the real deal!
The “Maids” were everywhere, but a little puzzling to us, so we asked a bit about them. It seems that they enjoy enacting the role of “maids” from a variety of shows and actually study and maintain the great traditions of service expected from the finest examples of that profession. They also offered songs, dances, and plays to try to interest con goers to attend their panels and events. The curious or the interested should certainly attend such and ask questions from those offering those panels who know best what their group represents
Circus sideshow performers, flag dancers, jugglers, contact jugglers, etc. also were evident, mostly from a local group that goes by the name “Circus Freaks”. They gave workshops on various performance skills, and were a very significant part of the Steampunk Ball performer lineup.
The only really big news at the con, other than new Steampunk talent being shown, was that the Steampunk Ball got canceled, then rescheduled last minute. After discussing this with both the con staff and the headliner band, it appears to have been a massive failure in communication. The band is very professional and does not appear anywhere without a signed contract for the performance which they had indicated, but was unusual enough in the program director’s past experiences with All-Con, that he didn’t realize how important it was and forgot to get it done. The other problem was that the venue had no sound system or amplifiers capable of reproducing the kind of music and instruments that electric guitars make.
The lead singer, Toby Lawhon, said that if they just used the 12″ speakers available their sound would be not much more than distortion and would be so unprofessional that they would not perform there without renting commercial concert speakers, which meant also bringing in a concert level mixing board and sound crew capable of moving 5 foot tall speakers and setting the system up to work properly. The staff didn’t understand why a large number of people suddenly got added to the necessary list of passes for the band, so it had not gotten approved as of Friday night even though the band had tried to reach him to explain. Obviously communications like this should have happened sooner, but they had trouble reaching the program director after they discovered this was necessary, and he didn’t really understand the request. He said it was his mistake and that the band acted very professional about the whole thing and did a great job fixing the problem when it looked like things would fall through for the concert. The concert had to start over an hour late due to problems adjusting the unfamiliar equipment in the strange venue, but in the end, it was a great performance!
In the program director’s defense, he handled everything beautifully for us, but then all of our events were set up and re-adjusted as needed more than 3 weeks before the event. Things start to go wonky for most convention staff when they get overloaded the last week before hand, and they sometimes have catastrophic brain cramps, like in this case, when the overload gets too great or the situation, as in this case, is too unfamiliar to them.
The other item I would like to mention is that when I approached their program director for comments about the incident, he took full responsibility for the confusion and fallout, did not blame anyone else about anything, and stated gratitude to Toby and the band for helping them fix the problem at the last minute. That’s the kind of human being I prefer to work with (most people blame everything on others and take out their anger on others when they are embarrassed instead of accepting blame and fixing problems.) He even said that if Toby was as courteous about the whole thing in what he was saying at this point (which he was) then it was just another sign of the level of professionalism of Marquis of Vaudville and he really appreciated and respected that in him. Did these people just step out of a time machine or something? Where did all this gentlemanly behavior come from? Hmmm…maybe all this Steampunk stuff isn’t just fiction after all?
As performers, and even back before we started offering panels and performances at conventions, our biggest complaint was always that they didn’t actually post a full list of who and what was performing until a week or two before the event, yet expected us to decide blind if we wanted to go. This is especially a problem for those new to a festival trying to decide whether to buy the early discounted tickets or to wait and see who is performing there. For us performers that is not a problem, but it is maddening to send offers to give panels and get no response for months, then be told “we definitely want you, but can’t decide what or when”. I even have trouble getting them to commit as to whether we will be performing enough to avoid paying for full price at the door to get in order to perform for them, which did indeed happen to us once (but never again).
All-Con, on the other hand, was entirely different! They had over 75% of their lineup listed with times, days performing, and a detailed map of the venue over 3 months in advance. When I offered panels to them I got a response in less than 24 hours that listed every panel they wanted in appropriate rooms with the exact day and time of the presentations listed. Even minor changes such as adding to the number of badges needed in order to have enough crew to cover so many panels was met with quick and courteous response that met our needs every time. Fortunately planning ahead permitted us to get these things done early before the rush and confusion of the final week before the con.
One thing that I think sums up why I feel more welcome and appreciated than at most conventions is that this is the only convention I have ever attended that kept a hospitality suite available and open to the general public with iced tea, Kool-Aid, hot dogs, peanut butter, jelly, and bread (I actually preferred slicing up the apple and putting peanut butter on it). Not only did they think about keeping the staff and the attendees adequately hydrated etc. but they provided hilarious short videos poking fun at everything covered by the convention and even educating con attendees about courtesy and etiquette there in a comic relief kind of way. This played constantly while the hospitality suite was open. You weren’t allowed to take food or drink out of the room, but it was great to have a place like that to rest, re-hydrate, and be entertained while doing so.
So overall, in spite of the temporary setback due to miscommunication with the headliner band, I would rate this convention as one of our absolute favorites! We got similar responses from people at many levels. The guests liked the event and many also said it was their favorite. Even the vendors and staff generally like this event. That says a lot for them and for those considering going next time.