Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Allcon 2011 was somewhat difficult, but very rewarding!

Allcon 2011 Steampunk Themed Fun and Fiction in Addison

As you may already have heard this year’s theme for Allcon 2011 was “Steampunk” as 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 Walmart 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 soon 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, we were running from the time our boots hit the ground in Addison!  Actually we did an improv half panel on improve comedy and spontaneous character acting when the panel ahead of us labeled "hit the talking pinata" failed show.  Actually, as we mentioned, it seemed entirely reasonable that any pinata smart enough to talk would soon realize he didn't want to go to a panel about hitting him and talk someone into calling a cab out of here, so why should they be surprised?  I mean really...can you imagine how that would all 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 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 we gave our panel on "Steampunk Alchemy" which turned out to get more compliments about actually teaching new and useful things about making really good Steampunk Ensembles out of things no one wanted 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)

We also gave a panel on acting, on multicultural Steampunk, and on Trends in Steampunk Music and Dance.  Unfortunately no one discovered that all the sound equipment in our panel room was missing and only discovered at the last minute before our panel on music and dance.  The courteous and rapidly responding con staff and our own preparedness (bringing a backup dvd player), saved the day. (or the panel at least) Feel free to take a look at photos and our "Steampunk Dance" video on the Vimeo site (similar to you tube, but better picture quality).
but please read the description first so it isn't taken out of context.  Thanks!

We had a  number of other exploits including a woman attempting to join one of our panels right after it started.  She strode in briskly right after it started, sat at the head table with us, and announced to the audience that she "had been asked last minute to sit in on the "Multicultural Steampunk Ensembles 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 we were unable to pull her aside to make certain she wasn't the well meaning victim of a practical joke, I simply gently redirected when she kept trying to interrupt scheduled lesson plan content with war stories and self promotion.  She then vanished mysteriously, perhaps because she wasn't allowed to self promote enough, when we presented our short comedy "The Trouble With Aztecs" as a practical demonstration of use of multicultural ensembles in Steampunk and so we could discuss pitfalls to avoid afterwards.

(We later learned she had been given a last minute list of panels she was asked to assist in by another group and she got confused and walked into the wrong one and sort of tried to take over panel conversations without so much as introducing herself, to us at least, but she was very apologetic when I finally tracked her down to discuss the matter.)

We managed to get past that disruption and still perform the comedic play "The Trouble With Aztecs" right before the Q&A in this "Multicultural Panel" and it went very well.  Of course I tend to judge a comedic play by three things:
1) did they laugh often,?   2) did they laugh hard?  3) Did the degree and quality of complaints lodged afterwards necessitate calling an attorney or making many public apologies?  I'm not really being flippant about this, just realistic.  I told the audience that realistically it is impossible to do effective comedy without occasionally offending someone accidentally, but I said that I try to keep it to a minimum, because I'm just not willing to offend anyone just to get a laugh.

We discussed how almost any element specifically dealing with names of Aztec deities, not out of fear of offending the good Christians attending (I mean they do realize that the Aztecs did in fact have entities they referred to as Gods, so what would be the point?), but rather to avoid offending any real Aztecs (yes they still exist...we are formally adopted by that culture) that happened to attend (not that rare in Texas) that might not have liked elements of their faith brought into a comedy play.  I also removed anything that even referred to the mention of human sacrifice (though it pains me to avoid history to that degree) or that used funny references toward Europeans that too accurately described what the Aztecs thought of the uncouth, uncultured, unwashed, and foul smelling criminals and mercenaries that the Spanish Crown could afford to send out as Conquistadors.  At that point, we needed funny bits to fill in all the gaps, so we stole cheap laughs from old films and made it Aztecified, sort of.  Actually it all worked even better than expected and everyone seemed happy as they left.  I tried to film it, but we seem to keep having problems with our video camera or any other camera when we try to film plays.  I'll have to have a long talk with our "House Gremlin" about that.

The head of programming for the convention was even more shocked about this woman's "attempted highjacking of the panel" as he described it, than we were, but the only real problem was that I spent so much time and energy keeping her from taking over the discussion, while trying to avoid appearing to do so, that 3 of my four panelists (whose credentials on the topic make us less than impressed with hers) never got a chance to speak much outside of the play.  Ah well.  It will make a funny story for us one day, but may do very unfortunate things to the woman's credibility.  She may actually have been convinced she was there at our request, but that would seem unlikely since she never spoke to any of us before or afterwards and did not even introduce herself aside from stating credentials without a name.  Another one for the convention manuals.  Always expect the unexpected and keep the security number handy during panels!

The thing that is most recognizable, and in many ways, the most fun about Allcon is that it exposes each fandom culture to others they might never have encountered otherwise.  Storm Troopers and Jedis conversed with gunslingers, Star Fleet 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.

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 Allcon, 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!  (This is based on my own interactions with Todd Carlton when I contacted him for a public statement for the magazine review, but there is speculation and rumor that he may have been less forthcoming earlier-however-Toby Lawhon also told me directly, that Mr. Carlton accepted full responsibility and was very apologetic when they agreed to reschedule and follow through with the concert.) Mr. Carlton even said that if Toby was as courteous about the whole thing in what he was saying about the incident at this point  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? 

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!  As both 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) 

Allcon, 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.

The full review including information about non-steampunk related performers on the following site:

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