This week we are talking with Eric Larson, the creator and host of the extraordinary steampunk convention, Teslacon.
Airship Ambassador: Hi Eric, thanks for being here this week and sharing more about Teslacon.
Eric Larson: Thanks Ambassador. I am happy to be here and talk to your readers. I hope I can bring some insight to the convention and answer a few questions for all your readers. I think right now it’s important to let people know more about us, with the whole Steampunk movement going more “mainstream” I think a lot of people would like to know about who we are and what it is we actually do.
AA: Gosh, where to start in talking about your convention? It would be easy to leap right into winning four awards in the Steampunk Chronicle’s Readers Choice Awards for 2013, but let’s start at the beginning. What in the Great Gears possessed you to create and run a steampunk convention?
EL: I wanted to do something new, something untried. I had always loved this “stuff” we call steampunk. I never knew the name though, like most people 6 years ago.
The test run was at WindyCon 5 years ago- basically let’s see if people would like this idea. Well they did, and the idea became reality. I never wanted to do a “normal” convention, they get to dull and predictable. I wanted to supercharge the whole thing, make it exciting and grand.
I have run now a total of 22 conventions, so that was the easy part. Running a con like Disney World was going to be different. The experience is in the details, and that is how I have always planned it. The small things. The signage, the designs etc. I wanted people to feel that they are now in a different world and time. To be truthful I never thought it would get this popular.
AA: Madison, Wisconsin, while a growing college and capitol town, isn’t exactly in the center of commerce and transportation like Milwaukee or Chicago, Illinois. What expectations did you have at the beginning and what challenges do you face now because of location?
EL: 400 people tops, I figured a two year run and that would be it. It never was a thought we would hit 1400 people and be where we are now. The local fans are great, but our numbers are small. This just happens to be where I live and work. Plus it helps having relationships with good hotels that back you and work with you. I had done over 11 conventions in Madison by the time TeslaCon 1 came around, so I knew how the town worked.
AA: It takes me two airline flights and a shuttle ride to get to Teslacon, and I know of other friends who drive for 24 hours to get there. What do you think is the appeal for people from around the country to make such an effort to get to Teslacon?
EL: Immersion. I don’t take this question lightly, I know it is the core of what makes us tick.
Like many people, I have been to a number of conventions, over 120 in the last 33 years. I have seen the big and small, good and bad. The one thing that never stops is the anticipation, the expectation of excitement. I wanted people to have that again but in a new way.
When you arrived at TeslaCon 1, we had sounds of a train station going. Over 8 speakers all with varied sounds, layered and harmonized with the action around you. We had over 200 people in line and even though it took an hour that year to get everyone checked in nobody really complained;-they loved it. Most people said they felt like they had been transported back in time. That was the idea, so I stuck with it.
We also have tried pre-arrival announcements. When you drove up for TC2 you started a 15 minute audio of me telling you what to expect with sounds and music. By the time you arrive as the message ended you literally stepped right into the hotel and the world we created.
Don’t get me wrong it takes time and creativity, but it’s not hard. You just have to focus on what is the most important thing. Mine is creating an experience that you cannot get anywhere else.
Another draw I believe are the wonderful people who I employ. The magic and fun they bring is beyond anything else. They are talented and gifted, but also care about your experience at the event. I like to think of them as my Mickey’s and Minnie’s. They are the front line folk who create the atmosphere for my guests.
AA: Teslacon, unlike most or all other steampunk conventions, not only has a theme each year but there is an immersive storyline and character performances. From our previous conversations, you’ve mentioned that you pretty much had the whole multi-year story arc laid out before the first convention. I know what kind of scary creative tornado you have for a mind, but would you share the ideas and themes behind where Teslacon has been so far, and what’s coming up this year?
EL: Let’s start with the first-TC1. That was a story about Lord Bobbins, with a fast dirigible and a villain who is unseen trying to destroy it. The second year we travel to China to pick up an artifact, while on our travels in a special submarine we are attacked and the villain is seen for the first time. At TC3 we meet the villain and we have what you would call is an adventure in space as we travel to the moon, to basically leave the villain there.
From that point of view, he has hounded me and the world for three long years. Europe, Asia and Africa have seen a horrible war (The Aether Wars) and we have finally stopped a mad man from dominating the world. Now for TC4 we will have a huge peace conference and bring all peoples together to discuss and talk. Don’t think the bad guys won’t try something though.
There are new villains and new issues that arise. New and exciting things that happen and even more history and immersion that takes place. “In a nutshell.”
AA: What should attendees expect at this Congress of Steam? Is it all ‘very serious business’, fist pounding debates, and pistols at dawn, or is some or all of it still part of an ongoing storyline?
EL: Directly after TC3 everyone thought I was out to change Steampunk. For some reason, people gave me the powers to somehow change things in fandom…well I don’t work like that. I read the most bizarre stuff and had to ask folk’s…were you in the room when I decided what to do? Because that is not happening. Seriously weird things where brought up and talked about- ALL FALSE. I know where much of this crap originates, and I think most people are aware of it also and are tired of it by now. What I don’t understand are people desires to always rain on other peoples parades, it really shows a lack of creativity and immature thoughts on their part.
So let’s set the record straight…The Congress is a storyline. Simple and plain. The story centers around Lord Bobbins, Dr. Todd (Queen Victoria’s doctor) and Nikola Tesla; we travel to Oslo, Norway to a peace conference, where we have invited the world to sit, discuss and talk about the future and what the power of steam means. Of course there will be problems because we have 3 new villains. All trying for the grand prize of being the most terrible- what ensues is nothing short of drama, comedy and a lot of immersionable fun.
In truth I want to bring fans from around the world together and talk. Find common interests and create new dialogues and talks with fans. We need to talk more, argue less and become a more tight knit community. Yes there will be discussions on issues and talks and I hope a new good old fashioned debate or two on some fun subjects.
I think people need to see beyond the “trip” idea and realize that this too can be an adventure. Just the idea of meeting new people and finding new friends is a grand idea in my book. Do we always need to go to the moon? NO, but I always promise a unique and exciting weekend.
I want this year to be about the fans- their hopes and dreams. Where they want their fandom to go and how they see it in 5 years. The only way we can do this is by talking and getting to know one another better. I put a call out last year to all convention heads. We will be having a summit at the con. Most of the North American convention chairs and their seconds will be in attendance to discuss things, and I hope bring new light to many issues fans have talked about. I want to see better cons, and more input from the fans. My fondest wish is we walk away with new ideas and work together as a fandom more.
This is what the whole idea is about- creating dialogue and friendships. I personally don’t think that is a bad idea.
AA: How might someone prepare for this year’s events?
EL: Start by buying a ticket, they are limited as usual and we always sell out early. There are plenty of rooms available in the 5 hotels, but the main hotel is sold out. We have transport for those who need it. Bring lots of finery and be prepared to spend time meeting new friends and seeing old friends you saw last time. We will have the schedule out earlier this year, so everyone can see it up front.
AA: Last year, on the last day of the convention, there was the usual pre-registration opportunity to sign up for this year. I leapt at that chance, and so did a few hundred other people. Aside from getting a ticket soon before they all sell out, what should a first time attendee know about the convention, and what shouldn’t they miss?
EL: We sold over 560 tickets in 2 days and by the end had presold 650 total. Yes, they go fast! There are a few fun things we have to offer though. The tea room run by the TeslaCon “Tea Lady” is an event all to itself. It was created as a space to relax and enjoy the Victorian art of tea drinking. The cost is $10, but allows you to come in and drink as much tea as you want all weekend-we also give you period style snacks as well.
We also have the dinners, the grand 5-7 course meals prepared by the head chef. They too are immersive and part of the weekend storyline. They will be posted soon on the site- tickets again are extra. We sell out of those as well.
This year we will be doing a huge theme on the American Civil War and how it fits into our current 1880’s time line. We basically show and explain how this conflict that lasts almost 15 years…started the steam revolution. The way we do it will be new and very untried before. I hope everyone will take time to see it.
AA: Alright, you’ve take people up in an airship, under the oceans (with a stop for an old fashioned Victorian mummy unwrapping), and last year managed to crash land the whole contingent on the moon. After this year’s Congress wraps up, how should people pack for their trip in 2014, and beyond??
EL: Hahahah the 50 million dollar question. Ok- here you go. I will tell you and your readers up front right now.
Year 1- The Dirigible Incident
Year 2- 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Aether
Year 3- A Trip to the Moon
Year 4- The Congress of Steam
Year 5- Journey to the Center of the Earth
Year 6- The Wild Weird West…TeslaCon Syle
Year 7- A Crononauts Holiday*/ The Night Circus*/ Evil Genius Class Reunion* (not sure yet)
Year 8- Murder on the Orient Express (The last convention)
*Not finalized yet.
Mind you the year 6 and 7 are still being developed, but I have a good idea where the story will go and what will happen.
We’ll take a break here in talking with Eric and pick up next time where he’ll tell us more about the upcoming conventions, and a peek behind the curtain into what it takes to create the Teslacon experience.
Check out the latest news, and get your tickets, at http://teslacon.com/
Read Part Two here.