Steampunk CommuniTea Weekend

Virtual Steampunk Convention 2021

During the weekend of April 9 – 11, 2021, that daring duo of steampunk entertainment, Madame Askew and The Grand Arbiter, along with their Temporal Entourage, held a most amazing and rewarding virtual event, the Steampunk CommuniTea Weekend.

Pre-COVID, in person steampunk conventions were known for multiple tracks of varied and substantial programming, promenades of the finely dressed attendees, and carousing until the wee hours of the morning. More than once, I can admit to staying up far too late, or too early, depending on the perspective, and while never seeing the actual dawn rising, I know plenty of people who have.

It’s all part of the convention experience. Over-packing, just in case some fashionable element is suddenly, desperately, required. Trying to leave enough space, or bringing another empty bag entirely, for vendor room purchases. Working to see old friends and making new ones, caught up in the whirlwind of conversations in motion.

COVID presented all of us with lock-downs and quarantines, social distancing, and the chance to wear some fabulous masks in all shades of steampunk, but as it gave, it took away in-person events and conventions. Virtual events, whether personal or commercial, could be a bit hit or miss. Technical issues, user issues, and content issues were common. While it might have been the next best thing to being there, as the old Bell company slogan went, Skype, Teams, and Zoom sessions were still missing something.

CommuniTea, however, didn’t feel like any of that. For me, it felt just like a regular convention, albeit with better food and the opportunity to sleep in my own bed. Madame and the Arbiter appear to have been the first convention to use a hybrid model of Zoom video sessions along with Discord text chat rooms, and it worked brilliantly.

Instead of just popping in and out to present my panels in the course of three days, I logged in and pretty much never logged out. I gave and attended more panels than expected, met new people, and stayed up way too late, just like all the other conventions I’ve ever gone to.

This hybrid model captured the best aspects of in-person conventions – multiple tracks of visual programming – with a front row seat every time, a chance to connect with old friends and new – chatting away for hours. It felt so easy to be connected to others, and be immersed in the activities going on. Three days just flew right by.

In some ways, though, this model was even better than a regular convention. For the organizers, there were no travel budgets or venue contracts, which practically ensured that the event could be free for everyone to attend. For the attendees, everyone could be engaged at all times, if they chose to, even multitask at times, with everything going on. Questions could still be asked during the panels, collected and relayed by the exceptional tech staff. Attendees could also add their own comments and information without disrupting the speakers. When some questions were asked and there wasn’t an immediate answer, someone was right on it, searching for an answer and a link to post. Information and pictures were posted non-stop, and it made the whole event even more fulfilling.

Another wonderful benefit of this virtual event was that it was setup to be available all around the world. Guests and attendees from other countries were able to attend, something that is often financially prohibitive for a convention. James Ng joined from Hong Kong, Joyce Chng from Singapore, Yomi Ayeni and Corey Brotherson from England, and a host of other guests from around the United States and Canada. The event was also free, and since people didn’t have to leave their homes, even more attendees – over 500 – were able to join in the fun. Like many other conventions, there was more content than time allowed for. While there wasn’t any Tea Dueling, there was Compliment Dueling, along with nightly concerts, a magic show, and a riotous late night game show. The programming also included DIY, costuming, and food history.

Madame Askew and I had a chance to chat about the convention, and the guiding ideas in putting it together. She said,

“Right from the beginning, to the best of our ability, we made mindful choices, intentional choices, for everything from content to guests to scheduling. We didn’t have panels about diversity, we were diverse. We didn’t have any panels or conversations about ‘Steampunk is Dead’ but instead showed all the vibrant things happening in the steampunk community. There were no Steampunk 101 events but we worked to make sure the whole weekend was accessible to everyone, first timers and experienced attendees, and provide insightful and helpful panels.

As a virtual event, part of that accessibility was realizing we could have attendees from around the world. That meant addressing complaints we had heard over the years – it’s hard to participate from other countries when all the schedules are based on North American time zones. Some panels might have seemed early, or late, in the day, but we made the effort to reach guests and attendees when they could best participate, too.

Behind the scenes, we also made the effort to involved people who hadn’t had the opportunity to moderate or participate at other conventions. It developed into a low-key mentorship program, creating a way for them to gain practical real world skills which they could apply elsewhere in their lives. We chose people we believed in, and knew they could fill the role and do a great job. They had the chance to learn and practice these new skills in a safe and supportive space.

One thing that some conventions don’t always realize is that it’s not enough to have diversity in the panels, programs, or the guests, but it’s important to also be in place with the volunteers, side by side. It’s a great opportunity for mentoring and greater involvement with an individual. There should also be a drive to do more, to never rest on one’s laurels, to always try to be better. We wanted, intended, to do more, be more, it was a beautiful and wonderful adventure.”

Madame and the Arbiter have said there won’t be another weekend long event, but it sounds like there will definitely be upcoming adventures. They might be shorter, but I’m sure they will remain engaging and entertaining.

See you then!

Published in: on April 25, 2021 at 8:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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