Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Five or So Questions with Avonelle Wing on Convention Organizing

Tell me a little about what you do as a convention coordinator. What's exciting about it?

What do I do? that's a very complicated question, because I wear many hats, and the list of things I do could read like a resume.
From the practical and very concrete perspective, my job is to make sure the resources are available for the convention staff to provide the most satisfying convention experience possible to the broadest segment of our population. Among the things I do are:
  • Remembering to buy the right envelopes (peel and stick, #10), card stock, poster board, tape, packing tape, duct tape, and knowing which brand and why.
  • Keeping track of ridiculous things, like remotes, wires, plugs, components - making sure everything gets packed to and from every con, and I know where each important piece is. all the time. 
  • Refreshing our extension cord supply. 
  • Counting bed spots accurately so senior staff and guests all have a place to sleep.
  • Soliciting and tracking prize support and library copies of games.
  • Keeping track of special guests and making sure they have satisfying experiences at the con. 
  • Maintaining a social media presence so the conventions are people, not faceless corporate entities to attendees. 
My brain holds a million vital little details that mean we don't ahve to reinvent the wheel. and we never have to deal with the experience of buying the wrong duct tape again. (the whole Big Board system fell off the walls at DEXCON. Within hours of putting it up. It's my job to remember that horror and to make sure we avoid it in the future. 1,000 events on the ballroom floor. oi.)

I talk to game masters. I help piece the schedule together (my husband does the lion's share of the scheduling and I still get a little swoony when I look at the sheer magnitude of the task he takes on every convention.). I coordinate staff.

On a more ephemeral level, I get to be part of the magic of our community. I am the welcome wagon - I notice when somebody is looking a little lost and I loop them into something exciting. I forge connections, solve problems. When somebody is in the middle of a devastating breakup and needs to hide, they end up in my room, because that's a safe place to hide and I always feed you after I scrape your sobbing self up off a hallway floor. Our conventions are described by lots of people in our community as "giant family reunions" and I get to make that magic happen. It's akin to being the eccentric aunt who rents the pavilion, hires the magicians and buys 100lbs of charcoal. The difference is that our community has chosen to be here. and I love them for that.

I get to facilitate our evolution. When somebody comes to me and says "freeform. it's a thing. we need more of it" I get to say "ok! fill out the form and let's do it!"

When somebody says "gender. It matters in gaming and we need to talk about it." I get to say "OK! space, exposure, attention. let's go."
18 months later, somebody said the same thing about race. "Great. Let's talk. Let's talk long and loud and let's get angry and let's do positive things to change our world. Let's go!"
We hear "old school roleplayers feel lost. we want a home too!" and we launch a convention within a convention to serve them too.
Our job is to be responsive and supportive and encouraging. and I think we do a decent job of it. It's exciting to me to hear somebody say "I want to..." and to be able to say "and I can help make that happen. I'm excited! let's go!"

I am often humbled, watching our community support each other. and I get to know that they've come together because I've given them the venue and the opportunity and the reason to do so.

What is the biggest challenge to hosting a con?
The biggest challenges of any convention lie in the unknowns - will the air conditioning be able to keep up? how many bottles of soda will we blow through this year? The system and process stuff? We've got that down, and it's entirely on us. Once you set the machine in motion, you become dependent on other people to see things through, and on the universe to cooperate.

I drove all the convention badges, the printer and all the other registration materials to a convention once through a storm system that spawned tornadoes. As I drove down the highway, I watched trees falling behind me - it felt cinematic and not as terrifying as it should have been. Those things, you can't plan for. You just have to keep your head screwed on straight and keep moving.

What do you think is the most valuable advice you could give someone starting their own event?
Talk to other local events. Make sure you're not crashing their party. Ask them about venues - sometimes there's a reason an event moved suddenly. Schedule so you're not stepping on anybody's toes. Ask for help - Double Exposure is always happy to help a small even negotiate for space and sometimes we even help staff for your first couple of years.

Figure out a reasonable budget and double it.

Carry the best insurance you can possibly afford. Wait. what? insurance? Yes, insurance. Trust me, it's worth it.

Don't run by committee. Take personal responsibility for things that go wrong and be generous in sharing the credit for things that go right.

What are your goals with Maelstrom and DEXCON, which are two wildly different cons?
Maelstrom is an experiment, and I'm still sorting out my goals. I need to go back to my brain trust and discuss what worked and what didn't, and to set community-guided goals.

DEXCON's goal is, always, to provide the most action-packed, diverse, intense, intimate five days of gaming anywhere. We've got the excitement of one of the mega-cons with the comfort and friendliness of a local con.

What's big for the next year for Double Exposure?
Big... I'm not sure we are ready for much bigger than 2014! We're up to four conventions a year of our own, plus we're doing the First Exposure Playtest Hall at Gen Con.

I'm just getting my feet under me when it comes to talking about the importance of social justice - of advocacy and representation. That has become a bigger part of Double Exposure's program over the last several years, as I've realized that we were above the curve, but had more we could be doing. the rest of 2014 and likely most of 2015 is going to be continuing to present the best possible product to our community while refining and advancing our approach to outreach, education and representation. I have so much to learn, and so many brilliant people to learn it from.

I have a still-flickering hope that we will be able to do a larp-oriented project in 2015, but that won't be decided until we've gotten home from Gen Con, at the soonest.

Why do you run these conventions?
Riding home from Gen Con last year, I found myself pondering the fact that these conventions - even with their stress, financial exposure, physical toll, worry and effort - are as close to worship as I come. We create a thing that is ephemeral. It's temporary, like a play, and when we're done, we strike the set and we go home. But while they exist, we create something that is as close to a Divine act as possible.

Conventions connect people in a very tangible way. We step outside of our daily lives and enter a space outside of time. We storytell - one of the most human and most sacred of acts. We trade pieces of ourselves. We laugh. we cry. We see friends we only see a couple of times a year, and we pick back up right where we left off. There's an emotional resonance to conventions that is unlike anything else I've experienced.

Also, it's safe place to be a nerd - to love My Little Ponies. to know the dialogue to every Star Trek movie. to remember every model number of every Terminator to show up on screen, ever. There's very little fear of mockery or disdain. As somebody who was vexed for being a reader, for being a nerd, for having a grown-up vocabulary, sometimes it moves me to tears to watch folks (often younger folks) come in - a little awkward, a little wound up, a little too much - and to see them unwind, slow down, find their own unique pace. We create a space where we protect each others' weirdnesses, and share them. It gives folks who find themselves on the fringe at school, at work, in their daily life, a chance to be in the middle of the puppy pile - to be respected, to acknowledged and seen and known.

It's a calling, and I've known that since I first walked into a Double Exposure convention in 1997. I welcome each new face like a companion on this path to carve out a spot of acceptance, creation and joy every few months.

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