A New Festival Rides into Town
They will be parading down Market Street in their finery, taking an old-fashioned walk among the other diners and bar-hoppers on a Friday night. It will be “see-and-be- seen” time—no blending here. In fact, they will stick out like a sore thumb—or an entire gadget-enhanced arm. Steampunks, decked out in retro-futuristic costumes, complete with goggles, top hats and gear, are coming to Frederick this month. And local tourism officials couldn’t be happier.
The Steampunk Frederick Festival will debut Aug. 12 with the pub walk and spill over into the rest of the weekend with vendors, performers, seminars and refreshments. It will ride the coattails of the Clustered Spires High Wheel Race on Aug. 13. The events seem to pair up nicely, with the race in its fifth year and the festival in its brand-new, emerging form. “We’re very excited to have the Steampunk Festival in conjunction with the High Wheel Race—the only race of its kind,” says Becky Bickerton, director of sales and marketing at Visit Frederick. “Our downtown is great for welcoming groups like this.”
When event planner/producer Wheeler Stone describes Steampunk culture, you can almost hear him winking. The ER nurse-turned-artist sports a handlebar mustache and has created a festival logo featuring a creature named Dapperpus. “He is a very proper Victorian gentleman who happens to be a cephalopod,” Stone says.That’s a little slice of Steampunk, a campy blend of Victorian dress, sci-fi culture, fantasy, steam-powered gadgets and re-imagined history. According to another local Steampunk enthusiast, it’s a celebration of art, music, literature and costuming with a sprinkling of engineering, alchemy and “light/dark arts.”
“To me, it means retro-futurism. Re-imaging our current time and the future, but from the standpoint of someone in the 1910-1920 time frame. It’s like being able to re-define science. Think of crystals holding the power of lightning. What if that was the way of powering the world? Our clothing, art, music and writings would be so very different. I think what we really celebrate is our imagination,” says Terry Smith, who goes by the Steampunk name VagueMax. “We probably look like pictures of your great-great-grandparents just before they were committed to the asylum; but we’re mostly harmless.”
Kaeryn Bailey-Smith, who married VagueMax at the Steampunk World’s Fair in 2013 in Piscataway, N.J., adds, “Some people get very nitpicky about what is and isn’t Steampunk. But, to me, it’s all about fun and self-expression during an imaginary period of time.”
Because it playfully straddles the line between an actual historical time period (mid-1800s to early 1900s) and several fictional future scenarios, it’s difficult to nail down Steampunk. A good framework for understanding the genre can come from books such as William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the works of H.G. Wells and several takes on the significance of mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage’s early computer designs. But Stone is quick to point out that reading about Steampunk culture falls flat. He insists that one has to experience it.
“I have had amazing conversations with people who I know have very different ideas about how the world should be run. However, as long as the topic is Steampunk, there is a common thread and we get along famously,” he says.
The Maryland Ensemble Theatre, one of the festival sponsors, is well-versed in the genre. Artistic director Tad Janes says, “Three to four years ago we did The Canterbury Tales in Steampunk style. The costuming was Victorian avant-garde. In the show, a dirigible got stranded and The Canterbury Tales ensued. We found that there was an underground of Steampunk around.” Janes says the MET’s production was featured in a documentary and that a former MET student was doing a lot of Steampunk costuming in Georgia. “We are really connected.”
Festival activities will take place in and around the MET. The venue will provide two theaters, lobby space, a classroom and a reception area.
Scheduled performances include a Steampunk improv comedy show on Friday and a Saturday concert featuring musician Eli August with an opening performance by the Positronic Cats. The night will be capped off by a boisterous show featuring Honeybee Burlesque.
How does Steampunk mesh with burlesque? “The patrons and fans of one often appreciate the other,” says Honeybee’s Bearcat Betty, who will be joined onstage by co-producers Lady Bladie and Lipstick Lamarr. “In both art forms, the exhibitors and patrons get to celebrate life in unique vibrant ways that can often have a spark of history and education as well as imagination. We hope to awaken an art that has been sleeping too long in the area. We’ve spent the last two years building our troupe, our skills, our fan base and our hopes of continuing to entertain Frederick residents and visitors,” she says.
Riding in on a High Note
The increasingly popular Clustered Spires High Wheel Race is sure to help stand up the new festival. Last year it drew nearly 5,000 people to town. Event planners Eric and Jeanne Rhodes say they are happy to have more company during and after the race at the Pennies and Pints event, a beer garden that will be set up in front of City Hall.
The race is the only one of its kind in the country and draws participants from around the world. Riding these fanciful bicycles, sometimes called Penny-farthings, is not for the faint of heart. “There is a lot of danger,” says Eric Rhodes. “It’s a fixed gear and no brakes. You counter-pedal to slow down.” Plus, racers ride very high up in the air, on 48- to 60-inch wheels. Mounting and dismounting is tricky business.”
This year’s event will be kicked off by renowned high-wheel bicyclist, Joff Summerfield who traveled around the world on a Penny-farthing. He will speak on Friday night at the Frederick Airport. The race begins in Downtown Frederick at 3 p.m. Saturday. Some racers will ride restored bicycles; most will ride reproductions. Local first-responders and elected officials will get into the racing action, too. They will be featured in a Public Servant Relay Race on mini high-wheelers prior to the big race.
Many Frederick residents have seen the high-wheeled races over the last five years, and organizers anticipate that both racers and fans will continue to come out to see this year’s event. The Steampunk festival producers and those planning on participating are hoping to draw local people to check out the new festival, too. They welcome gawkers.
“I pretty much guarantee you have never seen something like this and would not forgive yourself for not joining in. It doesn’t matter what you wear as long as you are there,” says VagueMax.