Where past meets present meets future: My weekend with the steampunks

I am the first to classify myself as a geek. I wear the moniker as a badge of honor, rather than one of shame.

Yet, at times I do find myself embarrassed, not because of my geekiness, but rather because my geekiness is both limited and selective. I will eagerly discuss the reboot of “The Best Show of All Time,” also know as “Battlestar Galactica;" Han absolutely shot first; I aim to misbehave. I enjoy “dressing up” as a zombie; I have a soft spot for sweet transvestites from Transsexual, Transylvania; I call my boyfriend “my Dark Knight.”

But I can’t say much about about Bioshock or Skyrim – video games, right? – or “Akira,” or most other anime. Every year, at Dragon*Con, when I get nearly overrun by throngs outfitted in goggles, petticoats and pocket watches or waving mechanical arms, legs and weaponry, I simply snap photos in awe.

I don’t “get” steampunk.

This is where S.T.E.A.M.Fest 2012 comes in.

S.T.E.A.M.Fest is the Steampunk Theater, Entertainment, Arts & Music Festival. It began in 2008 by the Academy Theatre in Avondale Estates, a small community adjacent to Atlanta, to celebrate the “artistic ability of those who toy with alternate history and retro-futurism."

I was at the steampunk-centric, two-day festival last weekend to support the geeks-in-their-own-right Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, a nonprofit organization that performs works in radio show format: Sound effects, voice actors at upright microphones, even the occasional commercial or musical performance.

I’m an occasional voice actor with the groups, and a member of the theater company member penned a 30-minute script that involved crossing dimensions, airships and romance – all frequent themes within the steampunk realm.

That’s about what I know.

Oh, and gears. There are lots of contraptions with gears. Not to mention steam.

For me, I thought the highlight would be multiple showings of the original, painted version of Georges Méliès’ film “A Trip to the Moon,” hand-colored by Méliès himself in 1902. (Squee!)

But then, I became the S.T.E.A.M.Fest 2012 Tea Dueling Champion.

Lauren Berkley competes against her friend John Washburn in a "tea duel" at S.T..E.A.M.Fest, overseen by Tiffin Master Wilhelmina Frame.

Yes, you read that correctly: Tea dueling. If “what the what?!” is running through your head right now, rest assured it was running through mine, at the time. I stumbled upon the duel by accident and then a friend volunteered me.

And then I shocked the world. Or at least, the world of tea duelists.

The event was held by the American Society of Tea Duellists, and the rules, vocabulary, and even penalties are quite detailed, but in short:

The duel – or “Tiffin Party” – was overseen by a Tiffin Master who told us to select our weapons – in this case, tea biscuits on a platter. For the remainder of the duel, we could only hold our biscuits between a thumb and forefinger. At the Tiffin Master’s cue, we dipped the biscuits three-quarters of the way into cups of hot tea, while the Tiffin Mistress counted to five. Each combatant then removed the biscuit with as little movement as possible, hoping to be the last one to get the biscuit completely in his or her mouth before it crumbled or broke. If that occurred, then a victorious “clean nom” was achieved.

My final, clean nom against Sir John David Washburn’s flagging, soggy biscuit was enough to crown me victor! Or at least, “fez” me victor.

Because fezzes are cool – and that was the prize.

This game was much more fun than it should have been, especially for a group of people who were (mostly) sober.

But I still didn’t really understand: What IS steampunk? And why?

The lure of do-it-yourself is a huge component in the steampunk world, as most participants create their own costumes, props and weapons themselves.

While it began as Victorian-era science-fiction, Doctor Quartermain, founder of steampunk community The Artifice Club, believes it is a “modern expression of a love for the past, with the clear intent of bringing the past into the future.” It's playing a "What If" with history with others, he told me, while being heavily focused on DIY.

Matthew Silva, owner and co-founder of Penny Dreadful Productions, said it offers an open, creative playing field that’s still a community to be a part of. It also offers something few other creative aesthetics do: A family-friendly atmosphere.

“The Goth movement, for example, is very dark; it’s full of despair and death,” Silva said. “What parent is going to tell their child not to wear a three-piece suit and have a tea party? What parent is going to tell their child not to have manners?”

It is true; steampunk seems the most polite genre, as all weekend long I was motioned first through doorways by dapper men and young boys in suits and frequently referred to as “milady.”

After immersing myself in steampunk all weekend, I left with a greater appreciation for it, but realized, too, why it just doesn’t “appeal” to me.

For one, I am not a DIY-er. I act, I sing, I dance, I write, but I cannot darn a sock to save my life. I cannot draw, let alone work leather or metal or even plastics. I just do not have the time, money, and admittedly, the desire to even start the process in learning how to create, to build, to sew.

But there’s this: Anything can become steampunk. Steampunk Dr. Xavier, Steampunk Sabretooth, and Steampunk Magneto all made an appearance at the festival. So did Steampunk Snow White and “Steamerella.”

The only thing required, according to the dozens I spoke to, is a love of “a time gone by.” That love spurs them to recreate a more courteous and more inventive experience in the present-day, by “modifying” current technologies with the deepest appreciation.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I was born in the wrong era. My fashion, music, and film tastes all lean heavily toward the 1920s-1940s, so I can respect and understand the desire for a steampunk way of life.
I might not be drawn to high collars, bustles, antique revolvers or steam-powered wheelchairs, but it sure is a lot of fun to time travel.

After all, it’s not like dressing like a bloody, flesh-crazed zombie is for everyone, either.