by Chris Tobias
Prior to Wizard World Philadelphia my experience working a table at a large public gathering was mainly restricted to fundraising. I’d worked carnival-style games at community day events while raising money for the high school fencing team I used to coach, and of course I’d helped run a game at Pittsburgh’s Can’t Stop the Serenity event for the past two years. Manning the table at Wizard World Philly was really very much the same, except the object was to convince people to put pen to paper instead of handing over their cash. (They would still have plenty of other opportunities to do that at the con. I swear when I got home from Philadelphia my ATM card was still hot to the touch! Not that I’m complaining. I came home with a lot of very shiny original artwork.)
Jeff mentioned in a previous post that you shouldn’t feel like you’re “stuck behind the table” when working at a con, and that it’s actually a way to enhance your convention experience. I could not agree more. In the four days I spent working at Take Back the Sky’s table, I met literally hundreds of people I would otherwise not have had the chance to talk to. It was also a great opportunity to spend quality time with the other members of our own crew. Jeff and I had communicated quite a bit via e-mail and had talked to one another on Skype, but Wizard World Philly was the first time we actually met face-to-face. It was also my first introduction to Flynn. Ed and I had more time to talk during the con than we had had all year up to that point, and it was a real treat that Michael, my youngest brother, had made the trip out with his wife Kelly as well. Bob (the Pittsburgh Browncoat who had attended our panel) also offered to work a shift or two behind our table, and did the same for the PA Browncoats. The camaraderie among Browncoats is really something special, and with our table being located next to the NY and PA Browncoats’ tables, that was even more apparent. It wasn’t long before the three tables were more like one long tri-colored table, their crews sliding back and forth to cover for one another and help one another out, or sometimes just to make it easier for us to keep up the conversation. It was really special for me to finally be able to meet in person many members of the PA Browncoats’ Delaware Valley Brigade that I had conversed with online for years on the PA Browncoats’ Yahoo message boards. It was no surprise that they turned out to be a very easy-going, fun-loving group, and I really wish I could make the trip out to spend time with them more often. The New York City Browncoats didn’t arrive until Friday, but when they did they were the best of next-door neighbors (Take Back the Sky and the PA Browncoats were bookends on either side of their table), and their hospitality and generosity were unmatched. I think it would really be a stretch to call what I did there for four days “work.” It was really more like non-stop fun!
It didn’t take long for me to get the hang of being in the role of “barker.” I found the most effective way to attract people to our table was to look for those walking by in the crowd who looked like they were likely to be sympathetic to our cause (Firefly and Serenity t-shirts and costumes were dead giveaways, and I also zeroed in on anything Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, Star Wars or Dr. Who) and hit them with what I dubbed “The Kaylee Approach,” in reference to the scene in Firefly’s pilot episode in which Kaylee opens her pitch to get Shepherd to book passage (no pun intended) on Serenity by saying, “You’re gonna come with us.” I simply modified her opening line to suit our needs, and a greeting of “You’re gonna help us,” or “You look like you wanna help us,” delivered with a smile, was usually enough to get someone to pause long enough for me to start my pitch. Once I had their attention, it was simply a matter of explaining what we were trying to do and why we thought it was worthwhile, and most of the time people were willing to sign at least one of the petitions or write a letter. Some people even took the time to do both. (I think my favorite was the woman who didn’t even let me get three words into my Spiel before exclaiming “Damn right!” and reaching for a pen!)
One of the more fun aspects of working the table at a comic con is that a lot of those who come by are in costume. I took full advantage of this. It not only allowed me to get their attention by calling them out by name (“Hey, Catwoman, wanna help us name a spaceship?”), but it also gave me the opportunity to take advantage of our social media presence by tweeting pictures of costumed characters signing our petition. I usually tried to tweet humorous captions that had something to do with the character in the photo. (If you want to see exactly what I mean, you can check out our Twitter feed at @TakeBackTheSky.) In four days behind the table at Wizard World Philly, our visitors included Batman, Catwoman, Ms. Marvel, Storm, Rorschach, Edward Scissorhands, an Alliance paramedic, Illyria, X-23 and a number of people dressed as Serenity crew members (Mal, Kaylee and Wash were the most popular, by far). Being able to take advantage of the cosplay element of the con in this way was fun for all involved. It gave us a way to let the public know about our progress in real time in an interesting manner, and it allowed those who had spent their time and money to put together great costumes for the con to get some well-deserved attention.
Of all the people in costume at the con, one cosplayer took the craft to a whole new level. Maya Dinerstein came to us from the Midwest via Boston, and I am so glad she decided to come to Philadelphia and hang with the Browncoats for the weekend. If you haven’t already seen Maya online, or if you saw the pictures we tweeted of her from Wizard World and were wondering who she is, you need to go to her “Ask Kaylee Frye” pages on Facebook and Tumblr. Never in my life have I seen a better imitation of Kaylee. Of course, it helps that Maya bears an uncanny resemblance to Jewel Staite, but her costumes were also some of the most accurate I’ve ever seen. She even came by one day dressed in Kaylee’s “layer cake” dress from the Firefly episode “Shindig!” Wherever Maya went, dozens of people wanted to photograph her or have their photo taken with her. This worked out well for us during those times when she hung around our table, because people who approached Maya often took an interest in what we were doing. I have no doubt in my mind that she brought us a fair number of petition signatures, not that I was only happy to see her because she attracted people to our table like moths to a flame. Maya’s personality matches Kaylee’s even more closely than her physical appearance matches Jewel Staite’s. She was always happy and bubbling over with a positive energy that was downright infectious. She was, without a doubt, one of my favorite people from among those I met that weekend, and her recent victory in the Wizard World New York City costume contest was no doubt well deserved.
On Friday I tried my hand at cosplay. I’ve been fine-tuning my own Malcolm Reynolds costume for CSTS events the past few years, and I decided to wear it at Wizard World Philly after the real Malcolm Reynolds, Nathan Fillion, had to cancel his appearance at the eleventh hour. (I don’t think I could adequately explain it, but I would have felt uncomfortable dressing as Mal if I knew that the real Mal were in the building.) I quickly learned that there are pros and cons to cosplay if you’re working behind a table. The costume definitely attracts attention, which is a good thing because it helps bring people over to the table, and this in turn results in more petition signatures and/or letters. The downside, though, is that you won’t be able to spend as much time behind the table! My Mal costume didn’t generate the kind of buzz that Maya’s Kaylee did (I’m no Nathan Fillion, but aside from the Cap’n himself, who is?), but it was nonetheless pretty well received, and I got more than my share of requests for photo ops. A few folk dressed as other members of Serenity’s crew (Zoe, Wash and other Kaylees besides Maya) dropped by the Browncoats’ tables for a spell, and while they were there it was impossible to avoid crowds of people who wanted to take pictures of the group. At times I felt like I was at a press conference, and after a while my jaws actually hurt from smiling for pictures. (It gave me an idea of what the cast members must feel like after eight hours of signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans. I’ll talk more about that in my next blog post.) I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate the attention though. It was nice to see my costume passed muster at one of the largest cons in the country, and I did get my picture taken with some mighty fine looking young ladies, but I also learned a valuable lesson about cosplay at a big con if you’re supposed to be “on the clock.” If you don’t have at least two other people working your booth with you, I’d advise against it because it’s very difficult to do the job and honor all the requests for photos at the same time. Luckily, I had Jeff, Flynn, Ed, Michael and Bob to cover for me, so I got to have some fun while serving as a walking advertisement for Take Back the Sky.
Another great advantage to having a table at an event is that it increases your visibility and gives those who might be interested a fixed location at which they can find you. This paid off for us in a big way because we were asked to interview for podcasts at our table on more than one occasion. I was especially happy to be able to do a follow-up interview with Sending a Wave, the UK’s Firefly podcast. I had communicated with Wendy, one of the co-hosts of Sending a Wave, via Twitter for several months before the con, and it was absolutely wonderful to meet her in person and spend time with her that weekend (I’ll talk more about that in my next post as well). If you’d like to hear our interviews with her, you can find them at http://sendingawave.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/show-the-one-from-philadelphia-at-the-johnson-arms/. While you’re there, you should sample some of their other episodes. These ladies produce a first-class podcast that’s done with the kind of passion and attention to detail that any true Browncoat would appreciate.
Manning a table at a major con definitely isn’t all work and no play. (As I said before, for me it felt more like all play and no work.) If you’re lucky enough to have a large crew, there’s still time to move about and see what else the convention has to offer. Since the “magic vendor’s bracelet” allowed us to get onto the convention floor early and bypass the long lines each morning, we were able to scope out things we might want to see before the con opened its doors to the masses, and whenever we got a few moments free we knew exactly where we wanted to go. There were dozens of very talented artists exhibiting their work, but I was most thrilled to find that comics artist/writer Billy Tucci was in attendance. I had admired his work for DC Comics for some time, especially his work on Sgt. Rock and Jonah Hex, and I had wanted to meet him for years. So during one of my breaks I headed over to his booth and spent a few moments chatting with him. I purchased a print of the cover he had done for one of Palmiotti and Gray’s Jonah Hex issues, and he was nice enough to sign it for me. Another artist I enjoyed meeting was Jason Palmer. I bought a beautiful print of his that featured River Tam and her iconic battle with the Reavers in Serenity. (I’ll talk a bit more about that in my next installment, since it would play a role in one of my most memorable experiences of the weekend.)
And then there was Bodycounters, one of the most interesting booths I visited during the con. These young ladies watch movies and conduct body counts. That’s right– they take a tally of every living thing that gives up the ghost during a given film! Then they post the statistics on their website, www.bodycounters.com. It was fascinating to hear how they got started with such a hobby and how they go about getting as accurate a body count as possible for as many films as they can. They admitted to me that Serenity was one of their more challenging projects, and since it was one of the first films they ever catalogued, they’re not satisfied with their tally because it was exceptionally hard to determine the casualties in the space battle between the Alliance and the Reavers. They said they’d like to do a recount now that they’ve improved on their methods, and I did my best to encourage them to give it another go. Their project really is quite unique and interesting, even if it is somewhat morbid.
I’m pretty sure that when I look back at 2013, the four days I spent working the table at Wizard World Philadelphia are going to count among my favorite days of the year. As I said to my brother at one point when we were together on the convention floor, I could easily work conventions for a living. I felt positively energized to be in a building where there were so many nice and interesting people and so much creative talent focused in one spot at the same time, and everywhere you turned you were presented with another amazing piece of artwork or another unique and entertaining idea. If you’re considering working a table at an event like Wizard World Philadelphia, for Take Back the Sky or any other project, and you’re not sure if it will be worth the time, money and effort, take it from me—you owe it to yourself to do it. The benefits to you and your cause will be myriad, and it will be an experience you will never forget.
(Up Next… Part Three: My Encounter with My Big Damn Heroes)