Life as a Full Time Member of Airship Isabella

I so often hear “It would be great to be able to travel and go to cons for a living…to meet all kinds of people and feel like I’m making a

Captain Whittaker fitting a custom bracer to one of the patrons of Louisianime 2010...the moments that make it worth it.

difference…I want to do that!” My standard response is…no you don’t. On the one hand all of those things are completely true. It is wonderful to travel especially with the eccentric personalities that I have the pleasure of traveling with. Two, cons are wonderful to me because I’ve never known them as a civilian. I enjoy the work, but make no mistake, it is work and a lot of it. Honestly, the reason we keep doing this is the meeting people and the feeling like your making a difference, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Nothing I have ever done beats those moments. But nothing is as easy or as pleasant as it seems. Traveling when you want to is wonderful. Being on the road for 6 weeks with the same people in a confined space with lack of sleep takes a special kind of person to enjoy, and you don’t get to choose where you are going nor what you do when you get there. That is easily overcome with the joy of the event and the people that you work with, but it’s what you don’t see that makes this life difficult.

Enjoy your sweat because hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but without it you don’t have a chance. Alex Rodriguez

There are no promises. We may work our behinds off and be totally prepared, and we may sell out of merchandise at the first event in a six week run. Great ,right! Yes and no. Great that we will actually be able to eat on the way to the next event. Not so great in that as soon as we find crash space for the three days between events, we will be feverishly working to replenish supplies before the next Friday, all while maintaining an internet store. God help us if we run out of raw materials on the road. Did you know you can ship things to post offices in towns you will visit? Just saying. Or on the flip side, we may work our behinds off and be totally prepared, and no one shows up to the event. If we walk away with enough for cup o noodle for the next three days, we will be lucky, not to mention where we are going to sleep. National Park passes are a good investment as is making friends with the locals. And it starts again every Friday. The uncertainty and instability is enough to drive most people crazy. On the crew, we have all had moments of “I can’t do this anymore” and “I just want to know where I’m going to sleep or how are we going to eat.” But we hold each other up in those moments, and figure out new and inventive ways to survive. Some of my favorite stories involve having to come up with ways to get through what seemed to be impossible obstacles. To date, we have had to sleep in our vehicles, but no one has gone hungry. For that, I am thankful.

Then there is the disparity between the way we see the con world and the way a convention goer sees the con world. I hear time and

The Wonderland Crew - Dickens on the Strand 2010. They started with about three hours of sleep and these guys worked in a crowd of approximately 20,000 people for six hours without a break.

time again once people actually book and work conventions, “How do you guys do this?! This is too much like work!” Well, yes, yes it is. It is our job, and treating it as anything less will make you miserable. We do not attend conventions to have fun. We go to promote steam punk, the steam punk community and hopefully make enough money to survive until the next one. To me, that IS fun. I will give you a little taste of what it’s like by relating what we have learned over the course of two years on the circuit. We did attend Ikkicon 2010 as guests, but mostly we stood around being awestruck and not knowing what to do. It was a whole new world to us, and we LOVED it. I had no idea that there were that many people who took the time to make costumes of their favorite characters and dress up for the weekend. I can’t explain to you, as a costumer, how excited that made me.

After giving our very first panel. If you don't recognize them, they didn't make it past the first Spring.

The first convention that we tried to pull together some organization was Comicpalooza in March of 2010. It was our first run at hosting panels on our own, and standing completely independent from other more established groups. We got our first taste of what con life was like on the inside. First, nobody sleeps. How is it that nobody sleeps? But there we were fighting waves of sleep deprivation while having to maintain some semblance of knowledge and decorum. Second, it’s really hard to find food that isn’t a convenience store hot dog for $9, and cons frown on coolers. So, eating is an issue. Third, it’s really, REALLY hard to be polite, welcoming and answer questions without sarcasm when you are suffering from numbers one and two. Finally, desperation often breeds real innovation.

Cedric at our first con workstations, Comicpalooza 2010

Comicpalooza was the first convention that we set up workstations for our leather workers. Not because we thought, “What a great way to get people interested in steam punk!” or “This will be really good marketing!”. No, it was because we are just like every other artist out there, and we had time management issues. We were utterly unprepared for the convention, so in desperation, we brought our workstations with us thinking that we could work in our down time. It turned into a round the clock DIY panel that was inspiring for everyone. It also taught us how horribly wrong not sleeping and eating can go. One of our crew members fell asleep at the wheel, and crashed into a culvert. He broke his back. We now have a policy for cons in which we have to travel more than 3 hours. We do not leave until Monday. Nothing is worth a 21 year old having a lifetime of pain.

At conventions, we are up every morning between 5:30 and 7:30am depending on the con, and work solid until 8pm-midnight. Some cons, I won’t mention any names, seem to think it’s ok to push that end time to 4:30am. This is not because we choose to be there. This is not because we thought it would be fun even if it was. It’s in our contract that we will attend/host/vend. I have wanted to see Abney Park play since I started doing this. I have attended three conventions where they were playing and have not seen them once. The last time I was not working at that exact moment, but I had to choose between catching two hours of sleep, literally on the convention center floor, or the concert. I chose sleep, and including that two hours, I only got three hours of sleep that night. So please don’t take offense when we don’t show up to after parties or don’t drink with you. We are already looking at less than 4 hours of sleep. Having a hang over only makes the next day worse. We had to learn that one the hard way, though we still do it occasionally. People have to cut loose sometimes. As strange as it sounds, you do get acclimated to operating under these conditions, and the pleasant demeanor gets easier to maintain in time. It’s the first six months that’s a killer. After that, it becomes second nature. I will also tell you that you can do far more than you think you can, and push much further than you ever thought possible if you want something badly enough.

To be honest, I think that we learned all of the basics at that first full-fledged con. At the time, we thought it was a fluke. That we hadn’t prepared properly. But the truth is, the con world and life on the road is both totally predictable and utterly unpredictable. You can count on the lack of sleep, the difficulty in locating food and the iron will to maintain a pleasant face while operating under the first two. You can also count on the fact that something will go wrong, things you were promised will not happen and schedules change without anyone bothering to notify you. These are a given. But you can also count on that one person that makes your smile real through the fog, the one panel that you enjoy giving as much as the people enjoy attending, the random acts of kindness, and the light in people’s faces that just make everything worth doing.

Kitty and Nyxie, Ikkicon 2011, day two, midnight

Surviving in this world requires one thing: perseverance. Thriving in this world requires two things: perseverance and flexibility. One, always have a backup plan. You are suppose to have a hotel room? Know where the nearest dive that you can afford to shove all 15 of your people into is. In the same vein, know the crime rates in the city you are going to. Green room access? First trip will be to the grocery store. We will have time to do that once we get there….no you won’t. Two, schedules don’t work…for us or for them. Cons are notorious for changing in mid-stride and we just learned to deal with it. Nothing is ever written in stone,so it is a waste of time and energy to get upset about it. Knee deep in a season, we have neither of those things to spare. Plan for it instead. We assigned crew members and friends to this problem. Their job is to keep poking around places so that we have as much warning as possible to the inevitable changes. And it doesn’t hurt to get to know the staff. They are either your best allies or your worst enemies. Don’t make them the latter. You will regret it.

Finally, people seem to think that we can relax between conventions. This is so far from the truth that its mind boggling. I hear people on the internet talking about con comas when they get home. We have a rule in the shop. If we arrive at the shop, or our next port of call before 9pm, we all have to put in an hour of work before we can sleep. Actual building work, not computer work. The computer work is for the next day. And that includes the end of a long run. Once we end a season, there is still a weeks worth of work to do. We do occasionally have two-three week breaks and those are when our con comas hit. I have seen a marked change in the crew in this regard over the year. When we first started, every break was treated like a weekend. Now, people won’t take more than two weeks even if we have more time, and for anything less than two weeks, no one slows down at all. But after that 6-8 week push in the fall and spring, the first week back, no one changes out of pajamas or goes out to do anything other than buy smokes or sodas. And they sleep. Sleep like they will never see it again. Which in their defense, they won’t once the ramp up to the next run starts

…I didn’t bring my peremptory tone to bear in regard to what you’d just said about the unnecessariness of sleep but only, only, mind you, because of the fact that I absolutely, simply, purely and without any whatevers have to sleep now, I mean, man, my eyes are closing, they’re red hot, sore, tired, beat…” Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The guys of Airship Isabella hosting an impromptu panel with Mr. Saturday and Sixpence at Realmscon 2011, day three, at this point an hour of sleep in 48 hours.

During long runs, we only have three days to replenish stock which is all hand made by us. That means 16-18 hour work days leading into 4-36 hour road trips leading into 20-22 hour work days with no weekends for 4-8 weeks at a time. Now with all of this, you still have to update your outfits, repair any gear that was damaged, and maintain family relationships….and I home school my children as well. We still have the Ike shack as a shop and home when we are not on the road, and we have added a leaky camper in the driveway to house our two newest full time members. And somehow we have managed to eek out enough space to fit three more workstations in the living quarters that has no central air or heat. Any creature comfort we have ever had is gone, from privacy to consistent hot water. Still sound like something you want to do?

I will tell you it is worth every minute, but it is not for the faint of heart! Every time someone comes up and thanks you; Every time they bring their first attempt at building and garb to an event; Every time you see a family brought together by a common vision; Every time you leave the con floor with a smile, and I have never left the con floor anything but smiling, you are reminded why you work so hard. In the midst of everything, I do get to spend more time with my family. Even if we are all working, we are working together. I am closer to the people on this crew than I have been to anyone that is not related to me by blood, and with them, I have shoved a lifetime full of incredible stories into the space of a year. I have been to more places than I ever thought I would get to see. I get to work my rear off for something that I love, and I was not raised to be ashamed of hard work. I’m actually really proud of it. So if you still have a mind to set out after that dream with your eyes open, come talk to us. We will help you any way we can!

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life. Jack Kerouac

The Airship Isabella crew at Wild Wild West Con, Tuscon, Arizona...would not trade them for anything.


2 thoughts on “Life as a Full Time Member of Airship Isabella

  1. Thank you for sharing your stories. Since I work press at some conventions, I can relate to a fraction of what you experience. A lot of my friends ask me why I give up having fun with them and being able to cosplay/dress in steampunk (though I have manage to put a neo-Victorian touch to the company dress code) to write a couple of concert reviews and interviews, and it’s like what you’ve said: to live the dream, you have to put in the hard work. I admire all of you for your perseverance, and steampunk wouldn’t be where it is today without all your work and sacrifices.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this — as an author who attends cons for publicity, I completely commiserate! It’s a real challenge, filled with huge rewards to be an artist while effectively managing the ‘work’ portion of the life — both handling panels/meet+greets/signings/readings etc., and handling the everyday ‘work’ of the life. These days, I squeeze writing and con weekends into a full-time work schedule as well — work 1/2 day Friday, haul my butt to the con, spend the weekend working, talking to people about what I write, how I write, why I write, when I write… and WRITING during every moment that I have room to breath, to meet the next deadline… crawl home on Sunday night, rise on Monday morning and head for the day job on no sleep, no decent food, and way too much caffeine! But it is so worth it that, after 30 years, I still can’t imagine NOT doing what I do! May your next season be everything you hope it will be!

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