By MIKE CHAIKEN
When the Brass Ring Academy and Cabaret returns to Bristol this weekend, one of the more prominent members of the steampunk community will be on hand.
Thomas Willeford, a steampunk writer, artist, and maker, is one of the more recognizable adherents of the steampunk lifestyle, having appeared as a judge on the GSN competition show, “Steampunk’d.” The Pennsylvania resident, who operates Brute Force Studios, also has written the book ”Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos.”
In a phone interview, Willeford said he learned about what would become steampunk back in the 1980s. An old TV show from the 1960s called “The Wild Wild West” (starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin) exhibited the characteristics of steampunk, although it wasn’t called by that name.
The show took place in the late 19th century American West (when Ulysses Grant sat in the White House) but was infused with all sorts of fantastical sci-fi gadgetry. “It was a great show. It was really cutting edge for its time.”
Willeford said, “The Wild Wild West” was “so steampunk” since it reflected the movement’s ethos, which is “Victorian ideals with super technology.”
In addition to “The Wild Wild West,” Willeford said his interest in what would become steampunk was stoked by a role playing game in the 1980s called, “Space 1889.” It was a play on the old science fiction show “Space 1999.” However, instead of imagining space travel on the cusp of the 21st century, it imagined what space travel would have been like if the 20th century were still a decade a way.
“One of the cool things about steampunk is it’s a non-scary look,” said Willeford of the sartorial sense of the steampunk community.
Willeford, who once hung out in the goth world, said it’s easy to be cool in the steampunk universe.
In goth—and cosplay— often the coolest person in the room is the sexy woman wearing the sexiest gear. In steampunk, the coolest person in the room might be the oldest one in the room, he said. And they might be cool because they have an incredible dress with a mechanical hat.
Willeford said steampunks also are an “exceptionally creative group.” DIY is often a key word for most people in the steampunk movement, said Willeford, who once made a steampunk Iron Man costume for an event.
Even before he knew about steampunk, Willeford said he had already been drawn to the Victorian age that serves as its context as a kid.
His grandparents had a great big Victorian house, said Willeford.
There were all kinds of steam engines in the house. There also were all sorts of weird furniture about.
“I grew up on the weird side of the Addams Family street,” said Willeford.
Willeford will lead two classes at the Academy. One class at the Academy on Saturday will address steampunk manners. “That’s my favorite panel,” said Willeford.
Willeford said many in fandom tend to be introverted. And this is partially due to the fact that no one teaches people in general how to speak to each other any more without embarrassing themselves.
Many people will mock Victorian manners, said Willeford, but that’s because they forget why those manners were important. Something as simple as not eating with your elbows on the table had a practical purpose in the Victorian age, he said. In the Victorian days, you didn’t have many clothes and you would often have to wear these pieces again without cleaning them. If you placed your elbows on the table while you were eating, explained Willeford, you risked getting food on your sleeves. Additionally, he explained, you ran a greater risk of wearing out the elbows of your clothing.
“There are reasons for (the manners),” said Willeford.
Willeford said the class will help teach the participants how “not to be afraid to talk to each other.” He will explain to them a convention such as the Brass Ring Academy is a perfect opportunity to strike up a conversation because you know you have something in common with the other person. He also teaches the importance of giving the other person an opportunity to exit the conversation every 15 minutes or so they don’t feel trapped.
“My grandmother was very big on having high standards of behavior and she indoctrinated that in me,” said Willeford.
In addition to the class on manners, Willeford also will hold a class on Sunday to show how you can take some plumbing and some leather, and within an hour create your own pair of steampunk-style brass goggles.
The Brass Ring Academy and Cabaret will be held Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 7 and 8 at the New England Carousel Museum, 95 Riverside Ave., Bristol.
The Academy is Saturday, Jan. 7 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is all ages.
The Cabaret is Saturday, Jan. 7, from 7 to 11:30 p.m., and is 18 plus.
The Workshop is Sunday, Jan. 8, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is all ages.
For more information, go to www.brassringct.com.