Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Interview with Gil Cnaan, CEO of Storykeeper Events

Storykeeper Events volunteer Maisha Elonai is interviewing Gil Cnaan, CEO of Storykeeper Events, about the upcoming Gilded Festival to be held September 19 – 20 at Historic Cold Springs Village in Cape May, NJ.

Please see http://gildedfestival.com/ for more details on our time travel adventure.

Photo of Gil CnaanCould you tell me what The Gilded Festival is?

The Gilded Festival is, at its core, a family-friendly time travel adventure. It started off as a very strictly Steampunk event, in the same vein as AnachroCon, Teslacon, Steampunk World’s Fair, etc. The first time we ran it, like many of those other events, we ran in a hotel, and we had a few stages, we had some vendors, and it was a very standard hotel weekend convention. Then we decided that we wanted to do something a little bit different, and we decided not to do a second year in the same venue, took some time to think about what we wanted it to be, and we realized we wanted something that was a little bit more immersive and a little bit more … a little bit more of an experience.

When Historic Cold Spring Village approached us and said that they were interested in having an event, it seemed like a natural fit to merge the two, and then we could create something between your standard Steampunk convention and a Renaissance Faire with a little twist of purely immersive content. We liked this idea, we went down to Cold Spring Village, we saw all of these buildings that are older than this country that have been moved into there, we saw this nice open space, just beautiful foliage, just everything looking so nice, and we realized this was the space we were looking for. This was our way of creating an environment that you walk into and you’re not seeing modernity everywhere you go, you are seeing, functionally, a living history village.

You said “Steampunk.” What exactly does that mean to you?

Steampunk started out as essentially the idea of Victorian science fiction: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, that sort of technology, but with more modern sensibilities attached to it. It is in many ways a modern reimagining of what the world would be like had that particular type of technology remained dominant, had steam power remained the dominant technology instead of modern electricity, circuitry, etc. And since then it’s gone through several iterations and changes and it’s become its own literary genre, there’s a lot of Steampunk comics, you see some Steampunk aesthetics that are creeping into television series, etc., into movies – obvious examples are the Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock Holmes” movies, but also television shows like “Warehouse 13,” which used props made by a gentleman who went by the name of Datamancer, who passed away I think two years ago, but they used a number of props that he made. And now there’s a show on the Game Show Network called Steampunk’d, and one of our guests is actually one of the judges from the show, that’s [Thomas] Williford from Brute Force Studios.

Okay. So what kinds of things could we expect to see at a Steampunk event, and how is your event different?

So, at any Steampunk event, you’re going to see musicians. Chances are you’ll see some sideshows, you’ll see some vendors, etc. And we’ve got all of that. We’ve got a lot of great musicians. One of my personal favorites is Eli August and the Abandoned Buildings. I just utterly adore their work. We have Middle to Nowhere, the sideshow troupe, coming. We have another great band called The Positronic Cats. There’s also a variety of vendors who do gadgets, clothing, gizmos, what have you. And again, you’ll see that at a standard hotel event, you’ll see that here.

What we are doing that you won’t see at a lot of other events is there is a storyline that runs throughout the event. I’m not going to give away what happens, you have to show up to find out. And you can be part of the story line. The ending is not fixed in stone. In fact, depending on how our audience interacts with us, the ending is yet to be determined. And so we have this content, and that’s where we become a little bit more like a Renaissance Faire. You will see people wandering around in character interacting with people, and the way you interact with them will affect things.

That sounds like a great experience. You mentioned that you’ve done this in a hotel before. How long has the Gilded Festival been going?

I’d have to double check that. I believe we did our first one in 2013, and I believe we did it on Thanksgiving weekend.

So this would be the second time around?


Okay, so why did you decide to change it this time to Historic Cold Spring Village? I understand they came to you. What made them come to you, this time?

Um, they wanted to do a time travel event, and they wanted to take advantage of some of their strengths with some of their Revolutionary War and Civil War stuff, but to bring new people in. And I will say that I’ve been down to Cape May before, and I’d never heard of them even though they’re right there. So they want more people to be aware of them, and I think they just wanted a fun event to be happening there. It’s right after their peak season but before their wedding season really kicks off, so they said “let’s try something.”

One of the people who’s on the staff there happened to know – I believe is a cousin or an in-law – but is related to someone who’s been a regular at my events who said, “if this is what you want to do, you should talk to this gentleman, here’s pictures, here’s video; and this person then sent them pictures from Dorian’s Parlor, from the first Gilded Festival, video from all of the events. And so they emailed me, and I drove down there to check it out, and we managed to make something great out of it.

What did you fall in love with at the last Gilded Festival?

At the last Gilded Festival? That’s a hard one, because I walked into it already in love with so many things. I love putting on events that allow people to freely express themselves and feel like they are completely safe to try something ridiculous that they would never otherwise do, whether it’s putting on a silly hat, or wearing a silly outfit, or just creating an entire persona whole hog. The idea that they can just jump in and do something that they might not be able to do in their daily life that they’ll greatly enjoy – that’s what makes it worthwhile.

And what kind of costume will you be wearing?

Um, I don’t know all of the details of my outfit yet, because my outfit is basically always made up of items that I procure from the vendors who attend my events, ah, but I do know that my hat will be there. Her name is Hildegarde. She has her own Facebook page, Hildegarde the Hat, and she is a comically oversized top hat with googly eyes and teeth, who has been known to eat people’s heads. (Laughter.) And if you go to her Facebook page, it’s pretty much all pictures of her eating people’s heads.

So where did the name Hildegarde come from?

Someone asked me what her name was, and I’d just been reading a cookbook from the medieval nun Hildegard of Bingen, so that was what was in my head, and so Hildegarde the Hat was born.

That’s fantastic. And to take this in another direction, what’s the most challenging thing putting one of these events together?

Honestly, just staying on top of all of the complexity. There’s a lot of moving parts that are very obvious, such as getting all the performers in place, the vendors in place, the tech in place, all of that, but then there’s also the moving parts that people don’t see, such as calling up my insurance company and telling them what I’m doing, making sure that my policy will cover things. ’Cause if I, say, want to do a stage combat thing, I have to tell them who is my fight director, what their insurance is. I have to go through ten rounds just with that. And making sure that anything we do is compliant with local code.

Every district and every city and every event promoter knows this. Every district has their own thing about fire code, electrical code, etc., making sure that no matter where we go, we’re always in compliance, is super important for us. And that sometimes requires a lot of hunting to make sure that we have the most current version of the code because sometimes districts will only have it in print form, or they might have a form online, but the online version is out of date.

So we spend a lot of time just doing the research to make sure, sometimes calling up local fire chiefs, local police officers, etc., and saying “we are doing this event, what sort of permits do you need us to file, what forms do you need us to file, what do you need to feel comfortable with us?” And for the most part, they’re incredibly friendly, and usually very happy to send us what we need. They’re usually ecstatic that somebody has bothered asking them.

One of the things I’m greatly enjoying about this particular event is we are working with a venue that already knows so many of the answers to these questions, so I can just call them up and say “Hi, I’d like to do this, can I do it?” and they’ll either say “yes,” “no,” or “here’s what you need to do in order to do it.” And that makes my life so much easier.

So will we get to see stage combat?

I believe there will be some stage combat. I don’t know how much yet, because I haven’t finished seeing all of the parts of the script yet.

Okay, then what is in it for the kids?

Oh, we do have a lot of children’s programming! I believe we’re going to have a scavenger hunt that will be running throughout the entire fair, I believe there are also some clowns and circus performers, including one person who was at Ringling Bros., some of the musicians are very specifically kid friendly, and a lot of our cast is very, very family friendly. … The entire venue is very focused on being family friendly. Oh! The other thing is [Cold Spring Village] is going to bring some of their own people out, so we are going to have their blacksmith, who will be giving live demonstrations and making things. They will also have someone in their schoolroom teaching penmanship with actual quill and ink wells, so if you have a kid whose handwriting is as atrocious as mine was, I actually don’t know if it’s a good idea or not to bring them to that, but it’s certainly going to be hilarious to watch. I think I may need those lessons myself.

(Laughter.) Alright. And last question. Why should people come?

Because it’s going to be a fantastic time!

That’s it, then. Thank you very much for your time, Gil.

My pleasure. Thank you.

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