Saturday, October 26, 2013

Steaming Up Storytelling: Steampunk Meets Storytelling, Part 1

In 1987 a small, select, and arcane sub-culture was given a name, “Steampunk” but few really noticed. A nod to the reactionary punk music and the manners, styles and invention of the Victorian steam era, the movement began a slow climb out an obscure sub-genre of science fiction to crawl into mainstream or at least within calling distance of that broad thoroughfare.

Today huge steam punk conventions are held around the globe and comic book conventions (comic-cons)once home solely to superheroes and Jedi Knights, now sees as many stream punk characters strolling the promenades as any of the other personas.

A mixture of role play (costume or cos-play) based on a character of your own creation,  an opportunity to dress up in fine Victorian-Edwardian costumes, a place to meet others who enjoy tinkering with contraptions, drinking tea, exploring imaginative alternate worlds and histories, the current steam punk movement is arriving in Oklahoma. 

From my research, storytelling has not made serious or widespread inroads into the movement.  Samples of performances labeled as storytelling found online indicate there is room for experienced storytellers to share their talents in story crafting and sharing into this new reality.  

Although attracting membership from the late 20’s and older, the movement includes many a seasoned individual.  So steam punk may be a way to interest youth tellers it can also be a way for other tellers to expand their telling repertoire and audience.  How, though, to cross over into this world?

1) Understand the role of such movements as a response to the overly technical, specialized, non-personal, polarizing, and fragmenting aspects of modern society.  As with all millennial and quasi-millennial movements there is a underlying sense of “somewhere we went wrong”.    

Steam punk explores the communal act of finding the soul in the middle of the real, sterile, and isolated world.

2) Understand the guiding themes of steam punk as a retro-futuristic exploration of another world peopled by humans, metal robots, steam powered technologies replicating modern ones (what if the atom had NOT been discovered to change the course of science?). 

3) Understand the great diversity of the movement that allows cultures to pick and choose the best of each and integrate them in creative and peaceful ways.   Costumes may include elements of the kilt, the Victorian explorer pith helmet and a Middle eastern turban or a woman’s walking dress may be shorter, with near mandatory Victorian boots, a corset or cincher worn over the clothes on the outside, and a pair of brass goggles.

4) Understand the movement as providing an opportunity to write an alternate history that sees nations flowering, which might have been cut down in their prime or see issues resolved which were ignored in the real time line.  For example, the role of women is often greatly expanded in stream punk to include activities, behaviors, and values denied them in the real gendered Victorian Era.

5) Recognize the literature sources which have influenced the movement:  these include the classic tales of Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and others. Turn of the century newspapers and dime novels.


6) View the Movies which have had a touch or broad stroke of steam punk: Wild, Wild West; League of extraordinary Gentleman; The Time Machine; Howl's Moving Castle; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; Sherlock Holmes (2009):9; Sleepy Hollow; Hellboy; Van Helsing; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Prestige; The Golden Compass; The Brothers Grimm.  On television, Warehouse 13 and Dr. Who have occasionally reflected the culture.

7) Become familiar with necessary performance Values:


Costume: period or cultural pieces, perhaps juxtaposed with unique or arcane 'gadgets'.  Standard props for both sexes can include: brass or metal/leather goggles, vests, hats, boots, leather/canvas bags, canes, umbrellas/parasols, etc.

Props can be useful but should be used only with much practice: the umbrella, the cane, the ladies hand bag (a drawstring affair), a "ray gun", or apparatus, etc. can be very dangerous!

Costuming for women may include some standard props:

Victorian gown

Corset (worn outside the clothing)

(See illustrations later)


Language: Spiced with the formal language of the Victorian era, delivered in a more precise manner, and utilizing larger more diverse vocabulary.  Too heavy an accent will be defeating to the ease of the audience to actually understand your story.  Too modern a style or vocabulary will negate the suspension of reality required to place the story and the teller in an alternate reality.


Biases: Some of the biases may include presuming audience has a wider knowledge of the literature, history, time, or customs of the time period.  Another bias can be too narrow an understanding of steam punk as English, European, etc.  Steam punk is a global movement which easily adapts and meshes diverse styles and cultures in the new reality of the steam punk world.

Transition: Current storytellers can ease into steam punk if they have told stories of the old west, of history, of adventurers, of travel, of invention and discovery or human interest tales.   Classic myths and legends can have their essence 're-cast' in a new suit of steam punk - if the teller firmly understands the nuances, diversity,  and motivations found in steam punk.

8) Be aware of the ongoing evolution of the movement and these sub-categories of steam punk as a starting place:

BoilerPunk -blue-collar industrial age workers; opposite to aristocratic steampunk;

ClockPunk- emphasizing the technologies that augment and replace steam;

DieselPunk - A "heresy" where diesel fuel and nuclear power take the place of steam;

GaslightRomance - A British term; American steam punk is considered by some to actually be Gaslight romance or fantasy;

MannersPunk - Broader category of stories and works which may or may not be steampunk but which focus on hierarchy in society, some emergent technologies, and involve parties, mansions, and the more formal and civilized aspects of society; 

RaygunGothic - A more sci-fiction approach with broad application; could also be called Raygun Melodrama;

StitchPunk - A reflection of the crafts, hands-on, inventing, tinkering, and do-it-yourself elements in steam punk.  ---The SteamPunk Bible (2011), pg. 54-55.

For the storyteller,  the challenge will be to determine could they share a Lovecraftian story of the macabre, or a take on Sherlock Holmes (maybe from Mrs. Hudson’s view? or the cabbie who drove them here and there?). Perhaps share also an original tale incorporating some of the archetypes or motifs of the genre: the goggles, the clockworks, the clanking robotic men powered by steam or clocks, etc. 

For the storytelling selection choices include select retellings of Gulliver’s Travels, The Golem, the travels of Burton or Livingston, the early Victorian women explorers, the early flyers (plane and balloon). These and others provide a rich resource to be discovered and given a fun little twist to fashion a creatively refreshing tale for steam punk audiences.

 Part 1 of a teaching series by Marilyn A. Hudson

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