If Alice in Wonderland magically appeared in the city of Troy on Saturday, she would be astonished.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Alice would exclaim as she looked upon the odd steam-powered machines, knights in shiny armor and thousands of people clad in outlandish combinations of clothing, like welder’s goggles, lacey corsets and Victorian top hats. Oh, and don’t forget the colorful winged fairies. Alice would see oodles of fairies.
For the fifth year, imaginations will fly free as downtown Troy is transformed into The Enchanted City, a free, family-friendly festival that celebrates all things steampunk.
“You feel like you’re in an alternate reality,” says Susan Dunckel, the founder and organizer. “People make mechanical things that actually walk through the streets, you’ll see pianos that have been gutted and transformed into vehicles. We’ll have people on roller skates pushing wheelbarrows that look like air ships. And of course, you’ll see plenty of people in costumes.”
Queen Mab, the ruler of fairies, will lead a steampunk parade wearing a metal dress with battery-powered wings that move up and down. And there will be a costume competition organized by The Costumer, the Capital Region’s best-known shop for Halloween dress-up and theatrical outfits.
Rain or shine, the outdoor street festival will be held in the antiques district of River Street, where the award-winning movie “The Age of Innocence” was filmed in 1993. The festival has drawn bigger crowds every year, with attendance now numbering in the thousands.
A mash-up of fantasy, science fiction, tech and futurism inspired by 19th century steam-powered machines and Victorian and Edwardian clothing styles, steampunk was born as underground fiction in the late 1980s and has now gone mainstream, influencing fashion, video games, TV and movies.
Steampunk festivals took off about 10 years ago, Dunckel says. “They are big in England, New Zealand and the West Coast, Seattle.”
Troy is the perfect place for such a festival, she says. “Anyone who lives in the Capital Region is steampunk. They just don’t know it. All they have to do is look at themselves and their neighborhoods. We were one of the original birthplaces of the American Industrial Revolution. We have a huge industrial heritage in this area. And we have the Victorian architecture.”
In keeping with that atmosphere, food and entertainment will not be your usual festival fare.
“I don’t believe there were bouncy houses, and I don’t believe there was cotton candy. I’m not going to have corn dogs. We’re not going to serve alcohol,” she says.
Festival-goers will be encouraged to snack at the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the north end of River Street, or go to one of Troy’s 51 downtown restaurants.
“We’ve asked the local places to make something fast and kid-friendly. And the farmers market has tons of food vendors,” Dunckel says.
For entertainment, there’s music, magic, games, theater and hands-on science.
“We have performers who do steampunk Shakespeare, steampunk Alice in Wonderland. It’s an old-fashioned type of entertainment,” says Dunckel.
Frenchy and the Punk, a New York-based folk-steampunk cabaret duo is also on the program.
This year, there are eight education sponsors, including miSci of Schenectady, CMOST, Tech Valley Game Space, Arts Center of the Capital Region, Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway and the Rensselaer County Historical Society.
“They’ll bring something to engage the children and teach them something that can happen very quickly.” LEGO robotics, computer coding and making magic wands on a lathe are just a few examples.
Diane Shewchuk, a curator at the Albany Institute of History & Art who put together the museum’s recent Victorian clothing exhibit, will give a talk on Victorian clothing, and a staffer at The Costumer will talk about Worbla, a plastic material used to create costumes.
“The biggest new thing is the district challenge,” says Dunckel. “Each city councilman from each district has been challenged to have their district come up with a float, similar to what they do at Mardi Gras. We need to bring neighborhoods together.”
The Enchanted attracts visitors of all ages, Dunckel says. “The demographic that we see the most are people between 35 to 65.” It also attracts millennials who are into cosplay, a performance art in which participants wear self-made costumes to represent a character from anime, cartoons, comic books, TV and video games.
Adults and children are encouraged to wear costumes. “If you have a top hat, you’re in costume,” Dunckel says. “If you have a fascinator, you fit right in. If you have full-on Victorian garb, you fit right in. It always starts as Victorian. It basically pulls from that and then you start adding the industrial components. Welding goggles, you see that all the time.”
Children can wear fairy wings. “We don’t want parents to spend a fortune on these costumes.”
The Costumer is sponsoring this year’s costume competition, and the panel of judges will include four staff members from The Costumer and Shewchuk, the Albany Institute curator.
“Our involvement it taking the costume contest to the next level. It’s an exciting event for us to be part of,” says Bonnie Johnsen, co-owner with husband Erik of The Costumer’s locations in Schenectady and Colonie.
Entries will be judged in three categories: best individual’s costume, best children’s costume and best family or group costume.
The Johnsens and a group of their employees will be dressed in Victorian costumes that were designed and made at The Costumer. “It will really be fun,” Johnsen says.
Dunckel, who will be dressed in a red jacket and top hat like circus impresario P.T. Barnum, is a business owner and artist, whose interest in fantasy, history and art was stimulated when she was a girl and her family visited the Sterling Renaissance Festival northwest of Syracuse.
From 2010 to 2015, Dunckel ran Sweet Sue’s, a bakery and café, on River Street. She and her husband, John Ambuhl, now own Copper Pot, a soup and sandwich cafe in a four-story, 1914 beaux arts house on Fifth Street that was part of “Breathing Lights,” last year’s public art project that spotlighted the problem of vacant houses in the Capital Region. Before Dunckel and Ambuhl bought the home in the North Central neighborhood, it was vacant for 14 years.
The steampunk festival is endorsed by the city but run privately by Dunckel and volunteers on a shoestring budget.
“The most important part of this festival is that it’s really about community,” says Dunckel. “If you don’t have a costume, come. If you are curious, come. If you don’t spend any money, come. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. This is not an elitist thing. This is not a tech thing. You don’t have to be a nerd to come.”
Steam Powered Giraffe to perform
Steam Powered Giraffe, a family-friendly musical act that blends steampunk-style pantomime, vaudeville and barbershop harmonies, will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, following The Enchanted City festival in downtown Troy.
Based in San Diego, Steam Powered Giraffe is one of the top steampunk acts in the country. Formed in 2008 by twin siblings David Michael Bennett and Isabella “Bunny” Bennett, the quirky cast appears on stage with antique singing robots, performing comedic sketches and original music while steam billows in the air.
Their songs have been described as “funky cabaret rock” and “heartwarming nostalgic melodies.”
Tickets are $25 and can be ordered online at www.troymusichall.org or by calling the box office at (518) 273-0038.
The Enchanted City
WHAT: Fifth annual Steampunk Festival in downtown Troy
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15
WHERE: River and State streets
HOW MUCH: Free
RELATED EVENT: Mad Steampunk Art Show Gala: Art show and fund-raiser for over age 21, with edibles and absinthe cocktails, at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, Copper Pot, 2423 Fifth Ave., Troy. Tickets are $50.
MORE INFO: Map and program at www.enchantedtroy.com, The Enchanted City on Facebook