September 3-6, 2010
reports by Mary Shaver and Marguerite Krause
In a word --BIG! Talk around the convention was that the organizers set the "official" attendance at 35,000 in order to remain in compliance with the requirements of the Fire Marshall, but that the actual numbers were significantly higher. Numbers being bandied about were anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000.
Dragon*Con provides something for everyone in the general realm of sci-fi and fantasy as well as gaming, paranormal, and costuming (including a subgenre known as "steampunk" which was new to me).
I found the Dragon*Con experience to be one of both frenzy and inertia. "Hurry up and wait" would be an appropriate term to use. The Dragon*Con staff broke us in early to this concept by having those of us who pre-registered wait in lines that lasted up to three-and-a-half hours to receive our badge, while perversely serving walk-up customers within 10 minutes. In fairness, this trend was reversed as the weekend progressed.
The convention took over five hotels in downtown Atlanta, all clustered within the radius of a few blocks. It took planning and preparation to successfully attend the events you wanted to see. I learned that lesson the hard way when I missed out on two Q & A sessions, one with Brent Spiner and one with Marina Sirtis. Due to a premium placed on the larger ballrooms and auditoriums, both actors were consigned to smaller conference rooms which filled up within minutes. If you wanted to guarantee getting in, you had to be prepared to sit on the floor for up to two hours ahead of the scheduled event. Marguerite and I were helping René with his autographs when he was whisked away to be part of the Warehouse 13/Eureka crossover panel discussion, and if not for some fast talking by Marguerite to one of the convention staff at the room's entrance about our being part of René's "entourage" we wouldn't have gotten into that event. In his debut as "Trek Track" director, Garrett Wang (Ensign Harry Kim of ST Voyager) had a daunting task in scheduling the Star Trek panels and discussions. For the most part, he got it right, given the constraints of the conference rooms available.
Gowron and Martok
J.G. Hertzler and Bob O'Reilly had two appearances at the con. You haven't lived until you've seen two white guys of a "certain" age singing and dancing to hip-hop music in full Klingon regalia! They slipped into and out of character throughout the panel discussions, answering audience questions and playing off each other. Evidently they were part of a real-life wedding that took place during the con, with the bride and groom dressed in Klingon garb and makeup and the ceremony done in the Klingon tradition. Both actors are really interesting and they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, considering the amount of time it takes to apply the makeup. John Hertzler talked about how unique the sci-fi genre in general and Star Trek in particular was, in that it allowed him as an actor to continue his character long after the show was over. I asked Hertzler about his character of Laas in "Chimera" and, after making a big deal about "making love to René," he said the DS9 producers were concerned about him taking on the role because they feared his voice would give him away. The way he overcame that potential obstacle was to consciously raise his voice and, in his words, "channel Bill Shatner," adopting Shatner's cadence and style of speech. If you watch "Chimera" you will recognize the Shatner influence.
Hertzler then went on to praise René, saying that within the industry René is regarded as one of the great actors in the Moliere style, and what a treat it was to work with someone so gifted.
Warehouse 13/Eureka crossover panel
René admitted he felt like something of an interloper at this panel, but he commented on how nice it was to be part of a session that seemed so fresh and inspired so much enthusiasm from the audience. I imagine this must have been how Star Trek cons felt when DS9 was making its initial series run. One audience member question I found interesting was on the subject of how much of the actors' real personalities seeped into the characters they played. The universal answer from the regular cast members of the two series was that they all found that they were pretty much playing themselves. That is in contrast to how René has always described himself as a character actor who "hides" behind the characters he plays.
I was curious about Michelle's reasons for declining the offer to renew her role as Ensign Ro on DS9, but I got to this Q & A late and didn't want to ask her this question for fear it had already been asked before. I think I got my answer anyway, in her response to another question about the differences between working on ST:TNG and Battlestar Galactica (BSG). Michelle was adamant about how wonderful it was to work on BSG because she appreciated the collaborative process, whereby the actors were able to give input into their characters' scenes and dialog, and what a stark contrast that was to TNG, where you were told to read your lines as written. It is interesting to speculate on what a different show DS9 would have been with Michelle as the ranking Bajoran officer. (No offense, Michelle, but I'm glad you decided to pass on DS9. That allowed for the creation of Kira Nerys and the opportunity for the fabulous Nana Visitor to breathe life into her).
DS9 panel discussions
There were two separate DS9 panel discussions held over the four-day convention, which I am combining into one. The panel consisted of René, Armin, Avery Brooks, Bob O'Reilly, and J. G. Hertzler. As one would expect, not a lot of new ground was covered, although I was intrigued to learn that Avery would not have considered playing Sisko had the role required him to wear a makeup appliance. At this remark, everyone else on the panel (all mask actors) took the mickey out of an absent Colm Meany, who had whined and complained about having to wear Klingon makeup in one episode.
John Hertzler told an amusing story about Avery, describing him as very quiet, both as an actor and a person, but very loud as a director. He cited a scene in "Far Beyond the Stars" when he (Avery) was trying to provoke a more intensely angry response from René's character, Douglas. Evidently he was yelling at René, who finally had enough and yelled back, "I'm giving you all that I have!" When Avery said that that was just the sort of emotion he was looking for, René shot back, "You can't have that! It's mine!" At this point, René chimed in; explaining to the audience that the magic they see on the screen is the product of this sort of process (the word I thought of while listening to René was "chicanery"). His use of the word "magic" reminded me that what we see on the screen is an illusion and that, as an actor (magician), René might not be entirely comfortable with exposing to the audience the mechanics of how the magic act is performed.
Garrett Wang, who was serving as the unofficial MC, told a very funny story about a memo from director Kim Friedman, who was preparing to direct the first Voyager episode after the series premiere. There was about a month's lag time between the premier and the actual start of the series. Evidently Kim wasn't too pleased with the way the Voyager actors handled the "shaking" sequences (where the actors respond to the shaking of the ship). Included in the memo was a videotape of several DS9 episodes to demonstrate the proper shaking technique. Everyone on the panel had a big laugh about this, and I was wondering who was going to take the cue and run with it. Turned out to be René, who started bouncing around on his chair, eventually bouncing off it entirely and falling to the floor! Armin, clever and understated as ever, followed this up by taking his glass of water, holding it up to the audience, and, with a subtle side-to-side motion of his hand, giving the contents a swirl. "This is the only sort of shaking that I did," he said. Great line!
During one Q&A,
J.G. Hertzler invited a fan to sit with him...
...prompting René to give Armin a similar seat.
TNG panel discussions
I only caught the second of these two panels, although evidently there were some fireworks in the first one that culminated with Denise Crosby walking off the stage. (This was parodied by the DS9 panel later in the weekend when the actors periodically stalked off stage in a huff, only to be fondly recalled by the audience). The TNG panel I attended was on Monday, immediately after the DS9 panel, and the differences between the two casts were evident. The actors in attendance were Marina Sirtis, Michelle Forbes, Jonathan Frakes, Robert Beltran, and John deLancie, with Garrett Wang again in his capacity as MC.
The first thing I noticed was the contempt the TNG cast had for certain of their episodes ("Code of Honor" springs to mind, but they mentioned others I can't recall). The actors teased each other constantly throughout the discussion, and no one was immune to the barbs being tossed around. Absent cast members (especially Michael Dorn) were skewered mercilessly. There was also a running joke about Marina Sirtis running for California governor. I would sum up this panel as much more bawdy and raucous than the DS9 panel. It surprised me to learn that John deLancie was only in eight TNG episodes. It's a tribute to the way he brought Q to life and the impact he made on screen that it seemed he was a more frequent guest.
Robert Beltran (and I'm still not sure why he was on a TNG panel) appeared pretty bored and answered most questions with "20 minutes" (a reference to how long it took to apply his tattoo).
I mentioned the marked difference between the panels later to René and he reiterated a story I'd heard earlier about "as goes the Captain, so goes the crew." Avery, in many ways, is a low-key, serious, and philosophical person, and this influences the way the rest of the actors treat each other and the audience. In the absence of Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes' mischievous personality set the tone for the way the TNG panel interacts with their fellow cast members and the audience.
Miss Star Trek Universe
Not my favorite event of the long weekend. While all done in good fun, I found the parody of the Miss Universe pageant to be borderline exploitative. The "talent" portion of the event was a mixed bag. Some of the contestants were quite good, some less so. The winner was dressed (I am using that term loosely) as an Orion Slave girl, complete with green body paint. She was either a professional belly dancer or a very good amateur.
At the autograph table
Other than during his scheduled appearances at Q & A panel discussions and photo sessions, René spent the entire four days signing autographs. Several ORACLE members rotated in assisting him, and he had a steady stream of autograph seekers. This was my first extended experience at an autograph session, and it was fascinating to observe the people who came to the table and their reactions to meeting René. Some were friendly, some were star struck, but everyone was extremely pleasant and complimentary of René and his work. While most were there to meet the actor who played Odo, a surprising number of people remembered and commented on René's roles in Benson and M*A*S*H, and quite a few people wanted to talk about René's stage work. One fan even brought his original theatre program from Coco for René to autograph. René was, as always, gracious, humble, and generous with his time.
What can I say about Dragon*Con?
Let me put it this way. I've been involved in fandom--both science fiction fandom in general and Star Trek fandom in particular--since the mid-1970s. And over the years, I've gone to all sorts conventions. They've varied in size and scope from one of the first big, professionally run Star Trek cons, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the premiere of the Original Series in a big hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago, with cast members giving talks and David Gerrold himself selling tribbles in the dealer's room….to locally run events where 70 fans get together for a day and a half to trade fanzines, put on skits, and sing filksongs…to huge autograph conventions where two hundred celebrities from all across the popular culture spectrum sit behind tables lining every wall of a convention center or shopping mall, signing photos for thousands of fans…to tiny cons with a couple of guests doing Q&A sessions that are more like casual conversations with less than a hundred fans…and everything in between.
You'd think that, with all that experience, I'd be prepared for anything. But Dragon*Con overwhelmed me. It's not that it was unlike any other convention I'd ever attended: it was as if *every* convention I've ever attended had been combined into a single, incredibly busy weekend!
I have friends who've been going to Dragon*Con for years, and they tried to prepare me for what to expect. It didn't help. Yes, I knew there would be a lot of people, spread across a lot of hotels. Yes, I knew a lot of fans who attend Dragon*Con enjoy dressing in costume. Yes, I knew that Dragon*Con welcomes fans of every fandom you can think of, and then some: TV and film,, literary SF, horror, comic books, manga, anime, and on and on. I knew that guests include writers, actors, filmmakers, comic book artists, and other creators of the fantastic.
All of that turned out to be absolutely true. But hearing someone talk about Dragon*Con (or reading a report like this one) provides only the sketchiest overview of what it's like to actually be there.
For starters, one of the first (and perhaps most important) things I learned is that there's actually no such thing as "Dragon*Con", singular. Instead, because there's so much going on in so many different buildings at just about every hour of the day and night, each one of the 50,000+ people present is, in a way, attending his or her own unique, never-to-be-duplicated convention. It's possible to spend the entire weekend in just one hotel, attending panel discussions on a single subject, such as Anne McCaffrey's series of Pern books or the Twilight films. Some fans spend their whole weekend standing in line for a few popular Q&A sessions. Others concentrate on collecting autographs. Still other fans seem to spend most of each day displaying their skills at making and wearing costumes…and another subset of fans devotes their time to taking photos of the costume-wearers!
The good thing about Dragon*Con is that if you have any interest in any kind of science fiction or fantasy books, TV, or film, you're sure to find events on the schedule to entertain you, and meet other people who share your interests. You may be the only person in your school, work place, or neighborhood who is enthusiastic about Odo, Spiderman, The Princess Bride, and Night Gallery…but at Dragon*Con, it's certain that you'll find other people who share your interests and enthusiasm.
Having given you that background, here's a little bit of what Dragon*Con 2010 was like for René and the small team of ORACLE members who hung around together at the con.
René's major activities at Dragon*Con were signing autographs in the big room set aside for that purpose, called the "Walk of Fame"; participating in panel discussions; and doing photo ops with fans who signed up for that. Basically, whenever René wasn't doing anything else, he was at his table in the Walk of Fame room, signing autographs and chatting with fans. During those hours, one of our team of "Odo's Minions" (Mary, Mike, Talia, Miri, and I) sat beside him at his table, collecting money and explaining to fans about René's charity fundraising and what an "Odo's Bucket" cartoon was. René also posed for photos there at the table for anyone who was willing to donate to Doctors Without Borders, and whichever of us was on duty usually took those photos; we all became proficient at handling lots of different types of cameras!
René was seated in a row of tables with Armin to his left and J. G. Hertzler to his right; they and a dozen other actors were all represented at Dragon*Con by the same agency, which provided general support staff and assistants for each actor, made sure they had enough photos to sell, and kept everyone's money safe each night. Whenever René went to participate in a panel (always in a different hotel from the one where the Walk of Fame was located), it required some fast walking (and fast talking!) to ensure that our ORACLE group would be able to hear him. Large crowds were common at the panels, so several of us who weren't working at the autograph table would line up at the room well before the panel's scheduled start time and try to save seats for the others. The convention organizers arranged for cars to take the actors from the Walk of Fame to their panel appearances, but usually did not have room for "groupies" like us to ride along. Therefore, as soon as René was whisked away by the Dragon*Con staff, whoever was on duty at the table would hand René's money to one of the agency's staff members (often the nice woman who was assisting Armin) and high-tail it for the panel location. Because of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds everywhere inside the hotels--in the corridors and lobbies, on the escalators, and on the walkways that linked one hotel to the next--we quickly got in the habit of getting out of the hotel as fast as possible and jogging along the sidewalks outside to our destination!
Fortunately, though it was warm in Atlanta that weekend, it wasn't unbearably oppressive (or pouring rain!) so it really wasn't that bad going outside…and it did provide a nice break from the constant press of people indoors.
When we weren't hanging around the Walk of Fame, the ORACLE gang, individually or in twos and threes, attended panels, shopped in the dealers' rooms, viewed the art show, and visited a nearby food court for quick meals and free wi-fi access. Four of us were able to participate in the convention's blood drive, becoming part of a record-setting total of 2,560 people donating 7,351 units of plasma and red blood over the course of the weekend. Mike and Miri also helped set a new Guiness Book world record for number of people in Star Trek uniforms in one location: 571. There's truly something for everyone at Dragon*Con!
It's always fun to sit with René at his autograph table, and all of us who helped out enjoyed the experience. At Dragon*Con, it seemed that most of the people who came to get his autograph were meeting him for the first time, and all were excited and happy to be able to say "hello" and tell him how much they enjoyed his work. Many began by saying "I've been a fan of yours since Benson," or "…since M*A*S*H", and others mentioned specific roles of his that they loved, from Odo to Paul Lewiston to computer game or cartoon voices. However, one group in particular stands out in my mind. A quartet of young people (in their mid-20s?), three women and a man, came toward René's table. Three of them hung back while one of the women approached and very shyly said "hello" and started to tell René how glad she was to meet him…and then she noticed the picture of Chef Louis from The Little Mermaid that he had on the table. She said, "You were Chef Louis?" and, when René admitted that he was, she gave a squeal of delight and started babbling about how that was her favorite movie of all time. René began to softly sing "Les Poissons", and she literally bounced up and down with delight. As soon as he finished, she dashed back to her friends and dragged them all up to the table, explaining that René was the voice of Chef Louis and telling him that her friend simply had to hear the song…and so René patiently started singing again, and this time the whole group became giddy with glee, jumping up and down with little exclamations of "oh my god!"
All in all, I'm very glad that I attended Dragon*Con. It was great to spend time with René and with my family and friends, surrounded by other lovers of SF and fantasy. Mind-boggling and exhausting…but great!
Photo credits (from top of page):
Photos 1 and 5 by Mike Krause
Photos 2, 3, and 4 by Kelly Rowles, The Convention Fans Blog
Photo 6 by Talia Myres
You can read another report about Dragon*Con here containing several of Kelly's great photos....and many, many more Convention Fans Blog photos can be found on Flickr.
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