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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Steampunk Alchemy Fest Transports Attendees Into a Victorian Sci-Fi Future

For one day and night, Vasa Park will go back in time– and zip forward again to an alternative future.

On Saturday, June 1, the Steampunk Alchemy Fest returns to Vasa Park. Formerly known as the Freaky Mutant Weirdo Show, the festival will unite sci-fi enthusiasts, fantasy fans and geeks of all stripes in a celebration of steampunk.

Snapshot from Steampunk Alchemy Fest’s 2022 event, then called the Freaky Mutant Weirdo Show. Photo credit: Louisa Valentin.

Snapshot from Steampunk Alchemy Fest’s 2022 event, then called the Freaky Mutant Weirdo Show. Photo credit: Louisa Valentin.
Snapshots from Steampunk Alchemy Fest’s 2022 event, then called the Freaky Mutant Weirdo Show. Photo credit: Louisa Valentin.

The Victorian era with a sci-fi twist

For people already familiar with steampunk, the word invokes a world of brass laser guns and steam-powered airships, corsets and top hats, and enough goggles to supply a university swim team.

For the uninitiated, the organizers can offer a few quick definitions.

It’s “the Victorian era with a sci-fi twist,” said Colleen O’Neill-Cohen, marketing director and vendor coordinator of Steampunk Alchemy Fest. She’s also a vendor herself, entering her 11th year of vending as the Roguish Rabbit, a steampunk costuming and accessory shop.

It’s “the future that was imagined in the Victorian era, and the sci-fi that came out of that era,” said Adam Dickinson, entertainment director and lead singer of the headlining band, A Halo Called Fred.

Or, he says with a grin, you could just quote a comedy sketch by Key and Peele.

Steampunk? It’s “Jules Verne and sh*t.”

This is the event’s third year at Vasa Park, though the first under the new name. As the Freaky Mutant Weirdo Show, the event began life as a one-night variety show in a central Jersey bar in 2017. The show gathered fans from a vast array of geek subcultures, from Renaissance faire regulars to Dungeons and Dragons diehards, furries to Trekkies. All of the acts were other entertainers that Dickinson had previously met at steampunk and sci-fi conventions.

Items at Steampunk Alchemy Fest’s 2022 event. Photo credit: Louisa Valentin.
Items at Steampunk Alchemy Fest’s 2022 event. Photo credit: Louisa Valentin.

“I looked at it as I wanted to plan an event for me and my friends,” he said.

“We wanted to do a show that was as much for the performers as it was for the audience. And hopefully the audience would enjoy because the performers were having such a good time.”

Geeks tend to be tight-knit. Even the show’s original name pays homage to that community. It’s a reference to A Halo Called Fred song, “We Love You All.” In the lyrics, the band refers to their fans as a bunch of freaky mutant weirdos.

Under that name, the organizer team hosted evening variety shows until pandemic lockdowns put a stop to all live entertainment. Then, in 2022, Vasa Park community representative Peter Basinski wanted a full-day steampunk festival in New Jersey. He found the organizers he needed in the Freaky Mutant Weirdo team.

That name might be a loving endearment in geekdom, but it’s not exactly descriptive for newcomers. This year, the organizers opted for a new name that better conveys the identity of the event and the community that enjoys it.

“It really is a steampunk con more than anything else,” Dickinson said. “Yeah, we also have a fairy contingent. We have cosplay [creating and wearing costumes to embody different characters] and all these other elements, but really, we had to embrace our steampunk nature.”

The “alchemy” part of the name refers to the mixing of those other elements within the event, so the fairy contingent and other geek crews need not feel snubbed.

Two conventions in one

The organizers planned Steampunk Alchemy Fest as two conventions in one. The first part is a family-friendly daytime festival that runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There’ll be live music, comedy, dance, plenty to eat and drink, plenty of handcrafted garb to admire and about 30 vendors spanning the gamut from hair artists to leather workers to jewelers. Most hail from the New Jersey-Pennsylvania area.

The 18+ evening show runs from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., where patrons can take in an adults-only cabaret. Afterwards, patrons who opt to camp overnight can pitch a tent and commune with fellow enthusiasts into the wee hours.

The festival promises a full schedule. Visitors could be continuously entertained from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Dickinson said. At the same time, a festival like Steampunk Alchemy Fest is more than just another option to stave off boredom.

Escape into an alternate reality

“It’s building this entire alternate reality in these events,” Dickinson said. “[People] want to go to these types of events to escape.”

It’s theater. It’s a reason to wear an ascot or an intricate brocade corset. It’s a celebration of science fiction and fantasy. It’s a spectacle. It’s also a showcase of creativity, O’Neill-Cohen said, where vendors and patrons alike might display props that they’ve spent years handcrafting.

But for the organizer team that originally started this event in a bar as a one-night show for their friends, it’s about the people.

For O’Neill-Cohen, that’s the best part.

“You show up and make friends, you suddenly have a whole new family,” she said.

“Because the crew that puts this on and everybody who comes… at this point, they’re my family.”

For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://www.steampunkalchemyfest.com/.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.