Debriefing of First Night
First Night Debriefing Report
by Leslie Turek
The original idea for First Night came out of a brainstorming session the N4 committee held early in the planning period. Priscilla Olson was the first one to come up with the idea of developing a Thursday night event based on Boston's New Years Eve First Night, where a whole bunch of artistic and cultural events are held all over the city and people wander around and sample many different things. The pluses that I could see for this concept were:
- It would start the convention off with a fun event that would put people in a good mood right from the start.
- It would get people together and interacting with each other.
- It would provide a venue for highlighting various different areas of the convention and of fandom.
John Pomeranz was the original Area Head for First Night. He organized a great brainstorming session at one of earliest committee open meetings. He got people to come up with huge lists of ideas, and then they were posted along the walls and he gave people 15 minutes to vote for their favorite potential events. This made a great starting point for trying to decide what ideas to pursue. (The notes from this meeting can be found at First Night Notes.)
Around March of 2004, John had to drop out of running First Night due to conflicts with work. I was one committee member who had remained unassigned, so I was recruited to take over. Several members of John's original staff stayed on to help me out, including Deputy Rachel Silber, but at that late date it was hard to recruit additional staff, since most people had been committed to other areas. (Closer to the convention Priscilla Olson lent me a few people from the Program staff, which helped out a lot.)
Early in 2004, there was a lot of discussion about exactly how to structure First Night. The original concept suggested that First Night might possibly be used as a substitute for the opening ceremonies, and also included the idea of a parade. We began to realize, however, that we would still need some sort of gathering to do some of the traditional opening ceremonies type things, like the passing of the gavel and the introduction of the guests. At one point we played with the concept of embedding the traditional opening ceremonies in the middle of First Night, perhaps by having the parade lead people into the auditorium and then back out again to First Night. This was eventually rejected for a number of reasons. One was that we didn't have a lot of volunteers for the parade. And second, it just seemed like an unnecessary complication. First Night was by its nature a distributed event with a lot of ongoing activities, and it just seemed wrong to stop everything in the middle and drag everyone into the auditorium for the traditional opening ceremonies. We finally opted for the simplest solution of having a brief traditional opening ceremony in the afternoon, and then having First Night in the evening.
We scheduled First Night to run from 7pm - 11 pm, with the prize table staying open until midnight. This worked out pretty well, although attendance dropped a bit in the last hour as people headed off to parties. It would probably have worked to go from 7-10 or 7:30-10:30, with the prize table closing at 11.
There were three main sources for First Night activities:
- Individual Performers
- Convention Areas
I'll discuss each of these in more detail below.
The main idea was to have activities that would be fun and interesting and preferably interactive. Also to have them all physically fairly close together, with many of them out in the open (rather than hidden away in rooms), so people could wander around and find many things to do. We also wanted most of the activities to not take a lot of time, so people could drop in and sample a variety of things. These were all guidelines we used when trying to decide what things should be part of First Night.
The main precon job was to recruit people and groups to run the various First Night activities. Since I didn't have a very large staff, the model was for each of the activities to be subcontracted to a club or individual that would staff it at the convention. But the hard thing was to find these people and get them to commit to doing it. This was made all the more difficult by the fact that First Night was a new idea and had to be explained to people. We wrote about the idea in the Progress Reports and on the N4 web site, and in the early summer, Jim Murray and Jeff Orth sent out a mailing to clubs and bidding groups inviting them to participate.
We didn't get a lot of response initially, possibly because people were confused about exactly what we were asking them to do. One mistake I may have made was to leave things a little too open-ended. I was hoping groups would come up with an idea for an activity and then tell us what sort of space and layout they would need. In retrospect, it would have worked better if we had provided groups with a standard setup (which we could deviate from if necessary), and a list of very detailed activities they could choose from. In the end it took a lot of personal contact and arm-twisting to get the groups recruited. Marah Searle-Kovacevic, who was the Exhibits person in charge of fan tables, helped a lot by pushing First Night to the groups who were asking for fan tables.
Once we did have a volunteer for an item, or tentative volunteer, there was a lot of correspondence that had to take place to find out exactly what they would be doing what they needed (in terms of space, furniture, electricity, etc.). We also had to make sure that everyone knew about the specific rules we had to operate under within the Hynes Convention Center. Some of the rules were fairly obvious and you'd be likely to run into them in any public space (strict rules on using fire-resistant materials; restrictions on carrying weapons), but some were a bit surprising (e.g., no glitter or helium balloons, due to cleanup difficulties they cause).
The biggest difficulty pre-con was that of timing. The convention areas we interfaced with, such as facilities, publications, and technical, needed information from me, and they usually needed it long before I was able to extract the relevant information from my participants. So it was a constant juggling act and we were very lucky that our various publications and facilities coordinators were sympathetic to our plight and willing to make a lot of last-minute adjustments to correct for things we found out about fairly late in the game.
We also worked on how to physically organize things. Because First Night happens for just a few hours, we knew that we were going to use space that actually belonged to other areas. Again, we needed a lot of cooperation to be able to use the ConCourse, and the fan table area in wide hallway outside the exhibit hall (which we started calling the Midway), and the neighboring small program rooms, for First Night activities. The layout was a continuous evolution, as we leaned what activities we would have and how the ConCourse would be laid out, and worked with Jim Hudson, the Exhibits Division Head, and Chip Hitchcock, the ConCourse cartographer, to develop the plans.
One of my personal goals was to use First Night to highlight all the different areas of the convention, so I had many discussions with the area and division heads as to how their areas could participate. Program Division Head Priscilla Olson, as the originator of the First Night idea, was particularly supportive and helped develop program ideas for First Night. (For details, see the First Night Program [insert link].) Spencer Love recruited and scheduled some of the performers that were scheduled into the Mended Drum and Club SF (both areas that had been set up with a stage and sound amplification). Art Show Director Gay Ellen Dennett helped by giving me names of artists who might like to do demonstrations, and we used the artist demos to point out that the Art Show was still open upstairs. Bill Todd and Daniel Abraham of the Gaming program agreed to run some short, casual games, which we located on the tables in the food service area. Persis Thorndike of Children's Programming agreed to run a Children's Costuming Corner, where children (and adults) could make their own sparkle crowns and magic wands. We used the Fanzine Lounge, which was very centrally located, for a DUFF/TAFF reception hosted by Guy Lillian and a one-shot fanzine edited by Bob Devney (more on this later). Much of First Night took place in the ConCourse, where many of the Exhibits were located, so browsing through the exhibits was also a part of First Night. There was a dance, called the Ankh-Morpork Ball, organized by the Dance area heads Larry and Sue Schroeder, with assistance from the SCA. This came off well, although it suffered from being just a little bit distant from the main flow of events. There was also an autographing session featuring two of our Guests of Honor.
Some areas didn't work out quite as well. We had hoped to include Films and Animé in First Night. For Films, we had asked if they could put on a continuous show of trailers for movies that would later be shown at the convention. We were told that they would do this, but in the end, they didn't have the time to pull it together. Unfortunately, they didn't tell us in advance that it wouldn't be done, so that item appeared in program but didn't actually happen. For Animé, we would have liked to include a program item like an introduction to animé, or anime for non-animé-fanatics, but the communications didn't work out and we weren't able to schedule that.
We wanted to encourage people to dress up and wear costumes to First Night, so we mentioned in all our publicity that hall costumes were encouraged. We asked the Masquerade folks if they would help us find a judge to give out Hall Costume awards, but they were unable to help us out. So instead we had one of our staff people (Vivian Abraham) going around snapping a picture and giving out a prize ticket to everyone she saw in costume. In retrospect, this was probably the better approach, as we really wanted to encourage lots of people to wear costumes, not to see it as a competition. Vivian reports that she gave out about 100 tickets, and most people were surprised and happy to get one.
We also hoped to have some sort of dealer's participation in First Night, but that didn't work out. The Dealer's Room was going to be closed at 6pm, but I was hoping we could convince some dealers to set up some sort of sales carts at First Night. But the dealer's room management wasn't very enthused about this idea, so I let it drop. Sales to Members did stay open for the major part of First Night
We had put out a general call for volunteer performers in several of the Progress Reports and got a fairly good response. We were looking for performers who would be able to do their thing in a crowded and noisy Midway environment. A few other performers who needed a less hectic venue (such as fiddle player and a group doing a preview of a fannish musical) were handed off to the filk program head (Spencer Love) who was scheduling performers for The Mended Drum and Club SF.
We got a lot of offers from belly dancing groups. At first I was thinking of having only one group, but then I thought why not have them all. So I put them in touch with each other and they put together a program that highlighted them all in turn, with one big dance in the middle where they all joined in and did a processional around the convention floor. They brought their own music and provided decorations of oriental rugs. Their presence added a lot of color and vitality to the Midway, and I could see they were very popular.
Other performers we had included jugglers, sword-fighting demonstrations (Phoenix Swords), a magician (Bill Brang), face painters, and a caricature artist. David Grubbs ran several sessions of teaching people how to juggle. Tom Farrell brought a theremin to demonstrate and to let people play with, and that was quite popular. We would have liked to have a puppet show, but no one volunteered for that.
David Grubbs also put together a small group of brass instruments to play a live fanfare to announce the start of First Night. We picked "Arthur's Fanfare" from the movie First Knight, by Jerry Goldsmith.
As mentioned above, we tried to recruit clubs and bid groups to run game booths and other activities as part of First Night, but it was a bit of slow going. About a month before the convention, when we had to turn in our final plans to the decorator, we had only 4 groups that had really firm ideas. So we allocated space for those, plus 2 more. As it turned out, the 2 extra booths were taken in the weeks before the convention, one more group was happy to set up in some open space in the ConCourse, and yet another group turned up on the afternoon of the event itself and made do with whatever space we could scrounge up for them.
The standard booth was 10' wide and 8' deep. We used 8' drape along the back and 3' drape along the sides, with the booth open in front. We provided one 8' table and 3 chairs. This worked for the majority of cases, although some booths requested a bulletin board, or an extra table, or some extra drape. Beyond that, and our minimal decorations, each of the groups provided their own setup and decorations. We loaned the Hugo rockets used by the Science Fiction Oral History Association for the Hugo Ring Toss, but they built the base for it. We also had a fish toss (CasCadiaCon), Science Fiction Concentration (Fast Forward), a mock election, complete with posters and speeches (WSFA), and a Tombola (lottery) booth (Interaction). The Nippon in 2007 bid demonstrated origami and ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), Arisia brought in a bouncy castle and the Society for Creative Anachronism ran medieval games and dances. Dave Cantor, who is a professional blackjack dealer, recruited a couple of his friends to run two blackjack tables which were very popular.
We gave an allocation of prize tickets to each of the game booths (see below), and some of the booths provided additional prizes of their own.
FIRST Night TIMES
The FIRST Night TIMES was our attempt at producing a one-shot fanzine during First Night, and probably deserves a whole separate report to itself. The original concept was to collect contributions during First Night, then print it out and reproduce it on Friday morning and collate it and distribute it on Friday night. The intent was to both invite contributions from established fanzine fans, and also to give neos a taste of what's involved in producing a fanzine.
Editor Bob Devney came up with a theme ("Your First Time"), which was related to First Night, but sufficiently broad to evoke a wide variety of contributions. He suggested that we ask for short contributions (from 25-250 words), so that no one would feel intimidated and no one would take over too much of the space. He also solicited contributions from various committee members and fan writers ahead of time, partly to ensure that we would at least have some contributions (which in the final event, didn't turn out to be a problem!), and to help out people like me, who wanted to contribute, but knew I would be too busy running First Night to sit down and type something coherent. These were all good ideas.
The problem we had was that the model I had in my mind was based on the old-style way of producing a one-shot, where a bunch of people all take turns typing directly on stencil, and that's what you run off, complete with mistakes and typos. It did not take into account all of the complexity that modern computer software adds to the scene, what with the ability to edit and reformat and scan in pictures, and the additional time all of that polishing would take.
So FIRST Night TIMES was both a big success and a bit of a failure. It was a big success in that it attracted lots of contributions, the people who participated seemed to really enjoy it, and an excellent 27-page fanzine was produced. It was a failure in that it sucked up way too many hours of staff time (pretty much putting Bob Devney, aided by Grant Kruger and most of Bob's family, out of commission for most of the convention), and it did not get distributed until the dead dog party on Monday night. We also made it available via PDF on our web site, hard copies may be requested from Bob Devney, and we are sending sample copies to various conventions.
It seems clear that if this is to be done again, it either has to be scaled back, using a template that is set up in advance to require minimum editorial intervention at the convention (one example of this is to use a weblog post type of interface), or else it needs a much bigger staff commitment right from the start.
Logo, Buttons, Decorations, and Signs
Because First Night was a short term, spread out event, we thought from the start that it would be important to clearly identify First Night activities to make it easy for people to find them. We asked Alice Lewis to help develop a colorful logo which we planned to use on buttons and signs. The theme was a rocket ship taking off leaving a fireworks trail behind it. As it turned out, we didn't have enough money in the budget to pay for making a large quantify of buttons to hand out to everybody, but we were able to make a few hundred to give our to staff and use as prizes (see below). Buttons were purchased from Hodges Badge and Button, the usual supplier for Worldcon ribbons.
Signage was critical for First Night. We wanted to identify all the booths, to give credit to the clubs that were sponsoring them, and wanted to post the schedules for any non-continuous events. In all, we had over 40 signs. We were very lucky in that N4 had purchased a large-format full-color sign printer. We set up a sign template that included the First Night logo and the N4 logo and we used a festive title font in red and a readable body font in purple (again using the First Night colors). Since this was a big imposition on the sign shop, I learned how to use the sign printer and spent a few afternoons over at the clubhouse producing the First Night signs.
The biggest problem with the signs was the difficulty in getting enough easels to actually hold them. It just didn't seem to be possible to get 40 easels from either the decorating company or the Hynes, and we had to scramble quite a bit to find ways to get the signs out in the limited amount of time we had for setup. We were lucky that the convention had borrowed a number of square department-store sign holders, and we were able to snare most of these to use.
We also used the colors from the logo (purple, red, yellow, and white) for the decorations, which were balloons and fire resistant crepe paper streamers. We had a small crew in the afternoon to blow up balloons, tie them in clusters and hang the balloons and streamers on the 8' pipe and drape we used as a backdrop for the First Night Midway and anywhere else First Night activities were happening. We also made some extra balloons for give-aways (see below). The source of the balloons and streamers was Oriental Trading Company (www.orientaltrading.com).
Prizes and Giveaways
We ordered a large number of cheap prizes to give out as awards for the various events, ordered from the Oriental Trading Company. We divided them up into categories of 1, 2, or 3 tickets, based on cost and desirability. We computed that we could give out 1300 tickets, so we gave each game booth 75 tickets and each program item 25 tickets to start with. We also gave out tickets to people wearing hall costumes and people who contributed to the FIRST Night TIMES (see below). Half way through the evening, we gave out some additional allocations to the booths that needed more.
Ruth Alfasso supervised the prize table, which was located at the Information Desk in the ConCourse. We had previously separated the prizes into 4 equal packages, so that new prizes could be put out each hour so the more desirable items would not be all snapped up by the early winners. We kept the prize table open an hour after the close of First Night to allow people to pick up their prizes. There were still a lot of prizes left over at the end, although certain popular items (the feather masks, the bean bag aliens, the flashing bouncing balls) were completed taken.
We also had a number of things we handed out for free, including balloons, glow rings (which were quite popular) and plastics leis. We also would have given out the buttons if we had enough of them, but instead we treated them as 1-ticket prizes.
The Program Booklet
The First Night program booklet was designed by Erica Schultz, who also produced the final copy from text I supplied to her. We chose a simple one-sheet, single color format so we could leave the program until the last minute and get the most up-to-date information into it. This was really critical, since much of the program was being scheduled by other areas and we didn't get the final information until about 2-3 weeks before the convention.
We printed 1500 copies of program, which was a single 11 x 17 sheet folded in half. The cover was the logo and an introduction, and the centerfold was the program, divided into Continuing Events listed alphabetically and Scheduled Events listed chronologically. On the back, there was a simple map showing the areas we were using for First Night activities. (We didn't try to map each individual item, but just labeled the rooms and major areas we were using (eg: Midway, ConCourse, Mended Drum, Club SF) The program was handed out at Registration and at Information, and we came close to running out. We probably should have printed more. [insert link to Program PDF]
Other Items of Note I had hoped to recruit a crew of First Night Party Hosts to greet people at the entrances and hand out programs and glow rings, etc. I couldn't get enough people to really do this the way I would have liked, but Dan Kimmel did put in a few hours at the start of First Night and helped out quite a bit.
The Terry on Trial event had originally been scheduled for The Mended Drum, but at the last minute we realized that with seating for 100, the Drum would not hold all of the people who wanted to hear it, so we scrambled to find another idea. I'm not quite sure who suggested putting it in the ConCourse, but I owe a big thanks to Jim Hudson and Chip Hitchcock for figuring out how to set up a temporary stage, and to Hynes Liaison Bobbi Armbruster and the tech crew under Paul Krause and Lynx for setting up the stage and portable sound system. This worked quite well as a kickoff event; Terry Pratchett's presence encouraged people to make an effort to get back from dinner in time for the start of First Night, and its location in the center of the ConCourse meant that everyone knew that something exciting was happening.
Sandra Lira offered a program item called Blindfolded Sculpting, recruited the sculptors, and ran the item, which was located at a large round table in the Midway.
We arranged for the Hynes to set up two food stands, one for popcorn and one for ice cream. The popcorn one seemed most popular; the ice cream one a bit less so, although I haven't seen final sales figures.
The Setup Schedule
Prior to Thursday, the only things we needed to do was to make sure all of our supplies had been delivered to the convention and get them together in one place, pick up the office supplies we had requested from the office, make sure the day passes we had requested for the performers were available at Registration, and make sure all of the tables, etc., had been laid out by the Hynes and the decorator as specified in the plans. All of these things took a lot longer than you would expect, due the spread-out nature of the space, the difficulty in tracking down people and supplies, and the inability of the setup crews to follow our plans. There was a lot of interaction with our decorator liaison (Jim Hudson) and our Hynes liaison (Bobbi Armbruster) to try to get things straightened out.
On Thursday, we had asked the performers and clubs to check in with us between 2 and 5 in the afternoon. (After the opening ceremonies and allowing an hour between 5 and 6 to go out and get something to eat.) Of course, as it turned out, people checked in at all sorts of random times, so we were going nonstop pretty much all day. Jim Murray held down the First Night headquarters table in the ConCourse most of the day, leaving me free to run around and show each group where they would be located and answer any questions they might have.
At the same time, we had whatever staff and helpers we could find blowing up balloons, decorating the booths, activating the glo rings, and setting out the signs. At 6pm we started setting out the prizes as the prize table, and at 7pm, we were ready to kick things off.
One problem that I didn't plan for is that because we were using shared space for First Night activities, some of our setup and supplies were poached on by other convention areas. I had spent all day Wednesday and Thursday running around trying to get the First Night layout to match what we had requested from the decorators. Finally by mid-afternoon Thursday we were in pretty good shape. But some time after that, someone just walked off with a corkboard that we had set up to be shared by two of the First Night booths. (I never did find out stole it.) Luckily, there was a spare corkboard in the Fanzine Lounge that we were able to borrow for the evening.
Later in the evening, when the magician, Bill Brant, was packing up to leave, he found that one of the tables he had personally brought in was missing. Luckily, in that case, someone had seen who took it and we were able to get it back before Bill got too upset with us.
I could go into a long rant about how people working on Worldcons should ask before just taking something that has been allocated to some other area, but of course its useless. People will do stupid things. I'm not sure what would be a good solution to this. You can't have someone watching every single piece of equipment all day and night. Possibly a set of large signs to put on key equipment, "RESERVED FOR FIRST NIGHT THURSDAY 7-11 DO NOT REMOVE!" might have some effect.
A Few Words of Advice
One advantage to having lots of events as part of First Night is that if some small number of events don't work out, there will be lots of other things happening, so the event as a whole will still look good. So we pretty much gratefully accepted just about anyone who volunteered to do anything and ran with the theory that the more, the merrier.
We tried to minimize the number of individual events that the First Night staff would be running directly, and used "subcontractors" as much as possible. There was plenty to do to just keep everyone coordinated, along with the setup, decoration, signage, and prize table, without getting into running the individual events.
We needed lots of cooperation from other parts of the convention. Although First Night was nominally in the Events Division, it had very close ties with many parts of the con, and could just as well have been under Exhibits or Program. If some of the areas we had to work with had decided that we weren't worth bothering with, it would have made things difficult or impossible. It is critical that First Night have the support of the rest of the convention, and be run by someone who feels comfortable working closely with the other area heads.
We definitely needed to do a lot of marketing to create some pre-con buzz. Since it was not a traditional Worldcon activity, we had to make sure people knew what First Night was and when it would be happening. I didn't want to go to all the work, only to have a poor attendance and people missing it because they didn't know about it. In addition, I think the publicity helped to get clubs to volunteer, since all the advance hype gave some people, especially bidders, the feeling that they didn't want to miss out on something good that was going to happen.
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