A Quick Guide to the Industrial-Futurist Movement
Steampunk began as a sub-genre of science fiction, inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, in which futuristic concepts and machines are created with the antiquated technologies of the industrial revolution of the late 1800s: most notably steam-power, where the medium gets half of its name from. The other half of its name comes from the anti-establishment themes often present in many of the works, but also within the sense of fashion of that movement. The punk movement of the 1970s was the embodiment of anti-establishment sentiment: people dressing and acting how society didn’t want them to. Where punk has safety pins and studs, steampunk uses cogs and gears. This is where steampunk goes from being a sub-genre of literature to a medium within its own right. Inspired by these works of fiction and indeed the aesthetic created within them, steampunk has spread from the pages of novels to real life.
Odds-Bodkins, Tell Me More!
Around the world steampunk fashionistas craft steampunk outfits using materials prominent in Victorian design such as ‘leather and brass, nineteenth century lines! “Retro-futuristic” is a good explanation; Blend antique reality with imagination’ (Sir Reginald Pikedevant Esq.). Perhaps some of the most well-known models of these outfits are Kato and Steampunk Boba Fett, the latter of which has made several fan-films of an alternative reality steampunk Star Wars universe. Additionally, ‘Tinkerers’ adapt and build machines from their imagination, like steam-powered motorbikes. Musicians, such as Steam-Powered Giraffe and Professor Elemental to name a couple, draw on a multitude of styles from music hall to vaudeville, country, folk, rock and hip-hop (the latter of which became so popular that its own sub-genre ‘Chap-hop’ came into being) to create catchy tunes and striking tracks. Many individuals don’t just limit themselves to one medium either. Michael J. Rigg, an Amazon Indie author, took his novel series, merged it with his love of role-playing and launched the Steam Rollers Adventure Podcast, a weekly storytelling adventure comedy. In short, with steampunk a hybrid of anything is possible so long as you can imagine it.
‘If you can imagine another world, it can allow you to creatively confront the challenges of the present’, says John ‘Manyjohns’ Shamberg […] ‘This is where steampunk gets its depth, by combining a recognition of a rather dystopic past/present with a utopic imperative.’
Some Slight Stipulations
However, you cannot just ‘glue some gears on it and call it steampunk’ as Sir Reginald Pikedevant Esq. points out; in steampunk, ‘form becomes symbolic of function rather than reliant upon it’. Back in the Age of Steam, machines were massive and grand; you could see their workings and with some explanation understand how they worked. Today we largely accept that our technology works; not many people understand how and why it operates. If you were to just look at a smartphone you couldn’t tell what it does. We’ve lost ‘our sense of wonder and a sense to wonder why’ (Professor Elemental) when it comes to technology. As a society we just want the next biggest thing and for that thing to be faster and better than its previous iteration. With steampunk everything is unique, the most amazing pieces are made by hand through the sweat of one’s brow, pieces which an individual can take pride and gain cultural capital in.
Tea-Powered Theatre’s Take on Steampunk
To explain how I use steampunk to define my business, Tea-Powered Theatre, I refer you to the company’s mission statement: ‘Tea-Powered Theatre aims to support and work with aspiring artists, writers and dramatists to produce their crafts while enjoying the finest warm beverage’. This is built in from the very core. As a business our main product is something we call ‘Teatre’, tea and theatre. It is a formula I have developed through years of work in the hospitality industry. We simultaneously combine the nostalgic British traditions of catching the matinée and having afternoon tea with modern convenience culture. From the moment you arrive you’re seen to a table and from then on everything is brought to you: the tea, the scones, the jam and the performances. You’re treated as a member of high society no matter your social standing. However, we go a step further with the performances. Initially, we began by using local new writing with a steampunk aesthetic; this progressed to adapting Shakespeare with the brief of it being a steampunk production. What the directors, Calum Anderson and Poppy Horwood, developed over the course of a year, three different runs and a changing cast was this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
‘Imprisoned in a steampunk world of madness and machines, a sextet of bumbling, half-mechanical misfits escape their shackles and embark on a dreamed-up quest to perform in front of the King. Hampered by their faerie oppressors and their own malfunctioning bodies…’
This wasn’t overtly steampunk, but rather simple, subtle and nuanced. Other than the mechanicals winding themselves up there were no grandiose machines, rather everything functioned as it appeared to and musical functions were utilised from objects’ designs. All the sound was live and Anderson drew upon traditional folk songs and twisted their words, much like he did the script, which was complemented by Horwood’s choreography that mixed contemporary dance with Morris dancing, creating a piece that was menacing and mournful. This style of theatre I look forward to progressing this year with our adaptation of The Tempest.
To summarise, ‘steampunk is very personal and individual’: it is only limited by the individual’s imagination and interpretation. No two definitions will be identical, although in this explanation I have borrowed from greater authorities on the subject than I to illustrate my point. The community is large, diverse, growing and is incredibly supportive, encouraging and instructive: ‘an environment in which practitioners support each other in recognizing and attaining new capabilities’. Now, if you’ll excuse me I think it’s time for tea… and as any British gentlefolk worth their salt knows ‘everything stops for tea’.
Rupert is a Drama with Creative Writing graduate of the University of the West of England, who has been working on building his own business, Tea-Powered Theatre – an afternoon tea and theatre company – with the support of the Prince’s Trust for the past two years. His main product, “Teatre”, combines two Victorian traditions: cream tea and catching a matinée. As a Steampunk, he also believes in technology ‘having a form that derives its function and creative interpretations thereof’.