A Very StarKid Harry Potter Fandom Celebration
On August 11, a variety of intertwined pilgrimages converged at the Hilton Chicago. One group of performers had come to reunite their college friends and close out a creative chapter in all their lives. At the same time, far-flung fans came to celebrate literary and digitally forged connections in the flesh. And a fan convention strove to redefine itself as more than just a place for a boy wizard (just check out the photos). The linchpin to all this, the reverent word on everyone’s lips, was StarKid.
StarKid refers to Team StarKid, a collective of creatives born at the University of Michigan in 2009 when the group found unexpected fame on YouTube with “A Very Potter Musical,” a Harry Potter parody that they later spun off into a production company that creates parody works, original theater, and even concert tours. However, StarKid also defines a fandom unto itself, layered with multiplex crossover fans from other genres that come together to celebrate the transformative work of the original StarKids. One feeds the other, and on and on. There are so many layers that just because you understand or are aware of the complexities or in-jokes of a one aspect doesn’t mean you get them all, and that’s the beauty.
Fandom is inherently the land of the remix, where transformative work is the only sort of work, and metamorphosis is the whole point. As ambitions aligned, Team StarKid (the troupe) premiered a definitive fannish work for StarKids (the fandom) in the form of “A Very Potter 3D: A Very Potter Senior Year,” the highly anticipated third work in the StarKid Potter trilogy, in Chicago at LeakyCon 2012 (the post-Potter convention).
The show itself reads as a love letter less to the text of Harry Potter and more to the StarKid and Harry Potter fandom, a community that Team StarKid became an unexpected standard-bearer for when their first show went viral. Harry Potter was no special topic to them beyond the fact that creator Nick Lang thought it would be funny to bend the constructs of the world to fit to the humor of his group of friends (mostly dick and fart jokes). Stereotypical boy stuff. The first musical was an exploration of that — strong male friendship through a re-imagination of Harry’s quest. In that way, just as the original Harry Potter series appeals to the mechanisms of die-hard fandom, these musicals hit the correct note to inspire fervored fandom.
Of course, fans had been transforming Harry Potter through fannish means for years before StarKid existed — as a fandom culture, it’s one of the most prolific and deep. It’s arguably the first superpower fandom to come of age along with the technological boom, deep-seated enough to thrive even following the end of the books. And even now, a year past the end of the film series, LeakyCon has been such a success they’re planning two summer conventions next year, with further plans afoot through 2014. So why did StarKid break out into a superfandom within its own superfandom?
“I love what they do, I love how they write their music and how dedicated they are, and just the fact that they’re like me,” explained Alex, one of the minority of male StarKid fans who attended the convention cosplaying Darren Criss, one of StarKid’s founding and most famous members. “They went to school for music, they wrote songs, they fell into it. And they still treat it like they fell into it … they don’t treat it like ‘we are stars now.’ They’re like, ‘we are people, and you’ve made us stars.’ Any celebrity that does that has my respect.” Indeed, the StarKids aren’t that vastly different from the fandom they exist within, and that’s the key.
Unsurprisingly, the broader Potter fandom and its StarKid subculture have found fertile ground on Tumblr. There is after all an essence of the remix inherent in the Tumblr experience; as you scroll down your dash, there’s juxtaposition in theme and fandom and idea. A picture of Harry Potter followed by an inspirational quote superimposed on an image of a field could spark the deepest of creativity. StarKid shows are like a living Tumblr Dashboard; a reference to Spider-Man or Twilight can coexist next to an off-color joke or an adorable kitten. Fans identify with that juxtaposition, plus the fact that these are both jokes and deadly serious in equal measure.
“The thing about StarKid that I just love the most is that it’s equally making fun of something, but loving it at the same time,” explained Emily, who had a more than 20-hour flight from Australia to Chicago to be a part of the event. “And to be able to use the things we love and make fun of them I think is a really unique quality to this fandom. No one is offended or anything like that. Everyone is just having the best time they can.”
The premiere of “A Very Potter 3D: A Very Potter Senior Year” (most commonly referred to as AVPSY) has been in the works since 2010, just after the sequel was completed (and the same year Darren found breakout fame on Glee). All at once, StarKid had a new influx of fans, a growing public platform to promote their projects, and a huge roadblock to finishing the Potter trilogy with an otherwise occupied Harry Potter.
“A lot of it hinged on whether Darren could come out and do it,” explained StarKid Dylan Saunders. “When we say it’s a one-time deal, all of the pieces are kind of coming together at one time.”
Darren was granted just enough time off from this shooting schedule to fly in for a day and a half and take part. Overall, the StarKids had a little less than three days to rehearse the entire show with their cast and crew, with signings and other convention obligations at LeakyCon. The event was originally planned as a staged reading without costumes or props, but about a week and a half before the premiere, they decided to try and turn it into as much of a production as they could, with costume designer June Saito scrambling to produce costumes on the fly — sometimes without even knowing the gender of the performers she’d be fitting.
“It’s such a huge gathering of friends and family from old and new, so it’s kind of bizarre,” noted Darren. “It’s funny … it’s a StarKid show, so it’s always silly and funny. The more we fuck up — which will be a lot — the funnier it will be, I think. Just like all StarKid shows. Nothing really changes.”
While a solid chunk of the StarKid company members are living in Chicago, many had to fly in from their-post college cities to take part in what resulted in somewhat of a StarKid reunion, with more than 30 alumni taking part. Rehearsals ran late into the night both Thursday and Friday, with a far from linear structure. Supporting roles were assigned on the fly as needed, and Brian Holden, one of the main writers who also plays a handful of characters in the final show, stood in for Darren, who joined the group Saturday morning a mere four hours before scheduled curtain. By the time they retreated backstage to put on costumes while fans filed into the ballroom and claimed seats, the group had still never run the whole show. They only had the most vague ideas of runtime, knowing it would definitely top three and a half hours.
“This will be the first time we’ve ever done it with everything all the way through. I just learned it this morning … the first time we’ll do it is with an audience. But that’s any StarKid show. It’ll be fun,” laughed Darren as he prepped backstage, pulling his Gryffindor cardigan over his head and adjusting his cufflinks. “The thing that I’m bummed about most is all of us want to watch it because we’ve never seen it before. We’re never going to be able to watch it. We don’t get to watch it the way (the fans) get to watch it. That’s kind of a bummer.”
The StarKids have never seen themselves as far from their fans because they, too, are just fans. And while the company members rehearsed frantically in hidden corners of the hotel, fans went about their fan business throughout the convention, which originated as a Harry Potter-themed event that has more recently expanded to include many intertwined and like-minded fandoms like Glee, Hunger Games, and young adult fiction in general. The weekend was a moment of IRL kinship, but most bonds forged were highlighted by past and future digital connections. Exchanging Tumblr URLs was just as important as a first name, and many fans who’d never met before explained they’d organized room share over Tumblr for fans from five different countries and states.
“I think it’s amazing just to get up in the morning get on Tumblr and I’m speaking to all my friends in places like Iran, Poland, Serbia,” explained EmJ, a fan who traveled from the UK for the convention. “I’ve got friends in America now. And I would have not met them without StarKid, or Glee, or anything of these things, or any of the reason why we are here. I think that is just so beautiful that we can find these people in countries you just wouldn’t expect. And now I’ve got friends visiting me from all over the world. And it’s great just to have that kind of connection with anybody.”
“The jokes about fandom and fan fiction, it’s stuff like that that makes StarKid what it is,” explained Jasmine, who was in tears after the AVPSY premiere. “For me it’s about sharing that with someone else. Because I feel like they have done so much, they have done all of this hard work. It’s just so powerful to see that these people who have hopes and dreams can achieve that, and it make you think, ‘I can do it too.’ It’s made me more ambitious to do what I want.”
Meanwhile, the StarKids themselves take a much more arms-length approach to Tumblr, with only a handful of them using the platform as opposed to Facebook or Twitter as a means of connecting with their fanbase. That doesn’t mean, however, that the StarKids are unaware.
“I look through Tumblr sometimes,” claimed Brian. “I sort of jump in, especially once we announce something. Tumblr is a place that people just unload absolutely everything that they’re thinking about. Sometimes it’s kind of scary, and sometimes it’s kind of nice.”
Photos, video, and painstakingly detailed encounters with the StarKids are commodity to the fandom. Each is taken and repurposed, digested, repurposed again, studied for hints of meaning, turned into a slogan and an in-joke and a secret signal. This final Potter production flipped that economy on its head, forbidding attendees to film or take pictures of the action, while encouraging everyone to refrain from spoiling any part of the story online until StarKid themselves could provide an edited video. In a world where camera phones held aloft at every concert and recaps are an artform, AVPSY was a pure experience. After scrambling to find seats with the best views (conducting impromptu singalongs and stadium-style waves), people laughed,listened, and ooohed and ahhed for three hours of the first act — but only five cameras, those officially sanctioned by StarKid, captured all of it. Of course, in the 10-minute intermission, Tweeting and Tumbling were second in fervor only to bathroom breaks. Still, the new, best moments are all memory-based for now; “pix or it didn’t happen” culture doesn’t apply yet to this fandom. The AVPSY experience is an oral history at best, but a mostly silent and secret one. The new memes have time to gestate before they explode onto Dashboards. But that doesn’t mean fans are refraining from emoting within their networks, just careful of the dreaded spoiler after a tear-filled reaction to the show.
“We’re going back to our hotel because all of us have mascara all over our face and we have the ball tonight,” said Nikki, who traveled from Toronto for the event with friends she met through StarKid Internet fandom. “Obviously we can’t say much, but I think maybe some keysmashes. That won’t give it away. I think the fun of it is not knowing what will happen. No one knew who would play who. I don’t want to give it away.”
But how does that excitement translate to their fandom that’s much larger than the 4,000 people at LeakyCon? In the past few months, fans on Tumblr have tagged StarKid-related terms just shy of half a million times in their posts. But since the AVPSY announcement on July 17, the frequency has increased, with fans chatting about StarKid with tags 8% more than the average in a normal month. Fans flocked to Tumblr to speculate on casting and plotlines that ranged from joking (Darren would play Hagrid because at the time he was growing a beard) to actual reasoned ideas (noting topics they’d yet to cover in previous shows). For those at home waiting for any news of the big moment, the Internet was both a blessing and a curse.
“I will not be on Tumblr,” says Nicole, a LA-based fan who didn’t journey to Chicago for the event. “I’m staying off the internet Saturday. Fans were so good with the previous show, Holy Musical B@tman, so I’m hoping there won’t be any dick fans this time around who ruin it for people who don’t get to be there.”
Nicole is among the many fans who take inspiration from StarKid and turn it into their own art. She’s a crafter who makes buttons, shirts, and merchandise based off fan jokes, characters, or moments from the shows. Many we talked over the weekend told us they were fan-fiction writers, vloggers, artists, and other creative types, though most said they were simply rebloggers — catalysts for the spread of StarKid and other fannish content around their social networks.
“When the first play came out, one of the coolest things was seeing that not only are they watching this, but now they’re creating stuff based off of this. It was a pretty flattering and cool feeling,” explains StarKid Brian. The troupe even appealed to their talented fanbase to provide song, set, and costume ideas. “Most of our fans are Potter fans too, so we said, why don’t we put their talents to the test and let them be a contributing factor to the play. We got a huge outpouring of talent. It’s nice to see that not only are they intelligent and talented, but they have a sense of humor about their work like we have.”
Team StarKid may be the focus of a fandom, but it’s not the point. Sure, fans lined up for hours to get signatures from the StarKids, and seeing their favorite member ranked high in weekend excitement. But as fans filed out from the show their emphasis was less on fame and proximity-to-face, and more on the people they’d just seen the show with.
“Look at us — we’re from different countries, different walks of life, different ages,” explained an emotional EmJ after the AVPSY premiere, huddled with a group of tearful friends.
“This is how we met, because of StarKid,” noted Carrie, standing with EmJ and other friends. “You could tell it was a labor of love for them, for us, for all Harry fans. I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re incredibly blessed to experience all that they have to give.”
Bobbie, another enthused fan with the group, chimed in. “This is friendship. Everything they’ve added to the whole fandom, it’s beyond words.”
It was also a goodbye for a certain chapter of StarKid, or at least the start of it. They may have closed the door on performing Potter musicals, but the group still has to release the footage of the performance for the rest of their fandom, and that has to be dissected, memeified, metaed, memorized, and repurposed. Inevitably, jokes have already started going around Tumblr on the scant “spoilers” fans have been sharing — let’s just say there’s something about a tie. Three days, four and a half hours, and more than a year of plotting, and the StarKid company members can breathe a sigh of relief about their accomplishments, For their fandom, the moment of excitement and creation has barely begun.
“I’m kind of glad it won’t be on YouTube for a while. There will be a moment to be like, ‘okay, that happened,’ and then watch it again,” explained Nikki. “It was literally a once and a lifetime kind of thing.”