Weekend at the Asylum

One of the largest and longest running steampunk festivals in the world, held in multiple venues around Lincoln

Pictures by Mark Kent Photography

The Asylum paradeSince 2009, the festival (or ‘convivial’ in steampunk parlance) has been held each year in Lincoln and currently stretches over the historic cathedral quarter, Lincoln Castle and Bishop Grosseteste University. It combines four full days of features, classes, craft workshops and entertainment, along with live music, comedy acts and the largest steampunk market in the world, referred to as the Bazaar Eclectica. We talk to organiser John Naylor (aka Major Tinker).

Describe your event and how many people it attracts?
Our event is actually two in one. There is a ‘buy in’ convention/festival for around 5,000 people and a much larger open festival which attracts 120,000 visits over the weekend. This features around 11 venues each year across the historical section of the City of Lincoln and the beautiful streets of the Bailgate area.

People dressed up at The Asylum festivalExplain a bit about your venue and its history
The history is an important part of the event. Our festival is a celebration of a Victorian World that never really happened – think Jules Verne and HG Wells. The visual literacy of the participants (and their amazing outfits) means we have to have suitable backdrops for them. A medieval castle and a Victorian university coupled with a main music venue that formerly was a railway engine shed seem to work for us.

What is the event’s history and what made you decide to run it?
Around 15 years ago my wife and I discovered steampunk. We work as creatives in the TV industry anyway but a world where we could be even more imaginative and make amazing things for relaxation was too good to ignore. This community was crying out for an event so we decided to put our heads above the parapet and see what we could offer.

After lots of canvassing we had just 450 people trust us for the first event in 2009. It grew and developed into the monster we have now.

People attending The AsylumHow does the relationship work with the venue you hold the event at?
We work very closely with all our venues. We are firm believers in a symbiotic/collaborative approach. Discussing what you want to achieve and being open to ideas allows the venues to shine too. Building on a relationship year on year means that the event doesn’t become stale. It is odd when you find your event is better established than some of the lead staff in venues. Luckily we are of a size that they generally want to work with us than be a “new broom”.

How did you find applying for permission to run the event?
This has been an uphill struggle at times. Authorities are often risk averse anyway. Add to this a total confusion about what constitutes an arts event (the word ‘festival’ terrifies many bureaucrats) and you can be sure that obstacles will get in your way. We had to become belligerent and determined. Demonstrating the massive economic benefit to the city allowed us to threaten to remove it thus compelling support. We do have to make compromises still but generally things are much easier now than they were a few years ago.

Our current struggle is over market licenses. Many authorities are trying to assert this right as a revenue generator for them. For small artist traders, rather than commercial pile it high and sell it traders, this can be a killer if you have to pass on the full costs to them. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with the council. They do have the power to waive these costs or at least reduce them.

How have you planned the layout of the event and what structures do you use?
We use a lot of structures spread across multiple venues from stages to market stalls and marquees. We have a lot of indoor venues too. The multi-centre nature of the event means we have to delegate sites to managers who plan their own part of the layouts. We need to coordinate this centrally for cost management as well as for our overall safety plan etc. Cost management means we have equipment we buy in and hold year on year. Some we hire in.

The Asylum people walkingHow did you research and source your marquees, flooring, bars etc?
We have established suppliers although we like to attend events such as the Event Production Show as well as other outdoor events to get an idea of what is out there. There are so many fabulous creatives and managers in the industry; just talking to them and networking is really helpful.

What entertainment do you offer and how did you choose and source it?
We run daytime features and separate ticketed evening shows – around 200 features during the four days of the festival. We have an odd ethical approach. We have an application system whereby potential contributors and performers are asked to complete a form with total transparency over final charges etc. We do not accept “plus expenses” or “negotiable” as proposals; we find that when things are not absolutely clear both sides feel they could have got a better deal and you are no longer working together as well as you could. Everything from speakers to bands apply the same way.

The Asylum light ball

We get a lot of community contributors who want to offer their own art too. We audition digitally, we go to lots of shows and we encourage our audience who have found something they like to get the performer to apply to our event.

Unlike many open air free festivals however, there is one area we struggle with finding content. We get scores of street performers apply but have to turn down almost all of them – when the audience looks as fabulous as ours it has to be something head turning to cause a stir.

What provisions do you make for power, lights and sound?
Even though outdoors, most of our venues have power distribution so we generally don’t need generators. Lights and sound we provide in house or hire in as required.

How do you manage admissions and visitor safety?
Some venues are small enough that their normal staff bolstered by volunteer stewards can handle admissions etc. The university porters are great for example, and although it is a small campus, our 5,000 visitors equate to the student population.

The Asylum festival : woman dressed upFor the streets and castle in particular though, with tens of thousands, we need to hire in security, ambulances etc. along with barriers, signage and so on. Good clear wristbands are really helpful and avoid choke points forming. Our main problem is with literally coach loads of photographers who want to take shots of our audience. They can be a total nuisance with regards to crowd movement.

What ground protection do you use for cars and footfall?
We are a citywide event so this is not normally a problem.

How do you publicise the event?
The event is based around an existing and growing community. Being embedded within that community means we don’t have to publicise it too much. We do however have an ‘outreach’ touring art exhibition that attends major pop culture events (working with the promoters) to add cool stuff in return for promoting to new potential community members.

We are pretty much at capacity. This year’s 500 early bird wristbands sold out in three minutes, even in the face of coronavirus and a statement that they would be transferred rather than refunded if necessary. Publicity for us can be a problem if not carefully managed.

The Asylum crowdWhat challenges have you faced?
The main challenges are around partnerships with venues, local authorities etc. These take a lot of work. There is a lot of ‘pressing the flesh’ needed to keep everyone on board and working towards common goals. Learning to listen and allow freedoms for them to experiment and contribute makes this easier. Not being afraid to show where an idea won’t work in a clear and gentle way is the secret. Gather your data each time. Use that data to show what works and doesn’t.

How have you financed the event?
We do not have many grants. This is an area where we may develop in the future. The main grants go on safety management for the free festival. Sponsorship can be useful but any money that comes in we spend on the event to make it better content wise. We rely on ticket sales to generate income, and improved quality always boosts ticket sales.

What are your plans for next year?
Difficult times. We want to be sure that the next festival is one heck of a party.

What advice could you give to someone coming into the outdoor event industry?
You don’t sell events you sell dreams. Make sure your ideas are achievable dreams.

Men attending The Asylum festival


28-31 August 2020
Bishop Grosseteste University and other venues around Lincoln

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