Redcloaking would turn out to be immensely fun – and more than just an interesting opportunity to peek behind the curtain of one of Britain’s longest running literary cons. Lots of hard work to boot: Though Fantasycon is only three days, we got into it virtually on arrival – preparing goodie bags and registration. However, what most con-goers don’t realise is that Redcloaking isn’t only a physically demanding job. It’s one that requires a lot of common sense, some self-regard, and a wee dose of silliness to make it through.
Because Redcloaking a con, especially one where you know people, can be rather an odd experience. Suddenly you’re the public face of a con which you’ve probably not been involved in organising. In many ways it’s like being a redshirt on an away mission. You’re representing star fleet, working at the face of diplomatic relations, when really you’ve had little involvement in the peace process beforehand. Yet any misunderstandings that may result from that are yours to sort out. And while you are a public face, at the same time, you hope you’re never in the spotlight, because that means something’s about to go horribly wrong – and you’ll likely be the first one picked off by a rampaging Gorn.
Even when covering things you want to see, you’re still on duty. With the potential of being called out any time between the morning meeting and evening debrief, it does limit the time you spend with friends. Reading social media can be a massive headfuck. If you’re not careful, redcoating can be an isolating experience. The last thing you may want to be is a friendly welcoming face.
So what does that mean for the way you Redcloak? You remember that you’re here for the same reason everyone else is – and that’s to enjoy yourself. So you’re polite, you’re attentive, you’re honest in your dealings with people. You’re hard-working, yes – but at the same time, you learn how to say “stop”. It may sound like a contradiction, but by putting yourself first, you’re actually putting others front and centre. You’re making yourself the best tool for the job.
That begins with your body. Like your Mum’s best advice for a big day out, our days began with big breakfasts together – three course monsters – and continued punctuated by snack breaks, tea runs, sit down and stretch times. Without them, planned neatly into our shifts, those three courses wouldn’t last to lunchtime, while all that standing around would lead to stiff nights. I had to learn that any fear of making the social faux pas of inconvenient requests was far outweighed by getting that vital cup of tea when I needed it. And no one wants to be the one whose redcloak leader has to walk them to the lunch buffet to make sure they eat. Trust me. Ahem.
And then there was our beloved Redcloak Room. Ah, the Redcloak Room – haven for anything we might need – drinks, the many snacks we brought with us (I can recommend Pat Hirez’s cookies anytime), menthol sweets, throat sweets, notepads and bounteous stationary of all kinds. Anything we might want to scoff or scribble requests on during the day, in fact.
The Redcloak room is more than just a supply cabinet or a place for meetings and debriefs, though. It’s a Redcloak’s oasis of calm, the place we went when we needed some time to ourselves. Which was more than you might think. After getting properly stuck into a tricky situation, just five minutes in there could make all the difference, giving you the space to lift yourself out of the madness and get some perspective.
A big part of gaining that perspective also revolved around The Shirt. It’s the marker of your role. Yet one of the first things our glorious leaders – the wonderful Marguerite Kenner and Alasdair Stuart – told us was to make sure we took it off the moment we were off-duty. We quickly learned why: in the shirt, there were times I couldn’t walk a twenty yard stretch of corridor without being stopped at least three times. Without it, and walking the same stretch, I might as well have been invisible. People regard you completely differently. The switch is remarkable – and arguably one of the most intriguing parts of the whole experience. Kind of like knowing how Spider-man feels.
And like Spider-Man, sure, as a redcoat, you still need the shirt on you at all times, in case someone blows up a bank or any last minute cover is needed – like when we stayed behind after shift on the Saturday to help set-up the route and room for the mass signing, for example. It pays to be flexible with shifts. Gavin Nash, who ended up swapping to cover the Martial Arts panel found himself supervising an extended demonstration from Juliette McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Clifford Beale and Fran Terminiello, one of the highlights of the weekend.
Naturally, shit did – invariably – happen. Missing guests, technical issues (though the staff of the Royal York Hotel were generally very efficient when it came to these), no-shows, late runnings… Preparation can only go so far. Communication made up the gap. On Day One, Andy Marsden, another of the team, set up a Whatsapp group so we could keep in touch. Soon requests for tea and bottles of water for panels were flying across the con. And more than that – tracking guests, updates on running times, requesting extra cover for busy items… Without it, we’d have had no idea what was going on. That group was a Godsend – and not just for practicalities.
With Redcoating being such a person-focussed job, it’s even harder not to beat yourself up when things go wrong; and even harder to take a step back, think through a problem, and then act. Days can be tough. And that’s when you rely on the support of your fellow Redcoats. We’d use whatsapp to send each other daft messages, puns – photos of that ladies toilet with the ironing board in it. We’d complain. We’d commiserate and congratulate. We’d keep each other sane. We still use that group to keep in touch. Which reminds me, I have a photo of an inflatable pineapple to post…
Because here’s the thing – ultimately you are there to enjoy yourself. The work is tough, and the days can be long, but it’s a great way to meet folks, and learn about the ins and outs of con-running. If you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll end up working an event you really enjoy, with an absolutely wonderful bunch of people who you’ll want to stay in touch with long after it’s over. Those are the memories that stick with you, not the petty crap.
Would I recommend it? Hell yes. But be prepared to work. Talk to folks who’ve done this before – more than one, if you can – and work out if this is really for you. Calls for Redcoats are already going out for next year’s UK conventions. So, with that in mind, if you’re looking for tips, here’s a few with extra notes from my fellow redcloaks Katherine Fowler, Chloe Yates, Alasdair Stuart and Gavin Nash.
1) FORMER REDCOATS ARE FOUNTS OF WISDOM.
Aside from seeking advice from Marguerite and Alasdair, before the con I also spoke to Andrew Reid, who redcoated at World Fantasycon in Brighton last year (click here for his excellent blog). While dealing with a much more hectic convention, he was able to give me some advice on what I could expect.
2) BE PREPARED FOR A FULL DAY.
Alasdair Stuart – “Hydrate. Big breakfast.”
Chloe Yates – “I’d second the Big Breakfast for reals, son!”
Katherine Fowler – “Stock up on food when you can!”
Also, it’s worth considering a small bag for water, snacks, your schedule, and a notepad and pen.
3) BE FLEXIBLE.
Gavin Nash – “Be open to panels and events you didn’t explicitly select.”
4) REFLECT THE CON – *AND* TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF TOO.
Alasdair – “Be polite and honest.”
Chloe – “Also, take a breath before replying to anyone at the con. Make sure you’ve heard what they’ve asked.”
5) USE THE REDCOAT ROOM
6) TAKE OFF THE GODDAMN SHIRT…
7) … BUT ALWAYS BE READY TO PUT IT ON AGAIN.
Kat – “Be prepared to see/do anything.”
8) KEEP IN TOUCH.
Gav – “Oh, and repeat point 8 five or six times.”
9) SHIT HAPPENS, SO…
10) ENJOY YOURSELF!
* What’s a Redcoat? Whether you call them Redcoats, Redcloaks or Redshirts, they’re all those folks you see at conventions, usually in the red tops or fluorescent jackets (it’s not just a clever name), who ensure rooms run on time, supply information, and generally make themselves useful about the place. They’re almost exclusively volunteers, but form a vital cog in the day-to-day running of the thing.