Monday, August 27, 2018

Ramblings and Insights from My First Outlander Convention.

Outlander Homepage originals written by Laura Michelle Martin

The Pros & Cons:
The excitement began for me in January when I purchased my “Early Bird” Gold Weekend Package pass to my first ever Outlander con “A Salute to Outlander” to be held in August in Secaucus, NJ. Up to this point my fan experience is limited to seeing the Outlander Panel at the Apple Store in 2016 and my involvement in the charity fundraisers in NYC.  I have never been to a con in any fandom. The lineup for this con was Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, Steven Cree, Graham McTavish, and Stephen Walters. Later Tobias Menzies was announced. Of course there is the caveat that any actor scheduled to appear may cancel for work obligations. It is a risk that I accepted and gamble I took.

See, this is why I don’t play poker. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It wasn’t in the cards that Tobias, Sam, Steven, and at nearly the 11th hour that Caitriona Balfe would be able to attend. Replacement talent was found, but not all substitutions are equal.  My heart goes out to Creation, to the actors who don’t want to disappoint their fans, and the fans who like me gambled and lost. Jobbing actors simply can’t be in two places at the same time. Gary Lewis, Cesar Domboy and David Berry were added when Tobias canceled. Scott Kyle, Lauren Lyle, Lotte Verbeek, Gillebride Macmillan, and Richard Rankin were added to replace Sam and Steven; only Sophie Skelton was added to replace Cait. Sophie was announced within hours of Cait’s cancellation. It would have been nearly impossible to arrange schedules for meet and greets, autographs, photo ops if more cast was added. There wasn’t enough time or space to do it. However, I am not getting the value for what I paid as a Gold package holder. This was never addressed by Creation and there is no restitution other than eventually being reimbursed for separate autograph or photo op purchases for cancelled actors.
My take away is that these actors are the pros at any convention or event. They know what they are doing to make the most of your fan experience.  As someone who has hours of experience working with the actors and observing their interaction with fans I promise you it is more than a business transaction. They truly want to meet you and speak with you. Many people told me they have made memories that will last a lifetime.  These are decent people who are as appreciative of their fans as we are appreciative of them.

I will go into detail about their panels in a bit. I have to say each guest at Creation was sensational.  I didn’t know what to expect from lesser known actors, but I left holding them higher in my esteem and respect. Each and every one listened and answered questions in the Question and Answer sessions and not all questions are created equal! In the autograph lines they chatted with you a little bit and it made it a more meaningful experience than just having them sign your item and then on to the next one. They worked with you to bring the best out of your photo op. They know we are nervous and a wee bit star struck. They help us have the best experience.
The biggest con about this con really had to be the execution of this event. It was a hot mess start to finish. Communications with them via email updates were sporadic and often nonexistent and yes, I checked my spam folder.  It didn’t get much better at the actual event. Some of the staff were inexperienced and often didn’t know the answer to your question or if you asked another attendee you got a different answer as told by another staff member. They promised special credentials from the event. It was our paper badge with our seat number written on it. We were told not to lose it as it has our autograph tickets on it and to please come back later for a lanyard to place it in.  They hadn’t arrived yet. In calling rows for autographs on Friday, they called my block of rows and we all got up. Then they tried to say we didn’t call you. Yes, you did. They didn’t want all 5 rows. They wanted one row at a time and failed to communicate it. We aren’t mind readers. They fixed this by Saturday by posting autograph sessions on the screen and an attendant discreetly ushered each row to the awaiting tables. However, while waiting on line your attention was torn between talking to the actor giving your autograph and paying attention to the panel going on simultaneously. This is supposedly common place. It was new to me and I don’t particularly like it.
The overlaps between photo ops, panels, and autographs that pulled you in different directions were the worst case scenario for people who were not in the room or otherwise occupied when Sam and later Cait surprised us with a Question and Answer via Skype. Would you want to be out of the room or out of your seat during that? Of course not.  When we took our seats in the Expo Hall and Stephen Walters welcomed us they should have made an announcement. The event needed that kind of excitement and they would have looked like heroes in front of the convention attendees. It should have been projected on the screen with a general time frame. Based on the printed schedule people had, some decided to skip what was scheduled during the time Sam was on screen. I know people who left and were kicking themselves later. An email blast, a notification on their Fanguru app, something in the Facebook group, anything to let people know Sam and Cait were coming via Skype and to stay tuned would have kept people on site. It was the one and only time we saw or heard from them the entire weekend. People would have made themselves available.

The venue itself was another con. We were in a giant warehouse with concrete floors, concrete walls, and a metal roof. It is meant for car and boat shows, job fairs, and definitely not a concert hall or theater. It is close to NYC and mass transit, within walking distance to numerous hotels and restaurants. It was convenient, but that pros end there.  The way the space was set up there was only one restroom for men and women. I literally went across the street and down the block to my hotel because it took less time than waiting and was cleaner. The concessions were not enough to tide you over. Luckily I brought snacks. The vendor area was heavily saturated with Official Outlander store merchandise and photos for autograph sessions but there were many empty tables. One vendor said Creation was difficult to work with. With so few vendors to choose from, I tend to believe it. Inside the wall of black folding chairs were packed in and zip-tied together. This is a safety measure from what I have managed to learn. I appreciate that, but those had to be the most uncomfortable chairs I have ever sat in.

The sound system and acoustics were an atrocity. Other than the cast cancellations and indeterminate amount of time it will take to process refunds on separately purchased autographs and photo ops this was one of the biggest gripes of the weekend. I heard every excuse in the book that there weren’t enough people to absorb the sound. Really?? The actors on stage couldn’t hear the questions being asked and the audience couldn’t understand them. I was in the 9th row. I had friends in the 5th row that had the same issue. I can’t count the number of times we asked the people around us “what did he/she say?” That isn’t right. People were laughing or reacting to what was said and I was lost. Many of us were. Friday was not well attended.  There were hundreds of empty seats. People from the Gold seats went into the vacant General Admission seats in the rear of the hall so they could hear well. I joined them. It was clearer. The excuse then was that there weren’t enough people in the hall to absorb the sound.  

During the Saturday evening concert Gillebride Macmillan performed a Capella. It was a sin that such an angelic voice couldn’t be treated with the respect it deserved. Sunday came and went with more of the same and actors going off stage to pass the mic to fans to ask questions every now and again. It was frustrating for all.

Their technical difficulties were not limited to the sound but also the karaoke wouldn’t cue. Scott Kyle did not get to perform his number. The Skype session with Sam went better than Cait’s where her sound cut in and out however, I wish to give Creation the benefit of the doubt. It is hard to. It really is.

Our MC was Stephen Walters who sang throughout the 3 days. He composed a song for Sam called “Sammy Heughan Handsome Bastard Blues”. He had the audience laughing and set the right tone. Stephen is a proud Liverpudlian. You can hear it in his accent and the influences of The Beatles in his music and the songs he performed.  At karaoke he sang “Twist and Shout” and at the concert he sang John Lennon’s “Imagine”. During his panel he said “Music is fun. Acting pays the bills.” Stephen wrote a funny rhyming intro to each actor who took the stage for their Q & A. He brought his son to the event and he sat next to him at the autograph table quietly drawing.  During the concert he sang a song he wrote for his son titled “Because of You”. It is a sweet, tender ballad and as a parent myself I loved it.

Lotte Verbeek is a tiny, Titian haired, soft-spoken woman who initially auditioned for Claire. She saw the casting description of Geilis very much described as Geilis from the book. She tried for Geilis despite not looking like Geilis and Matt Roberts saw it and said “that’s her”. She was surprised.  She talked about modeling for the death mask and seeing her stunt double dressed exactly like her and said it is “weird to see yourself dead”. In her first scene with John Bell after the blood bath she said her foot “naturally landed on his face” and she was “quite enjoying it”. It was not scripted or planned. They didn’t hear “CUT” and filming continued.  John Bell was getting nervous. His reaction was authentic and mirrored what Young Ian would have felt. The director let them play. She says she and John are friends for life now.

I missed most of the panel between Gillebride Macmillan and Scott Kyle. I got back in time to hear Scott’s “Half Naked Scene with Sam Heughan” story.  He is a natural storyteller. He walks the stage gesticulating and drawing you in.  He had a scene where he had to strip off his shirt and Murtagh lashes Ross’ back as punishment. Sam also had a scene where he had to strip off his shirt and Murtagh lashes Jamie’s back. When Sam did it, Scott said you all gasped and he demonstrated how. He said when he did it; it did not get the same reaction. He insinuates defeated silence. So yes, they did perform the same scene, but the audience reaction was completely different.

Lauren Lyle is a petite spitfire. She is spirited, funny, loud, and absolutely adorable. On set she says she and Sam mess around a lot. Cait took her under her wing. There were very few cast in South Africa. The four of them got very close (her, Cesar, Sam, and Cait).  She and Cesar tested separately. When they were introduced he said, “Hello, my wife”. From that moment she knew they were going to be fine. She told us she tried to learn French, but Cesar is very hard to impress so she decided not to waste her time. A fan asked her what her favorite qualities of Marsali are. She said she did the character no favors at all. Did I mention she is humble? She mentioned Marsali’s loyalty to her mother. In the beginning of her relationship with Claire she said, “Claire takes no shit and neither does Marsali”.  Her favorite scene to shoot was the beach wedding. Lauren described, “It was a night shoot. Everyone was tired and antsy. It felt like a wedding. People were coming up them and saying congratulations.” Lauren’s first day on set was the Hogmanay scene. There was real music. Steven Cree was joking around. Sam put the girls at ease. When they danced it was genuinely fun.

Stephen Walters came on stage to introduce the next actor. He said, “Who’s ready for Sam Heughan? Well, fuck him.” He proceeded to read off his rhyme introducing David Berry.  David is delightful. He does not like “favorite” questions like who is his favorite to work with, favorite scene, or favorite anything. He loves working with everyone.  He told us “… Sam and Cait put their whole heart and soul into every scene, wake up, and do it the next day.” His first scene was where Lord John is leading Jamie behind a horse. He had “no idea what he (Lord John) was talking about”. David had just flown 25 hours. He had “no idea who Jamie Fraser was; he’s just dragging him behind him so it must have been something bad.” The audience was laughing.  David says his audition was terrible and he has “no idea how he got the job” adding “it’s always a miracle when you get the job”. His mother-in-law is a book fan and encouraged him to audition. His research was having had his heart broken. Again he said, “I literally had no idea what I was doing”. A fan asked if he has been approached about a Lord John spin off series. He hasn’t been, but he is open to it.  He said “a passionate fan base is pretty cool.” Another tidbit from the panel is that he has not gotten to wear a kilt on the show. If he did, he’d wear underwear under it. He’s Australian. They don’t wear kilts. Regarding Season 4 he thought North Carolina would be like “Deliverance”. He attended Highland Games in North Carolina this summer and he said thankfully it is nothing like that.
The memorable scene of Lord John dressing down Captain Leonard and Lord John dismissing him as Lieutenant (Leftenant) Leonard was a mistake. He said he “… fucked it up. It was written Captain Leonard”.  They shot the scene many times and that was the take they used.
My esteem and respect for him grew during that panel.  Before he found acting he performed in operas. Music came first for him in the performing arts. As I mentioned earlier the event had many sound issues. I wish I could understand all the actors said and the actors had trouble hearing the fan’s questions. David said, “This mic is killing me. We all want this to sound good” about 10 minutes into his panel.  Later on David mimicked kicking the mic. Staff eventually replaced his mic. He was an advocate for all of us having the best experience we could.

I missed most of Cesar Domboy because I was on line for autographs. I also missed Lotte and Graham. We were in the same room, but I was utterly distracted. I wish I could have heard and understood it better.  Autographs are a brief one on one with the actor. Some of them I had seen previously. Others were new to me. I agree with everyone who says Gary Lewis gives the best hugs. He gave every single person 2. It makes up for what I didn’t understand during the panels.

Sam Heughan appeared on the screen via Skype for a fan panel that was unannounced.  It replaced the Cesar and Lauren panel. He was sitting in his kitchen drinking tea. He said their Scottish location for Fraser’s Ridge looks a lot like North Carolina. He personally visited North Carolina and he sees the similarities.  Sam has started reading the 5th book.  He talked briefly about My Peak Challenge. When a fan asked what keeps him grounded he got emotional and said, “You do.”

Later in the afternoon our second surprise was Caitriona Balfe appearing via Skype. She replaced the joint Scott Kyle and Gillebride Macmillan panel. Cait corrected a fan who called her “Kate”. It is “Cat (Cait) or Caitriona”.  We see a different side of Claire in Season 4. They have a more domestic life. The bat suit is dead. Unfortunately her sound was more pixelated and it cut out a few times.

Richard Rankin and Sophie Skelton gave an exclusive Gold Panel together first thing Sunday morning. Rik was wearing his I <3 Steven Cree t-shirt and Sophie looked exquisite.  Rik is not shy. at. all. He performed the Rat Satire full voice into the mic. No one had problem hearing it. LOL Rik likes ancient history. He used to watch a lot of documentaries. He answered in his Glaswegian accent and in his American accent. It was spot on. At one point Rik was teasing the audience and left the stage to turn up later about 20 seats down from me to sit in the audience watching Sophie before rejoining her on stage.
Rik’s favorite scene in previous seasons is with adult Roger holding his toy airplane. He would have liked to be a pilot, but he doesn’t have 20/20 vision.  He was also very interested in IT. He said one thing led to another and he “realized he was very exceptionally talented”. One day he would like to play Macbeth or Hamlet.
Sophie is soft-spoken and self-possessed. Sophie wanted to be a surgeon when she was younger. Her parents weren’t happy when she decided on acting when she was 17.

Sophie and Rik have an ease with each other and playfulness. They go back and forth teasing each other in answer to fan questions. They were asked if they weren’t playing Roger or Bree what actor would they want to play opposite. Sophie pauses and answers, “James Marsden. David Berry. I love Richard Rankin. He is the perfect Roger”. Rik doesn’t hesitate to rattle off as many actresses as he could.  He then said, “You don’t see what happens behind closed doors. She (Sophie) is evil.” They were asked their favorite downtime activity. Sophie tries to give serious, honest answers and says, “Long walks in Scotland; the beach as well”. Rik says, “Spending the day with Sophie” to which Sophie jokes, “Oh, that wasn’t sarcastic at all”. He more seriously answered he enjoys photography, yoga, and playing computer games.
Sophie in creating Bree’s character put pieces of her biological parents into her character. She furrows her brow and holds her jaw like Jamie. She purses her lips when angry like Claire. She didn’t put much Frank into her.  Bree feels she is betraying Frank and the show plays it up. Frank was selfless raising her and Bree is curious to see the truth of the man her mother held on the pedestal. Bree when she meets Jamie is looking for the “instant bond”.  Her favorite location is at the stones because it is calm and beautiful. She read all 4 books right away to learn her character and story. She says she doesn’t want to have too much knowledge. She wants to be where the character is now. It is “complicating to be reading the books and the scripts at the same time.” They aren’t necessarily the same. About Ed Speelers who plays Stephen Bonnet, Sophie did not participate in his audition. She says, “He is a lovely man in real life. He will scare you.”   We have been warned! From the backstage Rik threw food on stage. They continually banter and she said if she fed him sweets he’d come out.

Andrew Gower was a gift. He is a talented singer and kindly left the stage to hand his mic to the fans to ask their questions.  In preparing for Bonnie Prince Charlie he found the voice first describing it as “berating, high-pitched, and campy”. He said the voice gave a difficult birth to “mark me”.  Sam said his voice sounded like Stewie for “Family Guy”. In talking about Outlander fans he said, “Fans are really incredible. I love you. Fans support all of us. Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught.  I had no idea. Now I have every idea. I pinch myself”.

Graham McTavish and Gary Lewis discussed literature with us for a little while during their panel. Graham’s favorite book is “The Wind in the Willows”. He has read it over and over and has read it to his children calling it an “incredible piece of writing”.  Gary Lewis mentioned two American authors. I regret not hearing who the second one was, but the first was John Steinbeck. He has read everything he wrote. Gary has played so many roles in “The Grapes of Wrath” in different productions. It is emotionally draining to perform. They were asked about playing pranks on set. Gary shrugs this off. He respects the material and the other actors so he doesn’t prank anyone. Graham told us he added the line about grinding Claire’s corn after he had told the story to the Highlanders. It fit that scene and they kept it in.  These two will be missed on Outlander as their characters have died. Graham said, “The people you work with they never leave you. It is a beautiful part of the business”.

Richard Rankin was the final guest after a 45 minute wait because photo ops were running late.  A fan made a reference to Water Aid having custom M&M candies made with Tobias’ face on them and asked Rik what candy he would want his face on. He laughed and said, “What a strange question?”  He answered Skittles and added “taste the Richard” playing on “taste the rainbow”. He is such a good sport. He said we haven’t seen his Mackenzie fire yet on screen. He tried to steer away from any questions that might lead to spoilers.  Rik does play guitar and the drums. He sings. He didn’t want a stand- in so he practiced until his fingers bled. Working with Sophie is an “organic, pleasurable experience”. Playing Roger has had “a huge impact on him”. He is “embracing his Scottishness”.  In comparing Jamie and Claire to Roger and Bree he says there is innocence and no less passion than Jamie and Claire.

I don’t regret going to this con. I had a great time despite the shortcomings. There were circumstances beyond Creation’s control and others they failed to control.  What they got right was the talent they booked and their professionalism and desire to make it a great fan experience. I was determined to focus on the positive. I had a blast during my brief interactions with the actors. I will treasure my signed book.  I liked hearing their stories and watching them tease each other. They genuinely like each other. I have made many friends in the fandom and meeting them in person for the first time or again between events was the best part. We could commiserate together. We spent most of our time together any way. We have created our own community and it isn’t often we get to see each other.  I might do things differently in the future, but now I can go to another con better prepared.

Thank you Christine Gordon and Lisa Michelle Woody for the picture shares


  1. Wow.... I thoroughly enjoyed reading about a fan's perspective of an Outlander convention,for all of its flaws it comes down to the brilliant casting of this series! They are so gracious and kind,that you forget about the problems you encounter at these events and focus in on the actor's who make you feel so welcomed. I attended Wizard World Chicago and also experienced problems, but every actor who attended we're magnificent to all the fan's! I'd do it again in a heartbeat! BRAVO to the entire cast and crew of this once in a lifetime series

  2. I really enjoyed your perspective on this, your first con. They are all different, each does some things better than others, but all are enjoyable in their own way. I'm happy we met, however's wonderful to meet and make new friends within the incredible Outlander fandom! Thanks so much for this!

  3. Truly, this article is really one of the very best in the history of articles. I am a antique ’Article’ collector and I sometimes read some new articles if I find them interesting. And I found this one pretty fascinating and it should go into my collection. Very good work! First Americans