Liz Smith – or Dammit Liz, as she is lovingly called by fans and clients alike – is an organizer and wrangler of events. Specifically events for the nerd segment, such as the now legendary w00tstock shows and most recently JoCo Cruise Crazy 2.
I met Liz in between meetings, while she was busy organizing and getting ready for her next event, whilst still recovering from the last one. If there was any stress, it didn’t show. She was all smiles and excitement, the infectious kind that leaves you ready to rock. I was thrilled that Liz was kind enough to share a few insights into her hectic world.
AP: As a project manager and event organizer, how do you approach new projects? Do you have a system or guiding principle, or do you start from scratch every time?
My guiding principle for my projects is to make it fun. I believe shows like w00tstock are entertaining because the performers are having as much fun as the audience, if not more. I work hard to create a safe environment backstage, where talent can relax and just be themselves. This atmosphere attracts many amazing people, and they want to be involved because we’re a fun group and we perform for a great crowd.
Of course, not every project can be about the fun. We always have to focus on the end goal. What is the experience we are trying to create for the audience? As a team — crew, performers, everyone involved — we’re all working toward the same goal. When we find and focus on that core desire for the show, that helps us get past any hurdles that we may encounter.
Since I’ve been on these types of projects for a while, I have accumulated all sorts of forms, paperwork, schedules and contacts. And if I don’t have what I need to start a project, I ask someone to point me in the right direction. Having these experiences and contacts has been a huge help! When I started out, I looked for information everywhere I could. I have a library of event books and lists of websites relating to events. Now I have a foundation with which I can put together almost any event or show.
AP: You seem to have found a niche of organizing live performance events specifically for the nerd crowd. How did you find your niche, or how did it find you?
I’ve always been a bit of a nerd. I love Star Wars and video games, and I enjoy the Internet and all its memes. So when a friend of mine was working at Gen Con I expressed my desire to work in this industry. He offered me a volunteer position with Star Wars Celebration IV (SWCIV). And I jumped at the opportunity. I had a blast and worked my ass off. More important, I discovered that my skill set for managing was very much in demand. I had found my passion and people took notice.
After SWCIV, Gen Con hired me on to work their major convention in Indianapolis. Suddenly, I was exposed to realms of nerdery I had not yet encountered. I met game designers and manufacturers, learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons, and discovered I love Euro style board games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. I had found whole new layers of geek, and felt even more at home doing this.
The more I got involved in the industry, the more people I met. I was building a reputation and a career just by being myself. After a couple of years of volunteering and working projects, I got a big break. At Penny Arcade Expo in Boston (“PAX East”), I met Paul and Storm, a comedy music duo big in the nerd scene and producers of w00tstock, and we hit it off. They led me to find new projects in this every growing world of nerds, and gave me the name “Dammit Liz” during one of their shows.
When w00tstock 2.0 came to Seattle, I offered to volunteer as a stage hand or general helper monkey. Paul was trying to run the show and be on stage at the same time. There was an obvious need for a stage manager, and I leapt into that role. I made an impression and the guys asked me to be a part of the team and stage manage their show from then on. But it’s important to say that I didn’t leap into the role to impress them, but because I saw this glaring need and just did what came naturally.
I can trace most of my contacts, career growth and novelty fame back to w00tstock. It has made a huge impact on my life. In addition to being a fun event where I can work with my friends, it has been a major launching pad for my career.
AP: What have you taken away from working on the w00tstock events?
I’ve learned a great deal about events in the nerd niche and what makes a successful production. I want to be a producer, and my w00tstock experiences gave me tools to move forward with that dream. One of the greatest things I’ve learned from the guys is how important it is to work with friends and good people. Every guest on w00tstock was either a friend or highly recommended by one as fun to work with. If you are able to choose projects or build your own show, it makes difference because you can choose to work with people you like.
AP: What difference does it make for acts and performers to have an organizer involved, when setting up an event? At what point should they stop trying to do everything themselves and call someone like you?
A stage or production manager is not needed on every show or event. Small shows can handle being managed by one of the creators. But as an event becomes more complicated, it starts to become too much for the talent or creators to handle on their own. That’s where someone like me comes in.
I specialize in logistics. Having someone with you to help plan in advance is huge, and you want someone who can predict issues that you might not. It’s easy to get tunnel vision if you’re also creating the show.
I do consulting for smaller events that just need some advice on how to set up the show but may not need someone on the ground to run it. For anyone looking to create a show or convention, I recommend they start by getting some experienced advice.
AP: You also recently returned from touring with the Mythbusters live show. What was that like?
I had an amazing time on the tour. It was three weeks of six shows a week, living on a bus, waking up in a different city each morning. It was an intense experience but a great deal of fun. I have worked with Adam on w00tstock but I enjoyed getting to know Jamie and being a part of what they have created.
AP: What’s next for Dammit Liz?
I just got back from the JoCo Cruise Crazy. This is one of my favorite projects! I mean, they pay me to go on a cruise! I think out of all the events and experiences on that cruise I can boil down the event to two things: One, we held a Moustache Formal and Fezztravaganza, in which we wore fezzes and fake moustaches while sipping champagne. Two, we coordinated with housekeeping to have John Hodgman’s cabin filled with towel monkeys on the first day.
Most people don’t get to do this for a living. I love that about my job.
Next, I’m producing a nerdy stage show in Seattle with some talented friends. This is going to be a great show and I am very excited to be a part of it. This will be my first time fully producing a stage show of this size.
In July, I’ll be at San Diego Comic Con with w00tstock. I’m also working on a podcast and potentially a new web series. The rest of the time I plan to find more opportunities to be creative and produce. I believe 2012 will be an interesting year for me.
I am working in a nerd world and a career with no instruction manual. The Internet has created a whole new way to connect with an audience. The sky is the limit on what I can produce, create and publish. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.
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