What I learned at the Amanda Tapping convention
This is an article with Amanda Tapping in its title, and while the fan-dubbed “Grand Empress of Sci-Fi” is central to the story, it's about more than a single person.
It’s about this one day in April when I stepped into an airport hotel in London, England, and encountered 250 people from all over the globe who had gathered for the final Amanda Tapping convention - as well as what I learned about conventions and fandom and humanity over the course of that single day.
The Amanda Tapping convention is produced by an organization called GABIT, whose name is an acronym for “Get Amanda Back In Town” (more on that later).
The first time I heard about GABIT was in advance of my initial interview with Amanda back in January 2013. I’d read about these England-based fan events during my research and, at the time, they struck me as highly unusual.
I’d never before heard of a boutique fan convention built around a single celebrity. Fan conventions, sure; I’d been attending sci-fi conventions and comic-cons since I was 12-years-old.
The conventions I knew were headlined by multiple celebrities and required much planning if I had any hope of seeing everyone I wanted to see in one frantic weekend. These conventions involved a lot of lines (and if you’ve attended Vancouver Fan Expo or San Diego Comic-Con or any other fan convention, you know the drill, too): autograph lines and photo lines and lines to get into panels and lines to buy merchandise and lines for ATMs and lines for the bathroom and lines to get into new lines.
And what was the reward for waiting in those lines? Sometimes, all you got were a few precious moments with a harried celebrity.
So during that 2013 interview, I asked Amanda about GABIT, and I was intrigued by the way her eyes misted over as she spoke about her fandom and about how, over the course of a weekend, her fans would raise tens of thousands of dollars for a couple of charities: Sanctuary for Kids and Hearing Dogs UK.
There was something about the catch in her throat that made me sit up and lean in. I mentally filed “Amanda Tapping convention” away as something I wanted to attend at some point in the future. I wanted to understand that catch in her throat.
I have written about Amanda numerous times over the years, almost always under the banner of my film and television industry column at the Westender (RIP), and most recently for one of the first articles to launch YVR Screen Scene, and with good reason:
She’s a shining star in the local industry, both as an actress (multiple Stargate series and Sanctuary) and director (she’s got more than 40 episodes of television under her belt, including fan favourite hours of Supernatural, Anne with an E, Van Helsing, The Romeo Section, Arctic Air, and more).
I’ve written about multiple aspects of Amanda’s career, from the characters she’s played to the joys and challenges of establishing herself as a director to the strength required to keep her head and heart in tact in this sometimes soul-sucking industry.
But one aspect of Amanda’s career that I hadn’t really explored was that of her fandom. And I had experienced, at certain points, the force of the fandom – like when an article I’d written about her would go live and they’d read it and share it and make it trend, sending a wave of positive feedback in my direction.
Always, in the back of my mind, was GABIT: that someday I’d have to pull the thread on the what and how and why and who of this most unique of convention concepts. I thought I had time.
And then I found out that the 10th edition of GABIT's Amanda Tapping convention – ATX – would be its last.
Which is how I end up in the lobby of the Renaissance London Heathrow Hotel on April 8, 2018, the third and final day of the final Amanda Tapping convention. As I step into the lobby just after 8am, the first thing I notice is that every available chair and sofa is occupied by pairs or small clusters of people: some checking phones, some chatting quietly, others laughing and hugging, and many wiping tears from their eyes.
Although many of the people waiting in the lobby wear Stargate t-shirts and everyone has a plastic pass with a picture of Amanda on it hanging from their necks, this doesn’t feel like any convention I’ve ever attended. It's more – intimate. This has all the hallmarks of a family reunion.
“It’s going to be an emotional day,” GABIT staff member Jenn Scheffler tells me as she hands me my own Amanda badge and leads me to my seat in a nearby ballroom.
The ballroom set-up feels more like the conventions I know: theatre seating – which fills up quickly – facing a stage with an armchair on it.
At 8:30am on the dot, everyone is in their assigned seat, and after a few announcements (including one about the battery-operated tea lights on our seats; we’re told that we’ll “know when to use it”), Amanda bursts into the room for what the schedule says will be her third of four question and answer sessions that weekend.
Amanda bounds up onto the stage smiling brightly (which in that instant strikes me as incredible, considering the schedule she’s been keeping for the last couple of days), although she is soon in tears, as are many of the attendees. For a moment, I feel like an outsider, the late arrival to a party that has been going for years.
But Amanda reminds the crowd of something that's news to me because it had only been announced the previous day: while this is the last Amanda Tapping convention, it isn’t going to be the final gathering for her and this particular group of organizers and fans.
“This is the last event in this format,” says Amanda, a refrain that would be uttered many times over the day whenever the emotions become too much to bear – and then she proceeds to participate in a hilarious 45-minute Q&A session in which both questions and answers are delivered in charades format (one question about three dead celebrities she'd like to have over for dinner requires her to mime Nikola Tesla, Mother Teresa, and David Bowie). She then auctions off a few Stargate and Sanctuary items for the charities. The session ends with a Jai Ho flash mob, the final image of which is a darkened ballroom lit by hundreds of battery-operated tea lights. We'd figured out when to use them. It’s bloody moving.
Amanda heads into an adjacent room for the first of two, three-hour autograph sessions that day (mainly signing photos that were taken the previous day during two, three-hour photo sessions).
The fans disperse in a few different directions: to the autograph room; to a room containing multiple tables where the profits from every item sold – including t-shirts, baked goods, and handmade items – go to the event’s charities, including Hearing Dogs UK, which has a few human and canine representatives in the room, too; and back to the lobby, where the attendees once again gather to talk, laugh, hug, and cry – because, I’m told as I linger in the lobby, for many attendees, the GABIT events are a home away from home for the fans where they gather with best friends who live on opposite sides of the globe.
This particular edition has drawn 250 Amanda fans from 25 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, the United States, and Canada. 31 fans have attended all 10 of the conventions.
This Amanda Tapping fan event is unlike any convention I’ve ever attended – and that was the point, at least initially.
“I went to several sci-fi conventions and decided that the way they were run was hectic,” recalls Julia Hague over lunch in a hotel lounge. Julia is chairman of GABIT and the chief architect of the events. “The attendees were very stressed: queuing in the morning to get a seat; no allocated seats, so if they left it, they’d lose it; and then queuing for hours for autographs and photographs and then the actor didn’t have time to speak with the person because they’re being shoved through.”
A lifelong sci-fi fan, Julia’s very first convention also happened to be Amanda’s first convention appearance in the UK, and “it was absolutely packed,” she says. “It was hard for everybody to move, and I went home that night and I got in the bath and I thought, ‘There must be a better way, and I don’t know how, but I wonder what it takes to actually make a science fiction event company?’”
Julia is one of the G4: four sci-fi fans (Julia, Becky Preen, Kay Jacobs, and John Goode) who, in September 2002, eating pizza in a hotel room after a friend’s wedding, decided to form a non-profit events company to bring Amanda back to the UK for a convention. “We wanted to get Amanda back to Londontown, because she hadn’t been since that packed one,” says Julia. Hence the name of the company: Get Amanda Back In Town.
Says Julia: “We didn’t have any connections with Amanda or the sci-fi world, but we connected with her agents and said, ‘We want to do an event for you!’”
To their astonishment and delight, Amanda said yes.
“When we did the first one in 2005, it was going to be only one,” adds Julia. “We said, ‘Let’s see if we can do this,’ because nobody has ever done this before: had one person for one weekend.’ Nobody had done that in sci-fi.”
The G4 wanted Amanda to be able to have breaks. They wanted her to know that she would be well looked after. They wanted the same for the fans: assigned seats; unrushed autograph and photograph sessions; a chance to be seen and heard.
And they wanted to do some good in the world. “We don’t make profit from the events,” notes Julia. “All we do is we want to make the event run, and basically pay for itself. We all wanted to have a charity component, so we asked Amanda to choose a charity. She said, ‘Give me some UK ones,’ and she chose Hearing Dogs UK, because it’s animals and people. It was only Hearing Dogs to start, then when she started Sanctuary for Kids, it became the two.”
The G4 didn’t set out to strengthen the fandom or create that family reunion feel, says Julia. Those were happy byproducts.
“We didn’t intend for it to be a friendship factory, but it is now very much a friendship factory,” she says. “Everybody here calls it a friendship factory. You come in through the doors, you know no one, we have a Fans Not Alone meeting on the first day, so everybody who doesn’t have anybody to be with goes to the meeting, and everybody will just take everybody else under their wings. Everybody coming to the autograph table today says, ‘We can’t thank you enough for the friendships we’ve got, and we were so devastated when you said we weren’t going to do this anymore, how are we going to meet up?!’”
Which is why the G4 and Amanda recently decided they’re going to continue with the event “in a different format.”
“I looked out yesterday at the audience and I cried, ‘We can’t not do this!’” Julia laughs, her eyes misting just as Amanda's had done during our very first interview. Last year, says Julia, “we all thought we had to freshen it up, but we sat down with Amanda on Thursday and realized we don’t want to stop, Amanda doesn’t want to stop, so why are we stopping? We can’t do another one of these because we sold it as the last one, so moving forward, she’ll do it with someone.” (Just who the first of those individuals will be has yet to be determined – although Amanda’s off-hand comment from the stage that this new format is still a “kernel of an idea” elicited wild cheering from the crowd. Kernel… Colonel…).
The next event will take place in two years: enough time for the G4 and GABIT staff to enjoy a long break, and for Julia – a published author – to write her next book. Nothing else will change: same location; same boutique feel; same Amanda. Consider it GABIT-plus.
After lunch, and a second autograph session, the fans and Amanda convene for a final Q&A, a final auction (where a fierce bidding war ensues for a pair of Stargate dog tags, and the fan who wins them for £2100 proceeds to gift them to another fan as a birthday present), and final closing ceremony, during which it’s announced that the fans raised £45,000 (later revised to £47,000) for the charities over the course of the weekend, and a profoundly moved Amanda thanks the friendship factory in attendance, and states that her role in the weekend is not as important as that of the fans, and reminds the weeping crowd that this is only the final event “in this format.” They’ll all meet again in two years.
By this point, even I, the visiting and supposedly impartial observer, am blinking back tears.
But I suppose I respond viscerally because I really am a fan: of Amanda, of course, and of sci-fi and the Vancouver screen scene, but now I’m also ride-or-die for the Amanda Tapping fandom.