His name is Orion Couling.
His very first memories are of The Empire Strikes Back. His hard working, often absent, police officer father tried to make up for lost time with a string of presents: Star Wars toys. He spent his childhood in the boondocks of Michigan looking for a lost father figure he knew was fighting for justice. As he grew, so did his love of sci-fi: A Wrinkle in Time, Narina, Ray Bradbury, Star Trek. The genre provided excitement the rural area where he lived lacked.
At college, he discovered activism. He learned he could use this love of science fiction and theater to help drive social change.
His name is Orion Couling. On Saturday, September 2, he’ll combine his love of all things geek and his activism to lead Hope and Light: A Chicago Nerd Vigil Against White Supremacy. The Chicago Geek Guy had a chance to chat with Orion about the intersection of nerd and social justice.
CGG: What is it that you do now and how did your love of sci-fi shape your day job?
Orion: I run a mid-sized, not for profit theatre company in Chicago. Our focus is on marginalized communities, primarily differently abled people and kids to learn in alternative ways. This work is augmented by our semi-professional troupe who performs to raise money for our educational work. I also run a cosplay company that works in libraries and a children’s hospital. You see a sci-fi theme in all of this work. From our Star Wars Shakespeare MacSith to Peter and the Starcatcher, we are the company embracing the imagination. I am blessed that this is my day job. So, whether I’m teaching light saber at a library or writing a play about Minecraft with homeschoolers I get to live my dorkiness.
“I’m always honored to play Captain America.”
CGG: What’s been your favorite cosplay experience?
Orion: Oh wow. I’m not sure. I love doing Bumblebee from Transformers. It’s stilted so I’m 10 feet tall. I’m always honored to play Captain America. The kids love him so much; him and Spidey. But I’m premiering a book based cosplay at the renaissance faire next week that I’m thrilled about. The character is an Abhorsen from Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Trilogy
CGG: Can you remember a moment when you really made an impact with cosplay?
Orion: Nothing surprising. But when a 5-year-old looks at you and sees their hero in real life, it’s pretty amazing. When I get to teach nonviolent crisis resolution at a library while doing a light saber workshop I feel like I’m making a difference.
“Becoming a nationally recognized stage combat instructor gave my resume the boost needed to justify someone hiring me to teach wand or lightsaber.”
CGG: How did you make the transition from fan to a professional fan?
Orion: A combination of a really good network of friends and a lot of hope. Learning the history that was the foundation for my fandoms was essential. Becoming a nationally recognized stage combat instructor gave my resume the boost needed to justify someone hiring me to teach wand or lightsaber.
CGG: What can you tell me about the path to becoming a nationally recognized stage combat instructor? What have you worked on?
Orion: I am an instructor through Dueling Arts International. It’s an international stage combat organization. I have been a recognized instructor since I was 26 (I think). I’m 39 now. I have over 50 professional production credits in mostly stage and some very limited film work. I have nearly 100 youth productions that I’ve worked on. Sci fi highlights include Predator-the Musical, Tammy (a coming of age story about a girl who was part T-Rex), Star Wars of the Roses, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
CGG: I first “met” you through the feminist Facebook group, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. What drove the transition from fan to activist?
Orion: I started my journey as an activist during my sophomore year in college at Northern Michigan University. I took a class on the theater of cruelty. It focused largely on Central and South America. It basically used the theater to advocate for social change. I’ve been actively involved in that process since.
The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, an album by Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco from the 90’s, also spoke to me. It dealt with excepting the responsibility of privilege and action
“I felt it important to help push the cultural boundaries and responsibilities of Geekdom.”
CGG: When and how did you realize you could merge the two? Geekdom and activism?
Orion: That key element is relatively new. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. The proceeds from MacSith allowed me to support educational efforts. In some ways, that play was a soft sort of activism. Looking at Chicago’s growing geek culture and its organizations, like the inspirational Raks Geek, I felt it important to help push the cultural boundaries and responsibilities of Geekdom.
“Use light sabers instead of swords. Embrace the world of sci-fi but stay true to the script.”
CGG: Tell me a little bit about MacSith. Where did the idea come from and what challenges did you face implementing it?
Orion: MacSith sounds farcical. In reality, it was hard hitting Shakespearean action. It started out as a project to get kids excited about Shakespeare, about 10 years ago. It evolved into a professional production that received critical success. It was a simple concept: Use a very tight cutting of the play (75 minutes) without changing any of Shakespeare’s language. Use light sabers instead of swords. Embrace the world of sci-fi but stay true to the script.
CGG: After MacSith, what happened next in terms of geek activism?
Orion: Not enough. I continue my work in marginalized communities but this situation has really spoken to me about the need for much more.
I am in the process of planning a Wonder Woman styled workshop and all the proceeds will go to a local battered women’s shelter.
“…we are set into this world with all the elements that we need for fulfillment. We are like seeds. We must water the seeds of compassion and dialogue…”
CGG: What drove you to create The League of Ordinary Gentlemen?
Orion: I felt that men needed a positive community to discuss the transition from the version of masculinity most men I know grow up with, to a more supportive and equal place with women. I feel that important changes need nurturing. I hold to the Buddhist philosophy that we are set into this world with all the elements that we need for fulfillment. We are like seeds. We must water the seeds of compassion and dialogue and not water seeds of privilege. The fact is, I mess up, relentlessly, all the time. It has become a place where I can take my losses and stumbling blocks and seek advice from a group of people sworn to uplift the same values.
CGG: How do you think it’s working out?
Orion: It’s definitely been good for the sharing of resources and fellowship but I’d like to see us offering free workshops and lectures.
CGG: Where and how did the idea for the Nerd Vigil emerge?
Orion: I was attending a candle vigil for Charlottesville and two quotes really stood out.
“Let our light of peace (candles) shine brighter than theirs of hate (torches)” -I put in the parenthetical words- but it got me thinking. What could I lift in peace that we shine light? Wands and light sabers were the clear answer. Who could I lift them with? My nerd sisters and brothers whom I care so dearly for in Chicago.
The other quote was “love is an action word.” It’s not enough to passive stand by or comment on social media. We also need time to grieve and grow.
I have three very dedicated speakers who will offer their peaceful perspective. I’m hoping to act on love
“If we even do one of those things it will be a success. If we do all of those things, it will be incredible.”
CGG: What are you hoping to achieve from the vigil?
Orion: Just as the description states. A peaceful resistance to white supremacy. To remember the fallen of Charlottesville and those who died before in this struggle. Finally, to encourage the nerd community to broaden their horizons in multicultural characters. If we even do one of those things it will be a success. If we do all of those things, it will be incredible.
CGG: What’s next for you after the vigil?
Orion: The Wonder Woman workshop! Most likely in October. Just got all the shields and swords!
Literally fighting for social change. Mixing high energy stage combat and stunt while raising money for women who have been put through hell.
Hope and Light: A Chicago Nerd Vigil Against White Supremacy occurs Saturday, September 2, 2017 at 7:30 pm at 50 W Adams, Chicago, IL 60603.