Kathleen Fortner-McNiff of the Mark Twain House and Museum

Kathleen Fortner-McNiff of the Mark Twain House and Museum (Krystian von Speidel photo)

Name: Kathleen Fortner-McNiff aka Miss Kitty
Age: A lady never tells her age
Occupation: Performer and Imperial Tea Hostess of the Red Fork Empire
Found at: Mark Twain House & Museum (Hartford)

For the uninitiated, what is steampunk? Where does the word itself and the movement derive?

Steampunk in its basic elements is Victorian science fiction, in the vein of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The word came from the literary aspect of the genre when a few cyberpunk authors began to write Victorian-based science fiction and used the word steampunk. The movement grew from the literary to costuming where it became more visual. Once people began to see it, plus finding pictures on the internet, steampunk exponentially reached out to more and more people.

How did you yourself become involved in steampunk?

I suppose I always have been. Since grade school I have been interested in the literature, theater, costuming, crafting. It wasn't until four years ago that I heard the term used to describe the genre. I wanted to meet other steampunkers in the Connecticut area, so I decided to host a tea at the Wauregan Ballroom in Norwich. That's when I met Joey Marsocci aka Dr. Grymm, who curated the Steampunk Bizarre exhibit.

How did you create the costume and character of Miss Kitty?

I created the costume by adding different time lines, but keeping with a Victorianized silhouette. I incorporated several textures, stripes, and hairpieces either created by myself or other artists. Using the moniker of Miss Kitty from performances, I adapted the character to become the Imperial Tea Hostess for the Red Fork Empire. Miss Kitty began as an extension of myself. I just made her more fabulous and over-the-top. As a tea hostess, I saw an opportunity to use that to meet people in the steampunk community. People then began to ask me to host teas across New England. I have been fortunate enough to host three teas at the Mark Twain House & Museum.

What's a good resource for those interested in becoming involved in steampunk?

There are many websites that can provide a good introduction. As far as communicating with the community, Steampunk Empire, a social network for steampunk enthusiasts, is a good resource for people to find advice and see what people in the culture are up to. Of course there are also Facebook communities to join. Using Google images to search for what visually interests you is a also recommended. Comic book and gaming stores provide a good reference. Looking at your local museum would be a good resource as well. 

What does it take to become involved? How important is the creation and costume of one's character?
 
An open mind, imagination, and a willingness to learn something new. Finding the things that interest you, like the artistry, history, mechanics, and fashion. To want to meet new people and share like ideas.

Personally I do not think that creating a persona is that important but it is fun to come up with a back story. However the costume allows you to be more immersed. Because you can create your costume whether you sew it, create it from different second-hand stores, it is that creation I find that is the part that brings out your inner artist.

Following the popularity of the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes series, what are your thoughts on the matter of steampunk entering the pop vernacular?

Although Sherlock Holmes has several steampunk elements to it, I would not classify it as a steampunk film. There are a lot of films that also have steampunk elements to them, like Hugo, the classic TV show Wild Wild West, City of Lost Children, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Prestige. However, it is entering more of the mainstream, showing up on the TV show Castle and MTV. It is allowing independent filmmakers to find funding. Films like Nickel Children and a locally made film Steam Driven as well as documentaries, like I am Steampunk, are able to find wider audiences. They wouldn't be able to find that years ago. Although the genre of steampunk is always close to me, by becoming more mainstream it allows artists to earn a living doing what they love.

What makes Samuel Clemens steampunk? Why has he been embraced by the steampunk movement?

Samuel Clemens was one of the first authors to write about time travel: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court. He had a broad interest in industry and the future of writing, and the future in general. He also had a great interest in science and was a good friend of Nicola Tesla. Samuel Clemens was a great observer who made literature and history interesting.

To what do you attest the immense popularity of the Mark Twain House & Museum's Steampunk Bizarre exhibit, which broke all attendance records, including those set by Norman Rockwell?

It is like nothing people had ever seen. It is art that is accessible and fascinating. It works in various mediums, and I find it inspires more creativity in the people that view it. The Mark Twain House & Museum helped us to see another side of Mark Twain, by incorporating Mark Twain quotes, and to have art be made specifically for the Steampunk Bizarre exhibit. It lent itself to storytelling and involved both local and international artists.

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