Pensacon returns to town later this month and thousands of convention goers will be gathering in venues all over town to see their favorite celebrities. But the people with the famous names and faces won't be the only ones up on stage. Every panel also has a moderator who will be walking a fine line between keeping things moving and staying out of the way.
There are close to two dozen people who volunteer each year to work as moderators at Pensacon. They are local people from all backgrounds who just have a desire to work with interesting people in what can only be called a very unusual setting. Brooke Hardy, a member of the Improvable Cause improv troupe, has been involved since year one. "We were told that [Pensacon] needed people with acting experience or improv experience to be moderators for the very first year. So me and a couple of other members of Improvable Cause basically volunteered ourselves. It was before [there was an] audition process involved. And, I was a moderator for the first year and have been ever since."
Evan Johns has been moderating for a few years at Pensacon. "My friend said 'Hey, why don't you do this? You like this stuff! Get involved' Every year I get to [learn about] someone completely new, a subject completely new. And I enjoy it. Really, that's all there is to it."
"I have felt really lucky to have some really fun panels" said Christina Cusack, another member of Improvable cause who was recruited by her friend Brooke. "Everyone whose panel I've moderated has been such a joy to meet and talk with."
This will be the third year that Jared Cash will be moderating panels at Pensacon. "I don't have an acting background or a public speaking background. I'm more of a happy, outgoing, make-a-joke-at everyone's-expense-even-my-own kind of guy. And, apparently that's what they were looking for."
"I'm an old school nerd" said Julio Diaz, a former writer for the Pensacola News-Journal who has been involved with Pensacon every year as either a moderator or a journalist or both. "I've been around this stuff all my life. I love this stuff."
After the first year of Pensacon, people wishing to become moderators have to audition process and be judged by members of the convention’s staff. Although it is a volunteer position, moderators are given a VIP Pass for the weekend and a very coveted parking pass. They are also given the responsibility of making sure Pensacon guests have the best time possible. "One of the things I love doing is making sure, through my role, and my little bit in Pensacon, that the attendees have a good time" said Hardy. "That I'm facilitating this conversation that they're having with their idols."
Each moderator is assigned specific panels over the three day convention. They are responsible for researching their subject and writing enough questions to fill the 45 minutes that each panel runs. Usually questions from the audience will more than fill that time slot, but every moderators will agree that you can never be too prepared in case there is a lull in the conversation. When they are not on stage, moderators are free to enjoy the event like everyone else. "You just never know who you are going to run into" said Cash. "Michael Rooker (from Guardians of the Galaxy and The Walking Dead), when he was here, we ran into him at the bar at Seville and I said 'Hey, can I buy you a drink?' And he [said] 'Pensacon is buying all my drinks' and he grabs my wife's cell phone out of her hand and says 'But let's take a picture!'."
And while we’re on the topic of Rooker, Julio Diaz was the moderator for what became a legendary panel at the Saenger Theater a couple of years ago. "When we had the solo Michael Rooker panel, he [came] in and [we talked about] what we were going to do. Great. I come out [on stage and] introduce him. He grabs me, signs my shirt, takes the microphone out of my hand and BOOM, he's gone into the audience. And it was fantastic. It was amazing to watch but for it was like 'OK, I have no control over this anymore!' But it's a legendary panel because he was great. He went around talking to everybody and making jokes and making friends and everybody loved him."
When you spend any time talking to the moderators about their Pensacon experiences you will hear some interesting stories. Brooke Hardy said early on she met someone she admired from afar. "The very first year of Pensacon, Walter Jones, from Power Rangers, he played the black ranger, was a guest. And I told someone else that I knew, that was a smaller guest at the convention, a friend of mine, that when I was little I had a crush on him. And somehow it got back around to Walter Jones. And I'm standing in the celebrity room and someone taps me on the shoulder. [Jones] grabs me and hugs me and I turn bright red because they told him I had a crush on him as a kid!"
"My wife was at her gym" said Jared Cash, "And she texts me 'Hey, I'm running on the treadmill next to the dad from Dawson's Creek'. And I responded 'No, you're running on the treadmill next to The Flash!' which is way more impressive!"
Evan Johns said his best experience was moderating a panel with Judith Hoag, an actress from the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. "She came up to me and gave me a great hug. And I got to talk to her about her role in a movie that is a guilty pleasure of mine, Armageddon. I said 'There's a scene that, as a dad, I always get teared up" and she goes 'Oh my God, you too?' And we talked about that for a few minutes and I was just touched by her. She was the nicest person."
"As moderators, we're supposed to be invisible" said Julio Diaz. "But, we're really not. People recognize what we do and they know if you're doing a good job or not. It's really rewarding to me if I'm walking around the convention and someone stops me and says 'Hey, I saw you on that panel. You did a really great job'. That feels really good because they're not there to see you. And if they still see that you did a good job, that means a lot."
One more thing about these moderators, they are big cheerleaders for Pensacon. "There's something for everybody" said Christina Cusack. "[It's] not just panels with celebrities. There's a film festival! There are workshops on how to be a actor in Pensacola, how to do improv, how to make films, how to build really cool props, how to make costumes. There's all sorts of stuff for kids [and] adults. And it's really, really cool to see what it's doing to our community. Every business in Pensacola gets in on it. Every restaurant. Every bar. And it's just really cool to see our community come together and make this happen."
Christina Cusack, Jared Cash, Brooke Hardy, Evan Johns and Julio Diaz, along with a host of others will be your moderators this year at Pensacon, February 23 through 25.
(Note: Bob Barrett, who wrote and recorded this story, is also a Pensacon Moderator)