The Austinites Behind the Curtain: Mike Stefanik

Previously in this series: Mouthfeel and Erica Lies.

In this series, we’ll be getting to know some of the Austinites who produce our favorite local events. This week, we’re honored to be talking to Mike Stefanik.

You’ve probably seen Mike’s work around, even if you don’t know his name: for the past 15 years, he’s been creating the annual Austin Events Wall Calendar. What you may not know is that Mike has also turned part of his house into a permanent work of interactive installation art called the Eureka Room, and that he does a newsletter of his own in which he presents ‘secret events’ that are sort of like absurdist, anarchic summer camp evening activities. We talked to him about all this and more.

Lite + Brite: The events you produce are so clever and high-concept: a standing-still 5k race, giant cornhole, “let’s see how many extension cords we can fit together,” etc. How do you come up with these ideas? What (if anything) do you think unifies them?
Mike Stefanik:
 For me, the secret is to come up with a whole lot of bad ideas and hope there’s some good ones in there. There’s a common misconception that some people have good ideas and some don’t, but I’m pretty sure the reality is that some people only bother to think up a few ideas, and others spend a lot of time generating ideas and then pick only the best ones. And those best ones are usually a little more solid due to the Darwinism of the process.

So how do I think up a bunch of bad ideas? Some tricks:
—ask myself, “What is the worst idea I could think of?”
—think of a few possible ideas and then change the size, duration, shape, or some other variable and see what that looks like
—don’t just do it in one sitting
—walking! that is where most of the good ideas are
—taking things from different domains and trying to merge them to see what I come up with
—having a bunch of creative friends that I bounce ideas off of. Even just one reaction from them can lead me in a whole new direction I hadn’t thought of.

For some of my events I brainstorm “What is a ridiculous event name I couldn’t resist clicking on?” But unlike clickbait, I intend to deliver on the promise.

During the brainstorming process I find myself thinking about what feeling I want to give the participants. Usually it’s something in the vein of surprise, delight, awkwardness, connection, absurdity, and joy. What’s going to make people go THAT WAS F***ING AWESOME? 

I’m less concerned with the technical aspects or (you can ask anyone that has worked with me) the feasibility. The worst thing you can do is start with “Well, what’s possible?” Instead, ask “What do I want?” then figure out how to get it. Concerning yourself with what’s possible in the brainstorming part of things is just an idea-killer. If you can think up an impossible idea and fall in love with it, you often can find ways to make it happen with a few compromises.

L+B: Do you have a personal favorite out of all your events?

Mike Stefanik: Some years back I did this event called “Slackathon.” It was a “Decathlon for the rest of us” and involved nine events like “breakfast tacos,” “the one-meter swim,” and “margaritas”. It was meant to be a lazy couple hours with friends, but turns out that even nine easy events take many hours to do and get tiring. So we all got tricked into an actually tiring day.

L+B: What’s the most memorable or unexpected thing that’s ever happened at an event you produced?

Mike Stefanik: I did a few parties at the Cathedral of Junk to promote calendars. As with most ideas, I went overboard. We had giant piles of cupcakes and chocolate and all this beer we got donated from Independence Brewing. But instead of kegs we got bottles. So we had tons of bottles. And a mariachi group and some bands and some projectionist and a guy who just wanted to dress like a pirate and run the yard games. Plus a popcorn cart, hula hoopers, and God knows what else. We made it a couple hours until the cops showed up and shut it down. It was literally the most ineffective way to sell calendars I could ever imagine, but it was fun. 

[Editor’s note: You are describing my dream afternoon.]

L+B: Do you have a pie-in-the-sky dream event that you would want to do if you had no logistical concerns?

Mike Stefanik: I’d love to go on tour and play the best Atlas Obscura sites in the world with the ~20 bandmates I have in Ouiness. We’re an improv band, so wed could pick up local people to jam with us wherever we go.

L+B: Let’s talk about the Eureka Room. We love it, but we never know how to describe it to people, so we always just wind up telling them they have to see it for themselves. How do you describe it? What’s been the most challenging part about implementing it?

Mike Stefanik: “The less you know, the better” is how I like to describe it. The mission is charming absurdity. It involves a bit of awkwardness with strangers in a tight space filled with thousands of LEDs. 

The hardest part is just figuring out what it is and what it isn’t. Because it’s not really a type of anything that already exists, so I had to sort of feel it out. I’ve had some spectacular crashes along the way. But through some awesome visitors and friends with great feedback I think I have figured out what it is.

L+B: What are some of your favorite Austin events to attend that you don’t produce?

Mike Stefanik: I’ve been to all kinds of events in Austin over the 20 years I’ve lived here. These days I like the smaller, weird ones that are made by people just because they want to see it happen. There’s also something about free events that I like. I understand why events charge, but free events bring out a wider demographic and it feels more like a community gathering than an entertainment sort of thing. For specifics… Eeyore’sCreek ShowFull Moon SwimHonkTX and Fusebox Festival.

L+B: How can people support you during this time when we can’t go to events?

Mike Stefanik: I’m working on a new project that I can’t say much about yet, but if you sign up for the Eureka Room newsletter I’ll be sure to announce it there if it happens.