"For those of you who made it into Colubrae House, congratulations," says stone-faced Professor Bloodthorne, head of Colubrae, as he begins his lecture on potions. "For those of you who didn't, well, nobody's perfect."
This snide comment wouldn't seem out of place coming from Professor Severus Snape, the dubious Harry Potter character played by Alan Rickman. But the eighty people in this audience aren't gathered at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; this is the Avistrum Academy of Sorcery, an Americanized version of the infamous school. Actually, it's the VFW post in Brighton dressed up as such, with large banners bearing the crest of each of the four houses -- Parador, Enigmus, Lobostro and Colubrae -- dotting the walls between American Legion plaques commemorating veterans and a time-weathered poster that reads, "We fought for your right to vote -- now use it!"
Professor Bloodthorne, normally the Divination instructor, is filling in for the unavailable potions expert, and he reluctantly leads the students through a brief rundown of magic elixirs as the other professors watch approvingly from their banquet table in the front of the room. First he details the Draught of Sleep potion, which, he says, clearly speaks for itself, and then he discusses Amorementia, a cordial capable of causing infatuation, but not love.
"What about Poly Juice?" he asks. "Who knows what Poly Juice does?"
Eager hands shoot up before one student obediently answers, "Poly Juice changes you into any person you want to be for one hour."
"Or an animal!" an annoyed girl chimes in, Hermione-like.
After the brief lecture, Bloodthorne and several other professors pace around the oddly decorated room -- imagine a magic shop that just violently sneezed -- as the students concoct the day's potion. Young children dressed as witches and wizards bump elbows with twenty-something married couples, all busily adding four small drops of dye at the cardinal directional points of Styrofoam plates full of warm milk. The secret ingredient of Trollboogies -- dish soap, to the layman -- is released from a scientific-looking eye-dropper, and slowly the different colors of dye swirl and mix together in a rather impressive and psychedelic reaction.
A seventeen-year-old girl and fourteen-year-old boy watch their creation with pride as the colors dance wildly across the plate. "It looks like a tie-dye T-shirt," the boy nervously informs the girl. "But it wouldn't be a good idea to make a shirt out of it, because it's made of milk and after a while, it would stink."
The Avistrum Academy currently has nearly 250 students registered on its website, www.avistrum.org, ranging in age from infants to grandparents, many of whom actively participate in the group's two to three meetings per month. The school, according to a two-page "history" on the site, was started in the wake of the Salem Witch Trials to protect magical children in the New World. "While the trials had not killed any real witches, they realized that their lack of a proper school for magical children left them vulnerable to discovery in their new home," it reads. Pyramis Parador, Englebert Enigmus, Luna Lobostro and Caterina Colubrae were the four fictional founders in 1697, and each named a house after themselves, just as at Hogwarts.
There's another version of the story, too.
"We got started doing this several years ago at a StarFest Convention," explains Headmaster Dowling, who goes by Brian Dowling outside of Avistrum meetings and who looks remarkably like Jason Schwartzman in I Heart Huckabees. "We had a little fan table set up; it was all based on Harry Potter. We just wanted to have a fun sorting ceremony, and we wound up sorting nearly 300 people at that convention. It was really popular."
Dowling and friends -- most of whom met through various acting gigs -- expanded on the premise, incorporating short lessons on subjects such as Defense Against Dark Arts as they worked local conventions, always to wildly receptive audiences. At this May's OpusFest, they premiered Hogwarts America, a participatory presentation based on Harry's Hogwarts and a nod to Potter author JK Rowling, who indicated in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that other magical schools exist around the world. The response was again extraordinary, and it became clear that the group would have to start charging small fees for the materials they needed. To avoid any conflict with Rowling, they changed their name to Avistrum.
"We even had a friend of ours who is one of the owners of OpusFest get in contact with Warner Bros.," Dowling says. "Some of their lawyers looked over our materials, and they didn't have any problem with what we were doing. "
Dowling acknowledges the group's obvious debt to Harry Potter, but he thinks Avistrum has adopted the feel of the insanely popular books, not the specific details. "Everyone who does this is obviously a huge Harry Potter fan and has read all the books," he says. "But our characters are really different. The headmaster of the school, myself, is not really like Dumbledore at all. We didn't just take their characters, we definitely made our own characters and histories."
And they put quite a lot of time into it, too. The academy's website offers detailed backgrounds of all the faculty, staff and residents, from professors Kobayashi, Aberfoyle and Ward to nurse Kayenta and Lady Viola Fey. The "Tales From Avistrum" portion of the site provides thorough minutes from previous meetings fraught with danger and peril. The Medallion of Akpuch meeting this past May was a particularly harrowing experience, with forest trolls and dementors disrupting things at every turn.
There are Potter-like summer camps around the country, Dowling says, but he isn't aware of anyone else going to such lengths to create an entirely separate world from Hogwarts. "None of us are in this right now to make a lot of money," he explains. "We would love to be able to have our own space eventually, where we could be running activities on a consistent basis and do charity work and go to different conventions around the country, but right now it's a labor of love. When you're on stage, interacting with all the kids and seeing how exciting it is for them, and how excited they are about something you're putting out, it's incredible. No matter how big we get, we always want to make the experience more and more magical for the students."
Before offering a lesson on the origins and traditions of Halloween, Headmaster Dowling paces around the room, asking students what the holiday reminds them of, while Fineus Finbarr Fergus Flannagan Fitzgerald, the school's resident leprechaun and comic relief, writes their responses on the board. Students raise their hands and call their answers out to the headmaster: "Trick-or-treating!" "Ghosts!" "Goblins!"
The grandmother of one of the students, wearing enormous gold earrings, screams out answers in a loud, raspy voice without waiting to be recognized. "Jack-o'-lanterns!" she yells, trying to be heard above everyone else. "Apples from harvest, tombstones, the full moon!" While Dowling politely implores the woman to raise her hand, tiny arms go down across the room, their owners' ideas abruptly extinguished by the loud woman.
There are so many obstacles to overcome in the quest to become a wizard. Even on a Saturday in Brighton.
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