Alex Benepe is not a wizard, but the 25 year-old is nonetheless the first ever Commissioner of Quidditch and the founder of the International Quidditch Association. The Muggle version of Quidditch is an adaptation of the game played in the Harry Potter novels where players fly around on brooms. Obviously, Benepe’s version doesn’t involve flying, but it stays as true to the original game as possible without the aid of magic. Benepe is currently working on promoting the fifth annual Quidditch World Cup, which will be hosted on Randall’s Island on November 12th and 13th. He took some time to speak with us about the game and the upcoming tournament. The interview is after the jump.
Where did the idea to play Quidditch in real life come from?
When we were freshmen at Middlebury College in 2005, we had a Sunday tradition of playing bocce, which is a great mellow sport for Sundays when you’re a little hungover and you get to just stand around and throw balls outside. We took it one step further though; we would wear stereotypical old school Victorian outfits and we would diss each other using British expressions and accents, even though bocce is an Italian game. Italian accents are harder to do. One Sunday, my friend Alexander Manschell, who goes by Xander, suggested playing Quidditch instead. I was pretty skeptical about the idea at first, but he was very good at convincing lots of people to do things. He could be a great politician if he wanted to, but he’s going to be a teacher instead. Before Middlebury, Xander went to this prep school, Deerfield, and I think that put him in an ideal situation to come up with Quidditch, because he was used to living in a cold, isolated place where you get bored and need to come up with cool stuff to do. After those first games, Xander created the Middlebury College Intramural Quidditch League.
How many people played in the first game?
We had 30 people on the first day, because our hall freshmen year was really tight; we did everything together.
Did you guys dress up?
We would wear towels as capes, but that was the extent of our costumes.
Where did you find enough brooms for 30 people to play?
Middlebury has a broomball team, and they had recently upgraded their brooms, so they had a lot of old actual brooms that we borrowed. We used those for the first couple years until we discovered Alivan’s Brooms. Those are the only thing we use at World Cup tournaments, because they’re lighter, smaller, and safer than household brooms.
Did you play in the Middlebury intramural league?
Yeah, I played for the first year when Xander was running the league, but when he decided that he didn’t want to be in charge anymore, I took over and stopped playing. I’ve only played in a couple scrimmages since then.
How did the sport expand to other colleges?
One of Xander’s friends from Deerfield, Woodrow Travers, started a team at Vassar, and he brought the Vassar team to Middlebury during the fall of my junior year (2007) for the first Quidditch World Cup. USA Today was at the event, and they put a story on the front page of the Life section with the title “Collegiate Quidditch Takes Off – Figuratively, At Least,” and that became a self-fulfilling prophesy. I’m not sure how they got in touch with us, but after that article, kids from schools all over the country started contacting us saying that they wanted to start their own teams. In that same article, I told USA Today that my vision was to take our team out on the road to demo the game at other schools. After I said it in the article, I felt like I actually had to do it, so we set up a road trip during our spring break, and we went to six schools in seven days. We would play a demo match, stay overnight, and then travel to the next school. We were kind of like a traveling circus; we had three vans full of Quidditch players and equipment. Some schools were really prepared to host us; there would be tons of media and the school would have provided a place for us to sleep, but at other campuses, we would just set up on their quad and start a game and hope that someone would let us crash on their floor. Ironically, none of the schools we visited formed teams. We did get a bunch of media attention, though, and that led to hundreds of new teams starting up. At our second world cup, we had twelve colleges instead of two. There are now more than 100 official teams and even more unofficial ones.
What inspired you to expand the game?
When I watched the fourth Harry Potter movie, they represented the Quidditch World Cup as more than a sporting event; it was a festival. There was food and music. It had this Woodstock feel, and I wanted to replicate that, so I realized that I would need to raise more money and get more people on board.
Is this year’s World Cup going to be like Woodstock?
It’s going to feel a lot like a music festival; we’re going to have hundreds of Quidditch teams, music all day long, a Coney Island side show, and tons of wizard rock bands. Some teams will be bringing mascots and costumes and others will be bringing busloads of fans. One team from Utah says they’re going to bring a whole show. I don’t really know what that means, but it should be interesting. I’m also very excited that we’re trying to book a major artist to headline on Saturday night. My first choice would be Girl Talk, but it depends on if he’s available or in our price range. Another group we’re looking at is Matt and Kim.
In future years, do you plan on making the World Cup a camping event?That would be very cool. There’s a music festival that they hold every year at Stonehenge called the Glastonbury Festival. One hundred thousand people go every year, and they get the biggest names in music. It’s run by two old music lovers, and it’s always a mud fest. We would love to replicate that.
Will there be any international teams at this year’s World Cup?
Yes, they’re mostly Canadian, but this year there’s going to be a team from Finland, a team from New Zealand, a team from Argentina, and maybe a team from Winchester. We’ve never had a British team, and we’re really excited about that.
What type of people play Quidditch?
It’s a broad mix. On the Middlebury team, we had a girl who was the president of the Republicans Club. She was excellent at baking cookies and loved knitting. We had a guy who was a New Yorker, a designer, and also an Abercrombie model. We had a guy who was an anarchist punk from the South. In terms of racial diversity, it’s pretty much what you’d expect for a new college sport. It started at an elite liberal arts institution, and these institutions are very white places. We’re seeing big universities get into Quidditch, and these school tend to be more diverse, so we’re hoping that it will diversify. Quidditch is also a coed sport. We’re going to be enforcing a new rule that three players on the field for each team must be of a different gender than the other four.
Do a lot of Quidditch teams practice?
Increasingly, yes, teams are starting to hold regular practices. I know that Middlebury never practices. They just hold scrimmages. I think the reason that they’re the best is that the game has been on campus for a long time, and it’s pretty popular. To pick their World Cup team, they hold an intramural tournament and the winning team reps them at the World Cup. There will be 10 or 15 teams in that intramural tournament, so they have a very wide pool compared to other schools which maybe have 30 players to choose from.
How do older people react to Quidditch?
Most people over the age of 35 are pretty mystifyed by it, for the most part the only people with a connection are those with kids who liked Harry Potter. Most adults can’t even pronounce the world.
You guys obviously had to make some changes to the game so that it could be played without magic. What is your favorite adaptation?
That would have to be the Golden Snitch. Other people tried to play Quidditch before us, but usually the Snitch was a tennis ball that someone threw into the field at a certain point or a remote control helicopter. In our version of the game, we have a cross country runner dressed entirely in yellow put a tennis ball in a sock and hang it from his waistband. He’s allowed to do whatever he can to prevent the seekers from getting the ball. Having a human Snitch gives the game personality and chaos. If you watch a World Cup match, when the Snitch returns to the pitch people go wild.
What did you think of the last Harry Potter movie?
To be honest, I stopped liking the Harry Potter books after book four. I think J.K. Rowling’s strength is in her ability to create a universe, and she spends the last three books destroying that world. I don’t think her writing is as strong when she’s doing that. I guess it’s better than the alternative, which is just sticking to the plot structure of the first four books; the kids go to school, a pattern of class is established, there’s probably some social tension, a mystery arises, the kids solve it, and then Dumbledore explains everything.
Anything else you want to add before we finish up?
I would encourage people to not pass judgement until they see a game in person. Words can’t capture what it’s like. New Yorkers have the best opportunity of anyone in the world to see a quidditch game, and the world cup is an event that they shouldn’t miss.