Randy Stuhlsatz remembers the early years of Anime Festival Wichita and how a teenager named Caitlynn French always made an impression.
“She’s been attending conventions here in Wichita ever since I’ve known her. She’s just born for it,” said Stuhlsatz, co-chair with Holly Crain of this year’s festival. “She had beautiful costumes all the time – she put a lot of time and effort into it.”
A Derby native, French said the early anime festivals fueled her dream of working in the industry.
“That’s kind of where I started to learn that voice acting was an actual thing,” she recalled.
When French returns to the festival – this weekend at the Hyatt Regency in Wichita – it will be as a featured performer and not just a fan.
A performer since age 10, French has acted in Shakespeare in the Park, at Derby High School and at Southwestern College in Winfield.
It was while she was at Southwestern, on tour with an anime performance group, that she met a director named Chris Ayres, whom she considers her mentor. When she moved to Austin, Texas – where her husband, Wichita native Justin Brasfield, is a systems administrator – Ayres contacted her about doing voice work at his studio in Houston.
French said she is most thankful for her theater training when it comes to anime work, particularly improvisation.
“I’m making on-the-fly decisions about character things and going with it,” she said. “It’s kind of learning to swim by throwing you in the ocean. It was sink-or-swim, and you’ve gotta learn how to swim.”
The 29-year-old said she’s always been “a huge fan of anime,” and said it pairs nicely with the voice acting profession.
“I never grew out of that play-pretend stage,” she said.
French said she is best known in anime circles as Shiro from “No Game No Life,” Hana Isuzu from “Girls und Panzer” and Mei Tachibana from “Say I Love You.”
American anime performers, she said, have to follow up the work done by their Japanese counterparts, matching words to the “lip slaps” done in the Asian animation.
“Japanese is a very bouncy language where you hit every sound,” she said. “We have a language where you hide a lot of sounds. That can get awkward.”
Though she dreams of someday working on other types of animation, French said she enjoys the liberation of voice acting.
“With a lot of acting, especially stage acting, you feel like you’re limited by your type of body, your size or the way you look. When you’re doing voiceover work, you’re really only trapped by your voice. Your voice is something you can change and learn how to control and improve upon,” she said.
“It’s very liberating as an actor to do a lot of voice work because you can play a lot of parts that maybe you never would have been cast in on stage,” French added. “You can be the hero, you can be the villain, you can be anybody, really.”
French’s resume has included nearly three dozen movies over the past six years. Being an anime star doesn’t pay all the bills, she said – she has had day jobs working in a costume shop, as a preschool teacher and currently at an Etsy shop.
She said she hasn’t run into anyone from the Wichita area who’s an anime performer but has met up with several from various parts of Kansas.
Stuhlsatz said it’s encouraging to anime fans from the area that one of their own can make it in the business. He said workshops during the convention on breaking into the business are well-attended.
“Those rooms are always packed, so you know there’s a lot of interest,” he said. “But you also know real life steps in, and less than 5 percent will attempt it and less than 1 percent will make it.”
Besides French, other guests at the festival include Michael “Knightmage” Wilson, an Ohio sheriff’s deputy who has worked on Marvel and Avengers movies who talks about performing cosplay for charity.
About 3,000 people attended last year’s Anime Fest Wichita, Stuhlsatz said, an increase over previous years.
“We’re slowly gaining momentum,” he said. “Wichita’s not the largest metropolitan area to pull from, but we’re doing good.”
French said she’s been in demand over the past year to attend anime conventions, which has given the girl from Derby who never got out of town a chance to travel.
But the Wichita festival, she said, will be special.
“I’m excited to come back and share that knowledge with people in the community who dream to do what I do,” she said.
ANIME FESTIVAL WICHITA
When: 5 p.m. to midnight Friday, June 29; 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday, June 30; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, July 1
Where: Hyatt Regency Hotel, 400 W. Waterman, Wichita
Tickets: At the door, $45 for a weekend pass, $18 for Friday, $25 for Saturday and $20 for Sunday
More information is available at AFWcon.org