Dragon*Con 2009 Report #6 – Day Three, Masquerade

Look over there…no, not that way, over there. See it? That little speck? That’s the light at the end of the tunnel, baby. We’re almost finished with the con reports. Just two more to go after this. Well, maybe three, depending on how long one of them gets, but I’m shooting for two. Fears allayed, let’s move on.

Ah, the masquerade.

If you’ve ever participated in a theatrical production – whether through school, a summer program, or your church – you might have a small inkling of what it’s like to be backstage for one of these things. After all, there are sound technicians, stage directors, costumed folks, lighting techs. Theatre, right?

Yeeeeeeaaaaaaah…that’s kind of what it’s like.

Actually, if I’m being totally honest it’s kind of like that dream I sometimes have where I somehow end up back at my old high school theatre department only to find out that it’s opening night, their lead has mysteriously disappeared, and I’ve been “volunteered” to fill in an hour before curtain. The alternate version of that dream is that I’ve been cast in a show for a while but hadn’t yet bothered to learn my lines or blocking, thinking that we had more time before the show opened, only to learn we’re going on NOW. I’ve had those dreams numerous times. Still no idea what they’re supposed to mean.

Anyway, my point is that the masquerade, while it does have some bits in common with the stage productions of my quote-unquote youth, is a different kind of entity. And for the record, I maintain that I’m really not old enough to be able to draw a solid line between my childhood and what I am now. Of course, that’s got more to do with relative emotional maturity rather than actual physical age. Again…anyway. The main difference between the plays I used to be in and the masquerades that seem to have taken over as my performance outlet is simple.

Planning and rehearsal. You know, knowing what the hell it is you’re supposed to be doing, when and exactly where. For the most part that hasn’t been a big component of my masquerade experiences. This was the third time Maggie and I had been involved in a masq, so I am by no means an expert, but I think it’s safe to say we’ve gotten some ideas about how things can and should work as well as thoughts on how good ones are handled. Again, I’ll go ahead and say that Polaris remains the gold standard for us so far. Despite it’s relative lack of direction the masq at Shore Leave still manages to score higher on the scale than Dragon*Con.

I’m not saying it was a completely horrible experience. Just that it could have been better. Much, much better. For such a large con – with a popular masquerade – the event is not particularly professional. At least not from what I saw.

Maggie and I arrived at the check-in desk in the Hyatt around 6:15ish, after a small battle up the massive staircase out front and the crowd milling about in the small plaza. The alcove where the desk was had been blocked off from outside visitors with some strategically placed pipe and drape. Someone from the volunteer security staff – whose name, Maggie informed me later, was Cory – was standing guard outside. I noticed his creepy eyes (and commented on them, of course) and he said he’d look even creepier when he eventually put the fangs in. I have to agree with his assessment. Very unnerving. And also kind of nice.

The alcove was too small by half to comfortably house everyone. Maggie and I needed to plug in our little hot glue gun and perform some last-minute surgery on our props. Since this couldn’t be done while simultaneously holding the giant puppet heads we were required to set them down on the floor. They were nearly trampled a number of time. And not by people who had the excuse of not being able to see due to their costume or mask. The order of the procession of skits wasn’t pre-determined, as it was at both Polaris and Shore Leave. At those two cons, the order of the entrants is typically based on when you registered for the masquerade, though special consideration is made for folks who have hot or unwieldy costumes. When it came time to figure out the order at Dragon*Con it was more first-come, first-served. The woman “in charge” made a general call for everyone who felt they needed to go in the first half of the show, due to costume weight, etc. I think everyone tried to rush the stage.

We knew, from past experience, that the PPP costumes were hot and inconvenient but, after seeing the mass of people around the table Maggie and I decided it wasn’t imperative that we get placed at the front of the line. Frankly, I was just happy when we were finally assigned a den number and were allowed to line up for the rest of the pre-show stuff we needed to do.

We were assigned a den mother, as we had been back in Polaris. Maggie and I were thrilled at the prospect of having someone nearby who’s job was to help make sure we got on and off the stage safely, and helped make the wait backstage a little more pleasant.

….That didn’t really happen much this time around.

I didn’t actually meet our “den mother” until we had already started moving into the much larger backstage area. We were supposed to file in through the doors, out of the alcove and into the side of what I suppose I should call the green room. First up was a short photo session – basically the official Dragon*Con masquerade photos. I was in line behind Maggie and in front of can-can zombies (gotta love masquerades). I slipped my head on but then had to figure out how to put my puppet hands on. I had added little sleeve bits to the “wrists” of Harry’s hands so that, if my cloak sleeve moved up at some point in the show I wouldn’t automatically be showing my regular arms. Unfortunately, the little sleeves were secured on my arm with elastic and, with my hands inside the puppet hands and my teeth hidden away and unaccessible in the mask, I couldn’t put my second hand on.

An unknown voice (which I later learned was our den mother – a young man whose name, I believe, was Eli) told me I needed to walk over to the photographer’s dropcloth. I told him I couldn’t see, needed help putting my hand on, and didn’t know where to go. He kind of helped put my hand on and walked away. I could see enough out of my head to know he wasn’t standing next to me anymore and started to get frantic. I knew Maggie had already started heading off in the right direction, so I turned to the can-can girls behind me. They had helped guide me through the doors to begin with and quickly fixed my hand so my wand/mask was pointing up in the right direction. The photographer, seeing my dilemma quickly stepped over and led me to where I needed to go. They snapped a few shots of Maggie and I. When I was sure they were done I quickly popped my head back off and started heading to the far side of the backstage area. We had a general idea of where our group was supposed to sit. Eli was already over in the section but really didn’t seem to be paying a whole lot of attention to us – or anyone else in his den, for that matter.

Maggie and I quickly stripped off our puppet hands, made a little nest out of our heads and assorted bags, and sat down to ponder the situation. From what I could tell none of the backstage staff really knew what was going on. We’d ask a question and usually receive a shrug in response. I decided to try and make the best of the situation and set to checking out the costumes of our fellow participants. We were sitting near a young woman dressed as Kira from The Dark Crystal. She’d even made a little Fizzgig. The cadaver can-can dancers were settled in seats near us, as well. The row in back of our nest was the temporary home of people who had – hands down – the coolest costumes I saw during the entire weekend. They were decked out in the EV suits from Alien. I had caught glimpses of them out in the alcove but our proximity to their den allowed me to get a much better look at all the details.

Since I had at least an hour to kill and none of us was really going anywhere I did what I naturally do when I see an awesome costume. I started talking to them and bombarding them with all kinds of questions. The woman dressed as Ripley was the one who did the sewing for the suits. They had apparently been wanting to do them for at least a year and actually decided to go ahead and make them for Dragon*Con a few weeks or months earlier. I’m a wee bit hazy on when exactly they started work on them. It was, from what I gathered, a group project by the three of them. The one in the middle, in Kane’s suit, was volunteered for the task of making the helmets. I can’t remember what the third guy was in charge of, but I think he did the wiring for the back of the packs – which lit up and everything.

I asked the woman (who shall be referred to as Ripley for the sake of brevity) how long it took her to make the suits. Once she finished the research and tracked down the materials she said it only took her about a week to make each suit.

Yeah, my jaw hit the floor too. I’m lucky if I can finish one of my fairly simple costumes in a week. She had to have just sewn the entire week. The sheer amount of detailing on the costume – each one is quilted, there’s lacing, different layers, etc….all of that combines to incredibly elaborate costumes. These things were film accurate, people. They had gone to the trouble of tracking down the folks who owned the suits used in the actual movie and had gotten wonderfully detailed photographs of every part of the suits.

This is what dedication looks like.

One of the wonderful things about talking to this group was the joy that they took in sharing their work. They were incredibly willing to talk about the pieces and methods they had used. And they engaged us in a dialogue about our own costumes. It’s one thing to find people willing to discuss the work they’ve done on their own stuff. Most folks who enter masquerades seem to love doing that. You don’t, however, always come across people who are just as interested in learning about other people’s styles.

At one point during my conversation Maggie tapped me on the shoulder and informed me that our den mother was going to take us over to take a look at the stage. Wonderful person that she is, she knew we needed to get a decent look at where we would be going on and off. Eli led us over to the side of the stage. There was a looooong ramp with handrails on either side at stage right, where we’d be entering from. He pointed out that we’d exit the stage by going down a short flight of stairs (that only had a railing on one side) and that there’d be folks to guide us down on the other side. I asked if it was possible for us to quickly walk out on the stage, so I could count how many steps I’d need to take in order to get to my mark. The emcee’s podium was going to be on my side of the stage and I didn’t want to worry about knocking into it or being hidden behind it during our skit. He cleared the way for us and we wandered out on stage. I started counting steps but soon discovered a much better solution.

The temporary stage was made up by connecting a number of raised panels together. As I walked to my self-assigned spot near the middle of the stage I realized that I had to cross over a wobbly panel before I reached my relatively stable mark. Knowing that was actually a lot more useful than counting steps. Now I just needed to walk in a relatively straight line until I finally felt solid ground beneath my feet. Success!

We headed back to the green room area to await the start of the masq. A screen had been set up behind stage to allow us to watch the masquerade proceedings, as well as the bumpers and short video skits that the people who ran DC*TV (the con-specific television programming for the weekend) had come up with. It was a nice addition to the environment backstage. Eli decided to do one more helpful task before the end of the night. When I asked if he had a magic marker he said he didn’t but then went off in search of one! He came back with a black marker and I was able to quickly add in the lightning bolt scar I kept forgetting to put in the middle of my puppet head. That was pretty much the end of his help, though, except for getting a bag of ice for an entrant who injured herself later.

Eventually it came time for the masquerade to start. Naturally the children went first. It makes sense for them to go through ahead of everyone else, as masquerades have a tendency to run pretty late and the little ones really should be in bed before the rest of us get around to getting up on stage. I think the youth section of Dragon*Con was the largest I’ve ever seen at a convention. There were two Coralines, some Jedi, a number of things I didn’t recognize, and the cutest little Alice in Wonderland you ever saw. After the last kid finished their presentation all of the children were trooped back out on stage for their awards. After the certificates were handed out the regular masquerade began. Our skit came about a third of the way through the evening. We were able to watch the folks in the EV suits troop across the stage from the relative comfort of our chairs and then it was off to line up agains the back wall and wait for our turn to go up the ramp.

Despite Eli had told us there wasn’t really anyone on the ramp side of the stage to guide us up to where we needed to go. This was potentially dangerous as I’d had to put my head back on before I even came near the bottom of the ramp. There was a raised area of the floor before I got to the ramp – one of those plastic thingies that they run cables and cords under so they don’t snag around people’s feet. Of course, since I couldn’t see that the raised thingy was there it wasn’t really going to be any safer for me. Luckily Maggie could see out of her puppet head better than I could. She told me where it was and I was able to follow her voice around to the bottom of the ramp. Once I got to the ramp I was fine. The good thing about Dragon*Con was the way they had lit the backstage/wing area. At our previous two masquerade outings it was next to impossible to see where I was going through the little patch of gauzy fabric around Harry’s mouth, largely due to the lighting of the room around me. I was having better luck this go-around because we weren’t having to stand around in the dark.

It finally came time for Maggie and I to take our place on the stage. The emcees for the evening introduced our skit with a simple: Harry and Ron prepare for the masquerade at the Yule Ball. As soon as the opening music of our skit began we marched out to the stage…

…and promptly lost track of what was going on with our sound track due to the massive amount of cheering from the crowd. That’s right. The reaction was so great from the crowd that we couldn’t hear the Phantom of the Opera song blasting from the sound system. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s hard to dance to music you can’t hear. 😉

I basically tried to sing the song to myself inside my giant puppet hand and move my fan and mask accordingly. Luckily the cheering died down shortly before the section of the track where the dialogue comes in and we were able to get back on track. When the second track came on, signaling the end of the skit I was out there shaking it like there was no tomorrow. Eventually I came to my senses and realized we should probably get off the stage. I looked to my left and saw that Maggie had already left the stage. Whoops! I quickly exited and was helped down the stairs by the nice stagehands. Skit finished, Mag and I went back to our seats and tried to enjoy the rest of the performance.

The cadaver can-can girls did an absolutely wonderful presentation. When they collapsed on the stage at the end of the number, though, one of the girls landed on her knee rather hard and it started to sweel. Eli ran off to fetch some ice for her, which was thoughtful, and then promptly returned to his usual unhelpful self. He spent the rest of the evening with his eyes glued to the giant screen showing the masquerade, shoveling chips into his mouth.

There were a number of other fantastic costumes in the rest of the show: Fruity Oaty Bar girls, a really cool dragonrider thingy, an absolutely fantastic Samurai Jack and Aku, and a sizeable representation of Power Puff Girls characters.

I should also probably broach a slightly touchy subject. Well, touchy for Maggie. One of the groups that entered the masquerade did a skit called “The Cult of Snuggie.” Their costumes consisted of…you guessed it, Snuggies. Of course they were belted around the waist with cords but they were Snuggies none the less. Now, the idea of the skit was kind of cute, I’ll admit. They had a plush Snuggle and one of those downy fabric softener balls on a string, like an incense burner. However, they committed one of the major masquerade no-nos.

They spoke from the stage.

If we had been in the green room that would have been fine. But when you’re on stage in the largest ballroom out of four hotels, in front of a crowd that stretches so far back that they need a giant television screen to even see what’s going on up on stage, speaking from the stage is ridiculous and, actually, kind of rude. I still have no idea what they said.

Despite the fact that they spoke from the stage and there were plenty of other costumes in their division that were much more deserving of recognition, the Cult of Snuggie picked up one of the major prizes. Personally, I don’t think the decision was the right one. Not because I think we should’ve won. I kind of figured we wouldn’t place. Again, my joy was being amongst fellow costumed geeks.

If you ever happen to come in contact with Maggie, though, please don’t bring it up to her. And whatever you do don’t wear a Snuggie anywhere near her. She told me she was sitting at home with two of her roommates a week or two after getting back from the convention and a commercial for the things came on the television. Apparently she shot the tv a dark look and muttered “god-damned Snuggies” in such a way that her roommates were concerned. She failed to specify whether they were concerned for their safety or her sanity. I suspect it’s a good mix of both.

Anyway, after the masquerade ended and the winners finished taking additional official photos with their certificates, all the masq participants who wanted to gathered their stuff and trooped off into the hallway to wait in a long line. Instead of having huge crowds of people mob us out in the Hyatt lobby as soon as we came out of the ballroom, the con staff had set up a huge room off to the side where regular fans could stop by and take some good shots of all the costumes. Maggie and I figured the wait wouldn’t be too bad and lined up.

We ended up standing in line for about 45 minutes, with the line hardly moving at all. I was once again wearing my head, finding it near impossible to hold it while still wearing my puppet hands. I had turned the little fan on inside my head but part of the blades were rubbing up against a section of the fabric and fiberfill inside and it was hardly rotating at all. Someone passed by me while I was wearing my head and heard the fan going and made a pithy comment about people in huge costumes “cheating” by having fans inside.

I’m sorry. I didn’t realize there was a game plan with restrictions on what you could and could not put inside your swealtering puppet head. Forgive me for trying to keep a little bit of air circulating around my face while I wear a giant head covered in quilt batting and filled with polyester fibers. I was basically a giant plush toy. There came a point when my hands started to go numb, too, as the bottom half of the puppet head was resting heavily nerves in my shoulders.

I tried my best to keep relatively calm and zen-like, standing around in my puppet head. I even let it go when the guy dressed as a dragon all but ran me over with his wings. When stagehands brought water to the Cult of Snuggie, who could very easily move around and get their own water, I started to have a breakdown. Nobody thought to bring water to the two people standing around inside giant people-sized toy suits? I was actually close to tears. It felt like the puppet head made me invisible.

When the call came down the line for all those in hot heavy costumes to move to the front of the line I jumped at the chance. By this point I had figured out how to place the front of the puppet head so that I could see fairly well. We quickly made our way to the front and wound up lining up behind the blinking lights of the folks in the EV suits. I couldn’t believe that they hadn’t already been let through. Those things were quilted, for pete’s sake!

Eventually we were allowed into the room. There was a guy inside to help us move around and up onto the stage so people could take pictures. Somehow I was able to get up to the stage a lot faster than Maggie. We mugged for the cameras a good while and then the gentleman escorted us back out to the hallway. I was feeling much better now that I wasn’t waiting in a line and being run over by inconsiderate louts, so I urged Maggie to walk over to the Marriot while still in costume. She agreed, however grudgingly, but had to stop to fiddle with her head a bit. I had already managed to drop my head on the ground about five times since exiting the photo op room but the extra wire hangers I had shoved inside it before we left Virginia seemed to be doing their job.

We headed out across the Hyatt’s plaza, getting stopped one or two times by folks who wanted a picture of Harry and Ron. When we finally made it to the Marriott we went down the escalator and were immediately stopped by a huge crowd of people.

It was absolutely bonkers. I learned later that we happened to hit that floor just as a lot of folks came out of the Yule Ball party. One person would stop us for a picture, we’d re-don the heads and then we’d be blinded by a barrage of flashes from everyone else standing nearby. We ended up standing in the patch of land between two escalators for about twenty minutes before we could even think of moving. The entire time I could hear Maggie giggling and saying “You had to suggest coming in here. This is your fault.”

We managed to move off a bit and started making a circuit of that level of the Marriott, getting stopped every 3o feet or so for another photo session. It was incredible how many people wanted to have their picture taken with us! Mag and I were both worried about jabbing people in the eyes, ears or other sensitive body parts with our wands, masks and fans but I figured if they wanted the photo they’d be willing to watch out for the wayward props. People of all age would run up to us and ask shyly “Could I take my picture with you?” or “Can I hug you?” or other similar questions.

At one point Maggie started to head off to the side and announced she needed a water break before we went on. A few other folks started to come up to us for pictures but paused as they watched us take off the heads and break out the water. They were fellow costumers – who were usually in their own very large, hot costumes – so they understood our need to take a quick break. We downed a huge bottle of water between us, flipped our fans back on (by this point I had repositioned mine and it was actually rather pleasant inside the head) and got back into character. Two guys in blue jackets danced over, positively giddy with excitement. The one who stood beside me for the picture said that he had been watching the masquerade on the television in his room and actually squeed when we came on the screen. “There was a little bit of rolling around on the floor and laughing, which is kind of embarrassing,” he said. I was rather touched.

In the end, more guys than girls wanted their picture taken with us. I found that an interesting notion. It was also kind of amusing when one of these guys came up to us and said “There’s no way you guys are chicks.” I have no idea why he thought women wouldn’t make Potter Puppet Pal costumes.

Here are some of the high points of the evening:
  • walking along down one hallway, I passed two gentlemen in spandex superhero costumes (still no idea what they were). One of them leaned over and went “You’re a blast-ended skank!” There was a pause as a look of horror came over his face and he hurriedly went on “Potter Puppet Pals, right?! I didn’t want to offend you!”
  • People requesting to be bothered.
  • a teen came up and asked to be bothered to death for a series of photos he was taking called “Kill Phil.”
  • and, most importantly…we met a friend of Neil Cicerega’s. She was terribly excited about the skit and was anxious to share the story with him. Awesome!

By the time we finally got out of the hotel it was 1:34am! We were starving, I’m sure we’d lost 5lbs each just from sweating and carrying around the puppet heads, and we still had a whole other day to look forward to. We got directions to a diner from a Power Ranger but ended up just heading back to the hotel. The plans at the beginning of the evening had been to scrap the heads and do an entry about their construction (as I demonstrated their deconstruction). That’s not going to happen now. The heads have effectively redeemed themselves.

Okay…I’m sure half of this entry reads very poorly, but I’ve been working on it for about six house and I’m exhausted. It’ll have to do.

Next up…Day Four and travel.

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