Lights! Costumes! Action!

Picture a scene: You’re sitting in the audience of a convention, getting ready for the event-to-end-all-events…officially known as “The Masquerade.” You’re crammed into your seat, trying to keep folks from smooshing parts of the costume that you’re wearing as they clamber over you on the way to the few empty seats at the other end of the row. The room, which felt like a freezer when you first wandered into it, has gradually heated up to something more reminiscent of a work shed in the middle of a summer heatwave and you’re convinced that someone near you must have either died or else has NEVER been introduced to the concept of soap and deodorant.

At long last, the lights dim and the emcee for the evening takes the stage. You watch as each contestant wanders across the stage. Some of them look surprised to be there, others have cobbled together something resembling a skit (insomuch as there are characters onstage trying to speak lines), and a select few have succeeded in creating an effective, memorable skit that goes along with the costumes they are wearing.

As you sit there, tears of laughter streaming down your face, you think to yourself “You know what? I could do that!”

In that moment, you’ve gone from casual sci-fi con goer/Masquerade audience member to contestant. Well, a contestant-to-be. You’ve finally gotten up the courage to enter your first masquerade.

First off, let me congratulate you. It’s a pretty big step for most people. Although I grew up performing in one way or another and I freely admit that wearing a costume often makes me feel much more confident committing onself to something like the Masquerade can be rather nerve-wracking. That being said, it’s also a pretty rewarding experience. As I’ve already mentioned in previous masquerade-centered entries, being around fellow costumers in this kind of an environment is wonderfully enriching and encouraging.

Although I am by no means an expert in masquerade how-to, I have had a bit of experience as a contestant. Through my own experiences with masquerade I’ve come up with a list of helpful tips (at least, I hope they’re helpful) to consider as you set out to create your skit or walk-on for the show.

1. Decide what costume you want to enter with.

You’d think this would be obvious. As it’s the whole reason behind entering a judged costume contest it deserves to be given serious consideration. Things to consider as you choose: how easy is it to move and see in? Are there movements you can’t do while in this costume – climbing stairs, for instance? I’d also add this consideration…is the costume something you feel a strong connection to? Don’t choose a costume just because you think it’ll be popular and win you points in the judging. If you’re going to spend money and time on the construction of a costume and then sit or stand for hours in a green room and in the hallway, you’d best be sure that the costume you’re entering with is something that you love. For one, the love shows in the final construction. Second, the love is sometimes the only thing that will keep you from throwing your head to the floor in hot, annoyed frustration.

2. Do your research!

Again, an obvious bit of advice but one that a lot of people don’t do. Most convention masquerades follow the same general rules but there will always be at least one or two differences. If a con has a masq, the rules and regulations will be up on the site somewhere. Read them! They’ll give you an idea of how that contest is run and whether or not it’s a good venue for you. Plus, it helps when crafting a skit – when you know what you’re not allowed to do you can figure out what you can more easily.

3. Ask questions

Most conventions that have well-established masquerades tend to have experienced, knowledgeable and approachable staff in charge of this event. A lot of the time you can get in touch with them well in advance of the actual convention. If this is the case, consider asking them for more detailed descriptions of the type of staging that is going to be there. You’ll need to consider what this staging is like while making the costume and creating the skit. Most masquerade stages require you to navigate stairs – usually in the dark. Make sure you plan accordingly.

Also, if you’re planning to do a song-and-dance number or some sort of fight sequence it’s good to know the exact dimensions of the stage. There’s nothing worse than doing a dance number/staged fight and falling off the side or front of the stage because you didn’t allow for enough room when planning the choreography.

4. Decide whether you want to enter as a “walk-through” or an actual skit.

This happens after you’ve already figured out what your costume will be, obviously. It’s easier to figure out things to do after you’ve got your costume and had some time to manuever in it (read: play in it). You can do all kinds of pre-planning before hand and assume that you’ll be able to do all kinds of things on stage in your totally awesome Ent costume, but when you’ve finished it you might just find that it’s going to be challenging enough to see and move in it, nevermind laying down an ass-kicking on the model of Sarumon’s tower that you had the stage ninjas carry on for you. Just a thought.

Oh, and if anyone reading this decides to actually attempt that skit, PLEASE send me video of it.

5. Brainstorm

Once you’ve got your costume and decided that, yes, you are physically capable of moving/seeing enough to attempt more than just walking across the stage and mugging for the cameras, you can start brainstorming a couple of ideas based on your costume. You might have one really great idea you know you want to do but it helps to consider all the things you can do with that costume.

Run the ideas past others. I recommend a mix of people who are fans of the particular genre or source material you have pulled your costume from, as well as a few who are not. The fans can give you source-specific feedback and the non-fans can give you an idea of what to expect, reaction-wise, from a larger, mixed con audience. Rember, not all sci-fi/fantasy fans are the same. Even if you are doing a costume from a lesser-known source you need to make sure you can connect to the larger audience in some way.

6. Follow the rules!

It’s not enough to just read the rules…you have to observe them! If the rules say “no speaking from the stage,” then for Pete’s sake DON’T SPEAK FROM THE STAGE! There’s no guarantee the judges will be able to hear you, and the audience certainly won’t.

7. Know your time limit and plan accordingly

Larger groups are usually allowed a little extra time. I think the rule is usually 30 extra sectond for each additional person in the group, but it varies from con to con. Make sure you consider time when actually writing your skit. If your skit runs a minute and thirty seconds and you’re only allowed 45 seconds, look at what you can cut out of the piece.

Remember the addage “less is more”? This is a good rule of thumb when writing skits. You’re not making an epic film, a la Lord of the Rings. A lot of times just taking out a line can make the whole skit more cohesive. Don’t become married to your skit in such a way that you can’t bring what Tim Gun refers to as “an editing eye” to the creative process.

Believe me, this type of thing isn’t unique to skit-creating. A lot of times writers working under strict word count limitations are forced to cut out all kinds of phrases they’ve slaved over. When I’m confronted with a situation like that, I tend to cut the line or phrase in question out of the piece and paste it into a new, blank document. Then I don’t have to feel like I’ve thrown out my hard work and the other piece is usually better without said line. In the case of masquerade skits, a deleted line could be preserved and re-worked into a completely new sketch for a masquerade event at a different convention.

8. Practice!

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched a masquerade sketch where the individual acting on stage doesn’t seem to know what they are supposed to do. Either they don’t know their blocking, they have problems with their costume on stage, or they can’t seem to remember what the lines are that they’re supposed to be acting…all things that can be avoided quite easily simply by running through your sketch a few times, in costume.

Wanna know which of those things annoys me most? It’s when people can’t seem to make their lip-synching or their actions match what is being said over the loudspeaker.

If you’ve got a sketch that has dialogue given via a tape, and your character is supposed to be mouthing along to the dialogue, then you had best know what it is you’re supposed to be pretending to say. Just opening and closing your mouth while your character’s dialogue is being read aloud is not going to cut it. I’m not saying you have to be a master at lip-synching. Just try to make it look like you aren’t hearing the dialogue for the first time, along with everyone else.

9. Use your ninjas (and emcee) wisely

Many conventions employ the use of volunteer stagehands commonly known as stage ninjas. ‘Cause, you know…they dress in all black and try to be as you-don’t-see-me as possible. A lot of times they’re very willing to help out with little things in your skit. I’ve seen them hold a little girl dressed as Supergirl up so it looked like she was flying and act like they were being controlled by voodoo in another sketch. As long as the demands are simple – and are phrased in the form of a request instead of an actual demand – stage ninjas are usually up for helping out with things in your skit.

For that matter, the emcee can really add to your skit. If, for example, you are hesitant about making an audiotape because you don’t like hearing the sound of your own voice you can always give the emcee a few lines of exposition to give you something to act along with. I’ve seen a couple of really good examples over the years. Just make sure you don’t give them several paragraphs of boring description. It’s hard for them to read it perfectly when they don’t get a lot of time to practice, it’s going to slow down your presentation, and the audience will get restless. Keep it short, keep it simple.

And, finally, the most important piece of advice.

10. Have fun!

That’s why you wanted to do this, wasn’t it? The masquerade is, in the end, as fun as you make it. There are always going to be little things that could have been better but, if you keep a positive attitude it won’t matter. Goof off a little in the costume. Get into character. Use the off stage time to bounce some new ideas off of random people or just keep yourself loose and relaxed.

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