Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How to Successfully Present an Entertaining Masquerade Skit

One of the biggest costuming event at any convention is inevitably the Masquerade, or costume contest. Many cosplayers see the masquerade stage as vital to participation in the hobby – an unfortunate misconception in my opinion. Of course, so often individuals are drawn to this hobby in order to “see and be seen,” and one is certainly seen on the Masquerade stage. The Masquerade, however, is about much more than simply being seen, it is about putting on a show and entertaining hundreds, if not thousands, of audience members. Therefore, as both a cosplayer and a career performer I implore you all, potential Masquerade entrants, to consider a few of these pointers so we can collectively raise the bar in creating amazingly entertaining Masquerade skits in the future.

A note: this article is about entering with a skit in US anime convention style masquerades. I will not cover craftsmanship here, as some people only enter as performers without having their costumes judged. I will also not cover sci fy convention style masquerades or those from outside the US as I have very little experience with them and do not know how they specifically differ from the US anime cons I more often attend.

Don't enter the masquerade your first time at a convention
If you've never been to an anime convention before, it's probably a wise idea to get a lay of the land before you dive right in and enter the masquerade. This goes beyond just upping the quality of the skit you'll do, and into the issue of simply getting acquainted with your surroundings. Anime conventions can be a bit of sensory overload, especially the bigger ones, if you're new to the scene, so it's best to be more of an observer your first time out so you don't get overwhelmed. Plus, it gives you the chance to see what others do, and get an idea of what works and what doesn't, before you try it for yourself.

Have an idea before you sign up
Now, I know the idea of getting up on stage and showing off is VERY enticing, but there should be more driving you to enter the masquerade than simply “I want to be on stage.” I also understand that at some conventions space in the masquerade is very limited and you sometimes have to sign up months in advance. That, however, is no excuse for signing up before you know what you are going to do. If you don't have an idea for content, ask yourself a very important question: why do you want to be in the masquerade? If it's just to get on stage, consider some other options: cosplay dating game, cosplay chess, or other costume performance events that often cast attendees who sign up ahead of time. If it's to compete, consider entering your costume as a walk-on or in the hall contest. (See my "Tips for a good walk-on" post) If you really have your heart set on doing a skit in the masquerade, then you simply need to plan ahead and start brainstorming well enough in advance that you will have your idea formulated by the time sign ups come around.

Read the rules
Even if you've been in 100 masquerades, always look over the rules page before you submit your application. Different conventions have different rules, and from year to year these rules can change. Make sure you learn how many people are allowed on stage at a time, what your time limit is, what content is expressly disallowed, how competition divisions are defined, and any other important details that will only help you when entering and performing in the show. The rules page will also probably tell you if you are required to pre-register for the masquerade and when applications open. Keep in mind many conventions are popular enough that they may not have space left for at-con sign ups.

Be original
The more clever and original a skit is, the more entertaining it will be. Now, this doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel, but you should put some degree of thought into your concept, and you should NEVER directly copy something you've seen someone else do as a skit before. (That doesn't mean coincidences don't happen, of course, nor is there anything wrong with them.) If you like a concept someone has gone with before, think about how you can build upon it to make something new. I would also advise caution of staging “reenactments” of scenes from anime/games/etc; though I have seen them done quite well, this sort of thing takes a LOT more work than one might think to pull off.

Underground Cosplay's "Henshin Ninjas"
Don't underestimate the value of Stage Ninjas
Stage hands, affectionately known in the anime community as stage ninjas, are the non-costumed performers, often dressed all in black, who manipulate props and scenery. It can be hard to work as a stage ninja--lots of cosplayers are attracted to the hobby because they want the attention, but as a stage ninja your job is to be virtually invisible. Though they may not be the "face" of a skit, stage ninjas are just as important as the leads, if not more so! They can facilitate intricate puppet and/or prop work, and some skits have been done featuring stage ninjas as the primary if not only performers.

Mind time restrictions
Due to the number of performances, most masquerades need to impose time limits on skits individual skits so that the show overall does not run too long. It is very important to keep this in mind when planning your skit. If you have dialog periodically run through the lines with a stopwatch and aim for it all to run short of the allocated time. This way you can allow for action that may pause dialog without running over time.

Some stages, like PortCon Maine's, are VERY small
Know what to expect on the stage
This may take a little work to get the information from the masquerade staff ahead of time, to be honest sometimes even they don't know this until the convention starts, but if possible it is important to find out about the space you will be performing on. Not only will it make planning your skit and choreographing your motions easier to know the size of space you'll be working on, but it could be a safety issue as well. If the stage has any levels you may have to contend with (and could trip on) or lacks anything to prevent falls you need to take this into consideration.

Limit “stock” dance choreography
There are a lot of popular “stock” dances out there, both stemming from inside and outside of the anime community, and many of them have found their way one time or another (some more often than others) to the masquerade stage. Sure, maybe you have studied and practiced the Hare Hare Yukai to the point of perfection, but that doesn't mean it is appropriate content for a masquerade performance. Consider instead running a sing & dance along panel, perhaps, or recording a video of your performance. Now, there are always exceptions to any “rule,” such as comedic commentary or original twists, however straight performances of extended portions of stock choreography almost always come off as stale and boring.

Pre-record your audio (with clear sound)
Though some conventions provide microphones at their masquerade, I strongly advise against using them. Often there are too few mics for the number of people on stage, if handheld mics are available at all, and if you don't practice with or know how to use mics the audience may not be able to hear you. Other concerns are keeping under the time limit and how having a microphone stuck in your hand the whole time will hinder your ability to act. Nowadays most computers come with a built in mic, and if you don't have your own mixing program you can get a free download of Audacity, an easy to use audio mixing program. When you record, try to get as clear a recording as possible. Try to record someplace without too much background noise and also remember to enunciate. It might help to speak more slowly than usual too. There's nothing worse for an audience than watching a skit you can't follow because you can't understand the audio. Also, when you mix everything together don't forget to allow time for actions to happen as well.

Practice, practice, practice!
Dead Moon Circus practicing
choreography before the con
I cannot stress this enough. Seriously, if you are going to do a skit you need to practice ahead of time before the con. The more involved the skit, the more and longer you need to practice. This specifically includes anything involving dance, martial arts, puppets, or any other sort of choreography. When we did the “Dead Moon Circus” skit for Anime Boston 2009 we rehearsed several times over the course of 4 months to be ready. If your skit is dialog based, you still need to rehearse before the con as well, and don't forget to practice lip syncing to your lines as if you're actually speaking them. This is a deceptively difficult skill to master and makes a huge difference in how polished your skit will look.

Craftsmanship Helps
You don't have to enter a personally made costume in the craftsmanship contest, and even if you do it doesn't have to be fancy or require incredible skill, however if it is sloppily made it may detract from your skit. Even a simple costume, if made with care, can be impressive. The most important thing to remember when constructing a costume to compliment your skit, just as with your performance, is allow enough time for the finished product to come out looking clean and polished.

Finish your costume ahead of time and practice in costume!
Yes, we already covered practicing, but I feel this issue is important enough (and often enough overlooked) that it merits it's own heading. If there is anything I regret about my preparations for “Dead Moon Circus” it is not practicing in full costume before the con. Of course, our costumes weren't done until the day of the masquerade so that wasn't possible. Luckily this did not detract too much from our performance, but if I'm going to be a perfectionist about things I know I would have been better had I rehearsed more in costume.

Leave the audience wanting more
This is a great suggestion given to me by a friend, and it is so true. While this doesn't mean to leave your skit unfinished – a sense of closure and completion is very important as well – you shouldn't let your skit jump the proverbial shark either by making it go on too long. Just because you are allowed 5 minutes does NOT mean you should fill that time. Aim to make your skit as short as possible while still going through everything you want to and don't say or do anything if it doesn't really need to be said or done.

Other miscellaneous performing tips
  • Avoid turning your back to the audience unless the action serves a specific purpose 
  • Use large animated facial expressions and gestures so they read across the whole room 
  • Memorize your dialog, even if it is pre-recorded 
  • SMILE for your audience, unless it goes against the emotion or situation you are acting 
And most of all, have fun! Once you are on stage there is nothing more you can do to prepare for the moment – you're there. So don't stress about getting it right or wrong. If you practiced enough you'll be fine. If not and you make a mistake, as long as you shrug it off and keep going the audience probably won't even realize you did something wrong. Plus, if you are really enjoying yourself that will show and make your performance all the better – trust me! At the end of the day it's not about awards or what the audience thought, though positive reviews admittedly are nice, the important thing is that YOU have FUN doing something you love.

Suggested Viewing - Creative and Well Executed Masquerade Skits and Walk-Ons
These skits all exemplify certain types of performances or techniques that might inspire you in planning and preparing your own skit.