Planning a Group Costume Event/Masquerade Entry
by Laura Ulak
I speak to you as the proud and slightly deranged member of 7 very large group costume projects. Four of the projects have already happened, and 3 are in the planning stages now. Our group sizes have run from 10 to 25 people. I have planned or helped plan most of them and in the beginning did a large amount of the construction as well.
I first got involved with group costuming when I decided in 2007 that I wanted to recreate a costume from a portrait. However, I had a large group of costuming friends, and it seemed like it would be more fun if we ALL wore portrait recreations at MNRF (Minnesota Renaissance Festival). Since we had more female members than male, I decided on King Henry VIII of England and his family. By the time we were done we had recreated not only Henry and his six wives, but also Queen Mary Tudor, Lady Jane Grey, a tailor, three ladies-in-waiting, a painter and a tour guide.
I decided early on that I could not be one of the Queens– as the person who at that point was doing the bulk of the sewing, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist adjusting the outfits of people, snipping spare threads, etc., and thus I became the Royal Tailor.
Project Tudor (as it was known) taught me an incredible amount about sewing, about creating, and about managing. (I still have regrets over those last minute hats, though…) It helped prepare me for other group events, and was so much fun (despite my being completely sleep-deprived) that I was instantly bitten by the group costuming bug.
The next year (2010) our sewing group decided we wanted to be courtesans out at MNRF. Applying the lessons I learned the year before made this event come off more easily than the previous one. It helped that I was not doing most of the sewing work, and that no person was irreplaceable. When all was said and done, we had 20 Italian (esque) Courtesans. We ran the gamut from historically accurate to movie inspirations.
This was also the first year that we had a “performance.” We decided it would be fun to be introduced to the King and Queen as a wedding gift from Italy, and as such, each of our “ladies” was to have a different specialty. Since I was organizing the event, I was the Madam or “Manager” of the ladies and did the introductions. We had a contortionist, a dominatrix, a set of twins and a perpetual virgin. I feel comfortable saying that the King and Queen were VERY surprised. Hee!
As my fellow costumers got better and better at their craft and didn’t need as much in the way of direction, my role became less of manager and more of advisor. For 2011 we attended MNRF as the Royal Court of the United Provinces of the Island of Wenchlandia– everyone was Queen for a day. We had various silly names (I was Godiva Ghiardelli, the Countess of Cadbury) and everyone had to have a crown or tiara. We had a smaller group of 17, but no less amount of fun.
I did make 5 outfits in 5 days for 5 of us (including myself, although my costume had been in construction for many months prior to this), but otherwise just helped folks with questions, fittings, etc. We had no real presentation, no skit, no defined plan, and it was very nice to be able to just go and swan around and be Queens.
I decided to go to Costume Con for 2012 and thought it would be fun to enter the Masquerade. A small idea about Dr. Who turned into a massive undertaking of 12 people in 2 countries and 7 states. We decided to be Steampunkish Victorian femme Doctors, and each person was to interpret their Doctor in the way they saw fit. We had formal Victorians, Edwardian inspiration outfits, a Saloon Girl style, a Lolita style, and Cindy Lou Who. For our presentation the joke was that the Tardis had “reversed the polarity of the neutron flow” and caused the Doctor to split into pieces – female pieces. Since there are supposed to be only 12 reincarnations of the Doctor (as per Dr. Who canon), and there had only been 11 doctors thus far on the TV series, we knew we had to have a 12th Doctor. Since Erin was not a Doctor Who fan and misheard “Whovian” as being “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” we thought it would be fun to have Cindy Lou Who be our rather confused 12th Doctor. The audience response proved us correct, and we won multiple Worksmanship awards and Judge’s Choice, and had a ball doing it.
This particular group costuming event taught me even more about managing people. Particularly people you may not know extremely well, and are not comfortable yelling at! However, the thrill of the performance and sharing in something so amazing with people I liked convinced me to participate in more Masquerades. Which means I have 3 group projects on my schedule for the next two years…
There are several uniting factors in all of these experiences that have been good learning experiences, and which I think are valuable for anyone planning a large group costume event/masquerade entry to know:
1. I learned to have back-ups for my back-ups. In Project Tudor, we had to replace Lady Jane Grey a month out and I already had someone in mind for the job and she was able to step into the role almost seamlessly.
2. No one is irreplaceable, except when they are. When we did PT we did not foresee one thing – that our Queen Elizabeth I would get H1N1 the morning of the event and not be able to participate. Since QE1 was not essential to the group it was okay to be missing her (and in a bit of serendipity, her costume was the only one I was not able to mostly complete in my all nighter the night before the event), but if someone has to drop out the morning OF the event, you should still have a back-up. Or be able to grab a random person to throw the costume on.
When we did the Whos, we really couldn’t afford to lose any of the Doctors. If we had 1-3 and then 5-12 but no 4 we would have looked ridiculous. Having learned from PT, I had possible ideas for filling in for any missing people.
3. Make sure you have a drop dead date for folks to drop out. For my event for next year I have a drop dead date of one month out from the event, as we need to have time to get our AV and sound together, and we don’t want to have to go back and edit anything.
4. Keep your paperwork together and able to be transported easily. For PT I had a 3 ring binder that I had carried around for almost 18 months with the measurements of all participants, photos of the costumes, and fabric swatches to match the portraits. I sourced fabrics online, in person, in town and on vacation. I was able to pull out fabrics from shelves and match them immediately to photos because I had them with me at all times.
5. Do not be afraid to try something new. During PT I learned to make jewelry and hats and corsets and so many things that I had never tried before.
6. Learned to accept help from others. No man is an island, and people will help if you ask for help. People WANT to participate.
7. I discovered that all projects need to have a deadline for their individual parts – if something is not working you need to move on and not keep trying the same idea and hoping to get different results. Put a time limit on something new – if it doesn’t work, go on to your back-up plan.
8. It is important to ultimately have ONE person (or two who work together very well and are on the same page in regards to the project) to make final decisions. The adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” applies very much here. People may have lots of good ideas, but someone needs to be able to step in and reduce those ideas down to something that will work, and have the ultimate “NO” power.
9. You have to be willing to be tough on your members. You have to keep track of your members, keep them on task, and make sure that things progress smoothly. People who have never been part of a group or team can have a hard time going from “me” to “us.” It is your job to help them.
10. Be realistic. How many people can you handle in your group? How much space is there on stage? Do you have time to actually complete all the ideas you want to? Do you have the capabilities? And if you don’t have the capabilities, do you have the time to learn something new?
And above all – this should be fun. It may be stressful, and there may be yelling, and you may want to strangle every single member of your group at least once, but remember that you are making a memory with these people. That you are doing something together as a group to have FUN. It shouldn’t be so much about the winning, but more about the experience. Winning is nice, don’t get me wrong, but sharing a moment with your friends is the part that will stay with you long after that prize ribbon is gone.
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