Tuesday, August 08, 2006

[Essay] Cosplaying Part 1: Emphasizing Play in Cosplay

I was watching the National Cosplay Competition on TV the other night and I realized how much life has changed for me. Whereas I'd have a first-hand view before, either as part of the audience or helping friends get into their costumes, I'm now stuck watching televised cosplays, or hearing second-hand accounts from friends and blogs.

Of course watching it on TV showed me how the public could perceive cosplaying. If I were lazy, I could sum it up as a glorified Halloween party, but in all honesty, that's not accurate. For me, there's a difference between saying "I'm going to be in costume" from "I'm cosplaying".

As some of you might know, wearing costumes is something humans have a history of. From donning ceremonial masks in spiritual rituals to wearing hoods and cloaks in various initiation rites (I'm actually thinking of the KKK here...) to stylish masks in masquerades to something more mundane such as a birthday or Halloween party, dressing up other than who you are is more common than you think. It seems that cosplay could easily fit into one of those categories but that would be over-generalizing, and fails to differentiate itself from other activities. For example, the highlight of the masquerade isn't just wearing masks to conceal your identity, but it's about the socializing, the dancing, the mystery of a blind date. In that specific scenario, concealing your identity is in the service of something else, and not an end in itself.

So how do we go about describing cosplay? Again, there's a simple way to show what cosplay is, but the impression it gives isn't necessarily accurate. I could say it's a fusion of two words: costume and play. Most people, however, seem to focus more on the former than the latter. And that's what makes this article different as I'll be focusing on the play part. When we speak about "play" in cosplay, it's not just about playing or having fun, but rather an emphasis more on acting on stage such as theater, and adopting another identity and pretending to be someone else. Both elements, costume and play, are important, but the latter seems to be overlooked as of late, and in a sense, both terms go hand in hand with each other.

How do I focus on the "play" part? By focusing on the costume part. Aside from cosplay, where else do you find costumes? Typical answer would be in Halloween parties and/or birthday parties. However, as mentioned above, other events incorporate costumes such as masquerades or rituals of certain religions. Why is that important? Because the next question is where do these people get their costumes? More often than not, costumes and masks will be bought, ready-made and good to go. Of course in certain cases like a birthday party, the mother of a child might sew the costume but in today's urban world, most likely outfits are bought from a store. Attire for fraternities, cults, and organizations (if organizations actually use them) are typically uniform (again, the white hoods and cloaks of the KKK comes to mind), and are mass produced by someone (that would be an interesting initiation if you had to make your own outfit...). However, in the case of cosplaying, those scenarios don't apply often. Unless a certain character is extremely popular, you can't buy your costume off the shelf. Some might hire a seamstress to sew up their costume, but that's a unique outfit and not one produced in the hundreds. Would-be cosplayers might hunt for specific items, such as belts and boots or a certain cloth, but they don't buy the entire outfit off the rack. Which is why I go back to the play part.

In my senior year in high school, I was part of the school's theater group. I did no acting, but instead I signed up for pre-production. Anyone who's worked in theater knows that there are several elements needed to get a show going: you need more than actors, you need directors, managers, and yes, the people who do all your pre-production requirements, from constructing the stage to props to costumes. For me, cosplaying is akin to pre-prod work. Usually, you have a certain concept in mind for a costume, but creating that costume will take time and hard work. You can't buy the costume off the shelf, and instead it'll take you days and weeks to find the necessary items you need, combine it all together, and make sure your props and stage go along with the design. It's a sad play when you're watching Peter Pan and he's not in a green shirt, for example.

For me, the pre-prod work of cosplaying is exactly just like that. Cosplayers might scrounge various areas, looking for the right materials, taking as much as several weeks, all for a one day performance. And it's not just about the costume: it could be other elements as well such as make-up or props. Another thing I noticed about cosplayers here is that they don't go at it alone. In theater, you have a team. It's not just one person doing all the stage setup and finding the right costumes. Usually there are assistants in addition to the stylist, and there's usually more than one costume being made. Same goes for cosplaying. On one hand, you have several would-be designers helping out this cosplayer to make the perfect outfit, whether it's a mecha costume or something just as elaborate. On the other end of the spectrum, you have these bunch of people who are cosplaying as a group, and help each other find the appropriate material for their costume; it's not as elaborate as say, the mecha outfit, but you have just as many people involved, and is geared more towards producing several similarly-themed outfits rather than a single, significantly more complex one. Yes, there are exceptions and there are people who go through the entire process alone, but that's honestly such a lonely procedure, and where's the fun in that? Especially with all the resources that's available, from forums to mailing lists to friends, there's really no need to go about cosplaying alone. It could be as simple as asking someone on the bulletin board if they know where to buy a certain wig or button, and there you have it, you're working with someone else!

So your outfit and props are done. Again, cosplaying is more than wearing a costume. Because if it was, then all the work would end with pre-production. A good cosplayer does more than wear the costume. Heck, I've had several photo shoots and a good model does more than just pose and look pretty. Anyone who's watched Tyra Bank's supermodel reality show should know supermodels do more than just stand there in outfits given to them. A good cosplayer needs to give the costume character. Again, back to the play part, this involves acting.

Acting does not necessarily mean you have to give an award-winning performance. There are several ways to act, and it's more than just a monologue or dialogue. It can be seen in a lot of things, from your body language to the way you walk to the way you smile. It also means having the courage to actually strut your costume in front of an audience. That doesn't mean a cosplayer should be in character all the time, but the moment you're on stage in front of the catwalk, you act in character. It might be fifteen seconds or a minute but in that span of time, you must show that you are your character. Some cosplayers utter a phrase, others do an action pose, some even break into song. It's up to the cosplayer to decide which fits their character more but again, they have to do something. It's what separates the cosplayer winners from the rest. You might have the best costume out there but if you just stand on stage and act stiff, you won't be pleasing the audience or your fellow cosplayers. Honestly, if you're just interested in making the best costume, simply become part of the crew for a cosplayer. A good cosplayer can make your creation better by infusing into it life and personality. Cosplay is one half "play", after all.

While it doesn't get as much media attention as the cosplay catwalk (at least here in the Philippines), cosplaying also has its roots in group performances or skits. The cosplay literally becomes a play as several people, in character and in costume, act out a particular scene. It could be the reenactment or a particular scenario in an anime or perhaps a chapter in a manga. It could also be a fantastical crossover between unrelated shows or a fanfic writer's idea. It could be a dance performance or a group karaoke. Whatever it may be, it involves several participants on stage. I think this is the heart of cosplay and while we do have "group cosplays" that feature such events, it's not enough. That's why there are several attempts at group cosplays during catwalks, either the previous participants remain on stage until the last member appears, or it could be a consecutive string of characters from the same anime (or simply a consecutive string of cosplayers who are all friends, irregardless of their costumes). Perhaps that's why I want to focus on the play part, because a play involves a group of people. And cosplaying is anything but a solo venture.

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