Theatre Alchemy

Getting Paid to Cosplay

One of the stranger parts of working at Wizards of the Coast was the time I spent as part of the “Theatre Alchemy” team. Theatre Alchemy was part of the advertising and promotions arm of the company, and was specifically about bringing some of the characters on the cards to life by creating costumes for staffers to wear at events like Origins, GenCon, and San Diego Comicon. Not “for fun,” but more like the way Disney has Mickey Mouse walking around at Disneyland.

Let’s start by taking a look at a group photo showing the first batch of costumes. At the time, fans could pretty much instantly identify every single card here. These days, most Magic: the Gathering fans are probably going to have to pour over an online database of first edition cards to figure it out. I regret to admit I can’t remember the names of many of my colleages in this photo off the top of my head.

Back Row: (OMG! I can’t remember who she’s dressed as!), Hurloon Minotaur (played by Mark Sundlie?), Natural Selection (Dave Howell, aka me!), Prodigal Sorcerer (T. Brian Waggoner, Theater Alchemy team leader). Front Row: Counterspell, Bird Maiden, Benalish Hero.

Other costumes I recall that were created later included the Serra Angel and the “Stuffy Doll,” the weird yellow voodoo doll from Cursed Rack.

Taishir, aka Natural Selection

Natural Selection was the first of two roles I was cast in. I don’t know if the character was named by the artist, by Theatre Alchemy, or who, but Taishir was an eagle-headed lion-bodied humanoid. He (judging by the lack of mammary glands) was also really buff. Since I was anything but, the costume included a lot of padding in the upper torso to fill out the chest and arms. Limited visibility was provided by a couple of small holes below the beak, hidden in the feathers. I can’t for the life of me remember what was on my feet. It seems like some kind of non-descript leather boot would be easiest, but I remember having to work with T. Brian on getting boots for my second costume, but not my first, so maybe they were sneakers with lion feet?

Anyway, between the padding which insulated my upper body and the bird mask which trapped some of my breath so I had to re-breathe some of the air I’d just exhaled, it was a surprisingly hot outfit to be in. I learned quickly not to move very fast, or I’d start to overheat. Mind you, because I could only see a fairly small area a few feet in front of me to the left and right (but not straight ahead), moving quickly wasn’t generally a good idea anyway. One trick I quickly learned was to keep my head moving about. This let me re-aim my viewing holes so I could scan the area in front of me to avoid chairs, not fall down stairs, and otherwise safely navigate. I did it using short sharp twitches, very reminiscent of many birds, so it looked like a natural behavior of the character.

I think I played Taishir maybe three or four times? Oddly, I really only remember one event, which I think actually occurred after I’d been re-cast as Lim-Dûl (see below). It was a convention in Portland, probably OryCon (November 1995), or maybe GameStorm (Spring 1995). Lim-Dûl involved a professional make-up artist, but Taishir was just clothing, and the Portland convention didn’t warrant the expense of the full crew, but some of us were going to be there, so it was no big deal to do some of the easier Alchemy characters.

So I’m standing around near our display table, looming decoratively, and I hear a tiny voice say “Mr. Birdman?” I twitch my head around to locate the source of the voice, and there’s an adorable little girl, maybe three or four years old, about eight feet away, with her mother behind her. There’s an unwritten but, to me at least, obvious rule that if your mouth (or, in this case, beak) doesn’t move when you talk, then you don’t talk, so Taishir was mute. I twitch my head again and tip my head forward to aim one of the eagle eyes in her direction. Once she had my attention, she continued.

“Do you like me?” she went on, in a tiny tentative voice. I cocked my head, as if thinking, and then nodded.

“Are you going to eat me?” Say what?? Well, okay, lions eat meat, and raptors eat meat, but cute little girls? Yuck! And also not the message we’re trying to send with Magic, y’know? I cocked my head again, and then shook my head with a clear “no.”

“Can I hug you?” Whaaa? I’ve gone from scary monster to cuddly plush toy in the blink of an eye? Interesting.

Remember “looming?” I’m 193cm tall (that’s 6’4” for the metrically handicapped), so looming is pretty much a given. Alchemy characters almost always had somebody nearby as a handler; I’m guessing I must have handed my staff off to them in order to slowly (musn’t startle the local fauna) squat down, spread my arms, and gesture her forward with my palms. I didn’t cock a finger at her in the usual gesture because Taishir’s fingers ended in rather dramatic claws. I hear a ‘thump thump thump’ of small feet, followed by small arms wrapping around my squishy torso. I carefully hug her back, again making sure not to poke her in the back with my talons (they weren’t very sharp, and were also somewhat squishy, but nevertheless...).

Having hugged Mr. Birdman, the little girl scampered off, and the other folks from Wizards (and probably all the nearby bystanders) all had to make saving throws against cuteness.

Lim-Dûl, Dark Necromancer

Somewhat regrettably, I didn’t get to play Taishir as much as I might have, because Theatre Alchemy got started near the end of 1994, after the main convention season. Convention Season tended to start in March or so with Norwescon, with the biggest gaming conventions being Origins in July and GenCon and Comicon in August, and tailing off with local and regional events in October and November. By the time the 1995 season was upon us, Theatre Alchemy was preparing three new characters to promote the big new expansion we were launching in summer of 1995: Ice Age. The company’s main receptionist was added to take the role of the Royal Mage of Kjeldor, the Alchemy team lead switched from being the Prodigal Sorcerer to the blue wizard, and I was tapped to be the necromancer Lim-Dûl.

The costuming for Lim-Dûl was on a whole ‘nother level, in part because the plan included shooting a short promotional video that would be running on monitors built into Wizard’s huge new convention display booth. Lim-Dûl would be wearing a massive ombré robe that went from gray to black, big shoulder pieces with little trinkets of ‘bone’ dangling off them, a dramatic helm of layered bone, and a deathly gray complexion with a large scar running along the side of his head.

In retrospect, the scar was probably a mistake, but it was definitely interesting. A professional makeup artist was hired to create it, and the process started with me going to his studio to get a lifemask cast. This meant having a couple of straws in my nostrils (so I’d be able to breathe), and then having my entire face covered with alginate. I sat in a chair with my head back and eyes closed for what seemed like quite a long time, and was probably 15-30 minutes, until the alginate set. Then he peeled it off me and I went home. I got to see the plaster cast he made of my face later. It was really creepy, and I’m so sorry I didn’t ask to keep it after we were done with Ice Age. Anyway, he used the lifecast to create a prosthetic scar.

This next sequence of pictures is me in the makeup chair the day we shot the video. I’m wearing the Babylon 5 (2nd season) long-sleeve shirt that was a souvenir of my visit to the set of Babylon 5. But that’s a different story (although one related to Magic: the Gathering)!

The video itself was shot against a green screen. That’s my voice as Lim-Dûl, too, only slightly altered electronically. In particular, the eye-roll at the 2:18 mark (“Interesting. But your one friend...”) is pretty much a dead giveaway that it’s me under all that shaped foam rubber.

At 2:54 (“Let darkness consume you!”), there’s this purple beam coming from my hand. In order for the SFX guys to know where to place that, I was on a ladder holding a mirror, and there was an insanely bright (and hot) light on my hand. I don’t remember if they relied on just dust in the air or if they added some fog, but it was the light beam bouncing off the mirror that showed where I was ‘casting’ the spell. Because Lim-Dûl’s face wasn’t covered like Taishir’s, this costume wasn’t nearly as hot, but under that light, I was still sweating in no time.

My favorite story about this outfit happened at San Diego Comicon. Although it wasn’t as hot as Mr. Birdman, it was still a fairly warm outfit, so when I was being necromantic, I didn’t want to be moving around too much. Also, necromancers look really silly in glasses, and (if I recall correctly), I’d forgotten to bring my contacts with me to Comicon. Instead, I’d take a position near one of the booth’s support pillers, and freeze. The heavy robe helped conceal the motion of my chest when I was breathing, and the gray makeup meant I didn’t look terribly alive.

So I’d just stand their and wait until somebody stopped to look at me. Often, they’d pause, and then take a step closer, probably because they were trying to figure out if I was a mannequin or not. Then I’d take a step closer to them. I got a satisfying collection of gasps, jumps, and twitches, and even a pair of shrieks from two young women who’d tried for a closer look. Terrifying convention attendees and trying to give them heart attacks? Of course! Necromancer, remember?

Another opportunity for evil would be when the Serra Angel would leave the booth and walk around the convention floor. When I saw her head out to show off for the crowd, I’d basically stalk her. More than once a fan would make a point of warning her that a giant death wizard was ‘sneaking’ up behind her. Good thing, too, because I’m sure she’d never have spotted me otherwise.

Part of the costume that most people didn’t see much of were the boots. The designer had specified boots with a heel, so I was about an inch and a half taller than normal. Add that to the headpiece and I was more like 6’8” (about 2 full meters) in height. One time when I was out and about I spotted two other characters even taller than I was. There were a pair of undead-looking guys in long cloaks there to promote the VCR-game “Atmosfear,” and they were nearly seven feet tall. I drifted over to them to find out their story. It probably looked pretty incredible, with these three guys in black towering over the crowd. It was the one and only time I broke character. I found out that it was a father-and-son team that had been hired by the Atmosfear publisher for the show, and they were just that tall. Dang.

I did get one really amusing souvenir from my Theatre Alchemy work. One day the Alchemy team lead dropped by and handed me a small box. Turns out he’d ordered some business cards. Not for me. For Lim-Dûl.