Alena Van Arendonk and Laura Van Arendonk Baugh
(You can find Alena and Laura at Gen Con running the following workshops in 2017: http://bit.ly/2uQADsh )
Shoemaker: Please tell me your names and how many Gen Cons you've both attended.
Alena: My name is Alena Van Arendonk, I want to say 10 or 11 Gen Cons.
Laura: I was just trying to think of that. I am Laura Van Arendonk Baugh, and I think we started in 2006 or 7. What year did we do Tsubasa, Reservoir Chronicle?
Alena: Oh that was later. I know we did Gankutsuou in 2007 at Gen Con so I know we were at least there by then.
Laura: Ok. Well Gankutsuou at Gen Con was our first year at Gen Con.
Shoemaker: Ok, and have you always attended to cosplay?
Shoemaker: Alright, so what is it that made you come to Gen Con specifically for that then?
Alena: Specifically the impetus was Gen Con came to Indinapolis and it was a lot closer so it was easier to get to.
Laura: Yes that was a big help.
Alena: We've been doing a lot of other fandom conventions and when Gen Con came to Indy a few years before that it was acceptable so that made it an option that hadn't been one before.
Shoemaker: Have you heard about Gen Con before then and thought about it at all? I mean, obviously it was in Milwaukee so it was further away but was it something you had considered even?
Alena: We had friends who attended but we had not concidered attending when it was in Milwaukee.
Laura: At that time to I was not as into games as I would say I am now, so there was less attraction to drive further for something that didn't feel like it was as aligned with my personal interests. Now, I'm still very into cosplay, and I am more of a gamer than I was, you know, 10 years ago. So, now I would be willing to drive further for a game event than I was at that time. I don't know how that relates.
Shoemaker: No, it makes sense. What kind of games do you like to play?
Laura: I have been shamelessly lured into the tabletop RPG world. So I am now a Pathfinder nerd. I'm a level 12 Kitsune sorceress, thank you.
Alena: I do tabletop and video games as well. Pretty much the only games I don't play are I don't tend to do a lot of collectible or trading card games but I play a lot of other games. Board games, card games, you name it.
Shoemaker: Ok, awesome. With that in mind, would you say Gen Con got you more into gaming? If you originally came more to cosply or was it just a natural interest that has kind of grown over the years?
Laura: Let me answer this first than you can give like a more academic answer. Gen Con did not directly bring me into gaming but Gen Con provided the crucial pin that converted, that pivoted, me into the gaming world. So in my other world, my other life, not in my day job and not in my costuming job I am an author. I write fiction. My husband, at Gen Con, won a boon from Pathfinder to allow him to play a Kitsune, which at that time was a non playable class, and I had just released the first in a series of Kitsune books. So he gave that boon to me and said "here, I know you haven't had a good time playing RPGs but now you can do it as a Kitsune" which was a totally shameless bribe, but it worked! And, that would not have happened if Gen Con had not allowed him to win that boon, so there you go.
Alena: I think Gen Con, in my case at least, provided an outlet for more formalized playing. I would always play with friends, but I had never considered playing with strangers or in a more organized capacity and Gen Con, the fact that I was there, they had organized games, it gave me an opportunity to try those out.
Shoemaker: Alright, great.
Laura: I was just going to add, that's a good point. Gen Con lets you taste test a lot more easily. Because there are so many things in such a concentrated area, you know, you don't have to drive to Ohio to try something that you might not like, or you don't have to go to a game store and get stuck with a bunch of people that you might, you know, want to be working with. At Gen Con you can just walk by something and go "Oh, that looks interesting!" Or you can go by and go "No, I'm going to pass and go over to this thing over here." and it's much easier buffet to sample from.
Shoemaker: That is definitely true, Gen Con is not short of options. So, out of the 10 or so Gen Cons you two have been to, do you have a favorite one and why?
Alena: I don't know that I have a favorite convention. I've certainly had events I've enjoyed at specific Gen Cons but I don't know that... Every year is different. We have a good time every year and we do different things every year, so I think they've all been good.
Laura: Yeah, I can't think of a favorite year, like there's nothing where I went "oh, if only this year had been like last year" or something like that. I think I have a lot more of a series of memories rather than "oh that was the year," you know.
Shoemaker: Sure, that makes sense. So thinking about still Gen Cons as a whole you have been to, have you noticed much change in cosplay and fandom activities in the time that you've been attending?
Alena: I have seen, I would say, an increase in the pop culture appeal as sort of general acceptability of cosplay from a cultural standpoint and I think that's reflected in the fact that you've got a lot more people coming in some variety of costume. I think you've got a lot of younger people coming in costume that maybe didn't use to. So I'd say its expanding from what I've seen over the last couple years. And I think that's partly just that American culture has become more enamored of fan events and costumes in general.
Laura: Yeah, I would agree with that. I definitely, I think there are more. I think there is a younger demographic that I didn't see as much as previously. I think you're seeing more, I'm not sure what the right word is, it's not mainstream, it's not younger, but you're seeing a different flavor of fandom coming in. There's more anime, there's more, what are the kids watching these days, cartoon network...
Alena: you've got west comics, Steven Universe, Superheroes...you've got a lot of things that were not as common a few years ago but it's become more popular and therefore more people are dressing up.
Shoemaker: Ok. So still sticking with that kind of topic, costuming events, as far as Gen Con is a 50 year old convention are newer aspects of the convention. What's your perception of how these events have been received by other con goers, especially as someone who is interested in promoting these areas?
Alena: Well, I would say, while the organized fan events are a newer aspect of Gen Con, if you look at the history of fan events and costuming, fan costuming actually predates organized conventions. We have fans dressing up in sci-fi costumes with photographs going back to the turn of the last century. So I don't think costuming, in that way, is neccessarily something that's going to be coming in as a new shocking phenomenon to anybody, because it's always been there. So I think the fandom has been welcoming of it in general. I do think there is more opportunity now and there have been a lot more organized events as far as costume contests, gatherings and meetups for certain fandoms. Photoshoots. Those seem to be increasing and I think in general the fandom has been pretty welcoming. I don't see a lot of people being "Oh no, these kids and their costumes are coming into our gaming convention." I think everyone is pretty happy with it.
Laura: Yeah, this perception about your grumpy gamer complaining about all of these cosplayers getting peanut butter in his chocolate or whatever, I think I do see that occasionally on the forums or hear it in the hallways but I think you're dealing with a very few vocal people as opposed to that is not the vibe I get as a general rule. Most of the time people are like "Oh my gosh that's great, I never thought about dressing up like this! But look at what you're wearing, that's fantastic!" And I think, that, yeah for the most part it's a very welcoming, very exciting, you know, come on let's be honest, it makes it fun. It's a much more fun hallway if everyone is in costume rather than everyone's in the same black t-shirt. So it's cool.
Shoemaker: I agree with you. So, are there other conventions that you two go to for cosplay?
Alena: Yes. I do between 10 and 15 events a year, on average. That's a variety of different events. That's anime conventions, gaming conventions, pop culture conventions. I'm often there in the capacity of a guest doing presentations on costuming. But I do a lot of different events.
Laura: Yeah. Ditto. We'll be at one in 2 weeks. We're guesting and teaching at an event in 2 weeks.
Shoemaker: Ok, is that your last event before Gen Con or do you have another in between?
Alena: No, I have another one the week after that, and then I have another one a couple weeks after that.
Shoemaker: I imagine if you're doing 15 a year, there is not much of a break.
Alena: Yeah, we do, I'm always somewhere, whether it's a full convention or just a, like a store will have me come in to teach a workshop or something. I do stuff about twice a month.
Shoemaker: Ok. So what is it that you find different about Gen Con compared to those other conventions you go to for cosplay?
Alena: We always joke, and it's not really a joke, it's true, Gen Con has the politest audience of any convention we go to. Everyone is super nice and people respect you in your costume and it's a really nice atmosphere. Part of it is that Gen Con on average has a slightly older median age than a lot of the conventions we go to, which tend to be younger people. So I think you just have a more mature audience in terms of their social skills. But also Gen Con just has a really nice, polite, atmosphere. You can walk up to a stranger and ask a question. Somebody will come up and make a nice comment about your costume. They always ask permission before taking a photo. It's just a really friendly convention to go to.
Shoemaker: Alright, so with that in mind is there also a favorite event you've had at Gen Con every year?
Laura: Well obviously we do the costume contest. That's kind of an annual thing. We haven't actually had the opportunity to do it for the last couple of years, and I kind of miss it, but it's a scheduling issue, but Windmill Games always does a LARP on Sunday that's just kind of the let of steam, you know, end of Gen Con LARP. And it's hillarious and I kind of miss that we weren't able to do that. Like I understand, you know, we're all busy and that's a problem but, aww it was fun. We've been doing the Pathfinder specials. So that's also fun because that's a once a year, you know that's a unique thing you can't pick up at anywhere else. You can't play that in a home game. What else, Alena, what are you thinking of?
Alena: The last couple years we've been doing more and more seminars ourselves. So we haven't had time to do as many games. Which, that's the trade off. I mean I enjoy teaching but I also enjoy playing, so. But the last years we've been doing more panels and more seminars of our own material, so that, again, with scheduling is difficult.
Laura: I have some favorites of our work, does that count? I love doing the new resin workshop that we're doing. What is the name of that, mold making, what do we call that thing? It's got a name. Man I'm good, I'm so full of advertising goodness right now.
Alena: Molds, resin, and silicon and why I think is the name of it.
Laura: That's it, yes, and that one's just really fun to do so that's one of my favorites that we do.
Shoemaker: So I'm guessing you've seen an increase in demand for your workshops since you keep doing more and more of them?
Laura: We actually increased the player limit, participant number, this year. Because we typically see them sell out, usually in the first day of events being open. That's very gratifying. It's very cool. And yes, I actually bumped up the number of participants this year so hopefully we'll be in a space that can accomodate that.
Shoemaker: And is it typically newer people to cosplaying that are coming to your workshops or is it like more veterans that just want to learn a new technique?
Alena: It's both, depending on what we offer. We have some very beginner friendly workshops. That you don't need any prior experience, and then our resin and silicone workshop is more of an advanced materials, so we get a lot of people who have been doing costuming and they just want to step up to the next level of crafting.
Shoemaker: So, now if we turn our thoughts to the future about Gen Con, do either of you have any thoughts on how Gen Con should progress?
Alena: You know, with as many conventions as I do, the only time I see a convention really get into trouble, as it ages, is when they sort of stagnate and aren't willing to accept changes in the fandom or new people. And I've seen a couple of, I want to say the more old guard conventions that have been around for a long time, that you get the same people coming every year and they don't really understand how to incorporate the new fandom events and the new elements of fandom that come in. And I think Gen Con, as a whole, has done a really good job of being welcoming to those things, and adapting as newer people come in. So I don't think that's going to be a problem. But I think that's something that as you go forward with any convention, you've got people, you're going to have to keep adapting as a culture event and I think that's important to remember no matter what your focus is. Gaming or movies or anime or comics. There's always going to be some new facet that you have to welcome in and people are going to be interested in something new. The design of Gen Con, where people can bring their own material and bring their own games to put on offer is a great way to combat that because you always have new things on offer. But, just in general, as long as the culture keeps welcoming in new fans and new ideas I think it'll be fine.
Laura: Yeah, and I think Gen Con does a nice job, too, of having such a broad variety of topics, themes, interests, events. So, you know you can go to Gen Con and get one badge and, you know, go watch some anime, go watch some Dr. Who, participate in a tabletop RPG, participate in a LARP, go attend a historical lecture on the popes of the 15th century. You can go learn how to do some first aid and then you can go learn a dance. That's with one badge. You know, there's no way you can't find something that's going to appeal and you can bring a group of people. You can bring a whole family and find something for everybody. And I think probably the biggest challenge facing is going to be traffic, where do we put people. You know, we've kind of absorbed all of the buildings in Indy, which is fantastic. So, I dunno, maybe the next step is to build a monorail. That'd be good.
Shoemaker: Alright, Well that's all the questions I have for you two, is there anything that you wanted to tell me about Gen Con that I just didn't get to ask you about?
Alena: No, I think we've covered my thoughts pretty clearly.
Laura: Yeah, I mean it's definitely, it's a convention that I invite people to frequently. In fact, just this morning one of my fiction editors, who's up in Western Canada, was talking to me about conventions and she's like "I'd like to come to Gen Con some day" and I'm like "You should definitely be there!" and it's, there's a lot of cons that I enjoy going to but I don't invite as many other people to because it's more niche audiences. It's not going to be, it's something you kind of have to already fit in to go there kind of thing. And Gen Con, as I was just saying, it's so broad and it's so welcoming and it's polite. You know, it's a great place to bring people in and just get them introduced to the con circuit. I recommend it. 10 out of 10, would attend again.