Sam McManis

Discoveries: At Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, a bunch of posers

Edward Percy Moran’s “The Birth of Old Glory” (1917), depicting Betsy Ross and George Washington, is re-created by live actors at Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach.
Edward Percy Moran’s “The Birth of Old Glory” (1917), depicting Betsy Ross and George Washington, is re-created by live actors at Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. Pageant of the Masters

An imposing gilt frame, so tall it threatens to scrape the 14-foot proscenium arch, is rolled onto the darkened stage by three workers dressed in black to avoid detection. They scurry off, not wanting to spoil the effect, as the crowd murmur abates with the swelling sound of violins wafting from the orchestra pit.

Suddenly, all is illuminated. High-intensity bulbs, attached to the frame’s backing, flash upon a life-size idyllic scene, captured oil-on-canvas. It is Winslow Homer’s 1871 “A Country School,” the burnished brown of the austere wooden desks in the one-room schoolhouse suffused with sunlight spilling from windows showing a verdant hillside almost mocking the students, whose heads are bent over school books like supplicants.

Soaring strings fade to a sedate underscore as a narrator, himself with a burnished baritone, provides commentary.

A schoolmarm offers valuable lessons to her young scholars whose only distraction is a yearning to be outdoors …

The amphitheater audience, some 2,600 strong on hand for one of the nightly performances of the 82nd Pageant of the Masters in this noted artist enclave, seems to lean in as one. Some employ binoculars to better view these closely observed static details of rural life, preserved as if in amber for posterity. The prim teacher, open book in left hand and right arm grasping the desk for support, looks to the right at a group of barefoot boys solemnly reading while, outside her vision, a younger child on a bench has fist to eyes, blotting tears.

Homer devoted many of his works to this nation’s youngsters, still blissfully unaware of the modern world they would inherit …

The mise-en-scene, even viewed from a distance, is so vivid and animated as to be alive, yet the eye detects nary a scintilla of movement. That little boy will weep for eternity. That vase of flowers on the schoolmarm’s desk will never fade and wilt. That girl will never turn the page.

Even as he understood the value of reading ... the artist never forgot the particular pleasure of childhood – recess!

All at once, chaos. The children in this two-dimensional world come alive right out of the frame, leaping to their feet, books and decorum ignored. The crying kid cheers, the schoolmarm wipes her brow, the violins once more assume aural dominance. The crowd roars in laughter and appreciation, its perceptual assumptions gleefully upended. The lights dim and the frame wheeled off, borne backstage on a wave of wild applause.

Even if you knew what to expect – and, frankly, you’d have to be dense as a dimmer board not to, since the annual summer spectacle of tableaux vivants (“living pictures”) has gained notoriety in the art world and remains a scorchingly hot ticket in town – the sight of two-dimensional figures morphing into 3-D before your eyes, sans Hollywood CGI wizardry, never fails to impress and delight.

So rarely are tableaux vivants staged these days that the producers of Pageant of the Masters, the 54-performance centerpiece of Laguna Beach’s summer-long Festival of the Arts, feel the need to clue in the audience by, early in the 90-minute show, breaking the fourth wall and going all 3-D and having characters literally come out of the frame.

Beyond shock value, it helps the audience grasp the extraordinary nature of what they are witnessing. It makes them remember that this is a live stage show featuring real flesh-and-blood human beings outfitted in elaborate costumes and makeup meant to blend seamlessly into sets specially built with trick-of-the-eye features (metal clips, strategically-shaded arm and leg rests) to help them hold a pose for upward of two minutes.

As Richard (“Butch”) Hill, the pageant’s technical director for the past 26 years, likes to say, “We deal in illusion. It’s all about sizing, staging, painting and lighting. Somehow, it just all comes together.”

Fascinating as the how of staging the pageant may be, the why is equally as intriguing. To wit, why has Laguna Beach’s Festival of the Arts devoted millions of dollars and considerable resources to embrace an archaic art form that really never was all that popular beyond a few French parlors and school plays in the Victorian era?

Simple, really. It’s a gimmick that draws tourists. A highbrow gimmick, a gimmick artfully executed and warmly received, but a gimmick just the same. That’s as true today as in 1932, when festival organizers sort of stumbled upon the idea as a way to lure visitors at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles to what then was a sleepy southern Orange County seaside town that drew artists like sand flies.

The way Sharbie Higuchi, the festival’s director of marketing, describes it: “Artists opened up their studios to visitors, and some of them had the idea to dress up as famous artists or subjects, like the Mona Lisa, you know, and go down the street leading people to their studios. The next year, they came up with the idea of the pageant. It just took off from there.”

Officially dubbed “Spirit of the Masters” in 1935, it was the brainchild of artist and vaudevillian Lolita Perine and local construction worker Roy Ropp, who cobbled together rather crude sets and costumes for locals to pose as figures from the likes of Rembrandt and Claude Monet. Over the years, though, it has evolved into an elaborate stage show featuring 500 volunteers dealing with set construction, costuming and makeup for a cast of 150 that either step into the frame of paintings or pose as sculptures.

This year, 40 pieces were depicted in the 90-minute show, each with its own score and narration and loosely hewing to the theme chosen by longtime director Diane Challis Davy, “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Works ranged from the relatively simple (a re-creation of Cyrus Dallin’s 1909 bronze sculpture “Appeal to the Great Spirit”) to the elaborate (J.H. Fragonard’s 1767 rococo masterpiece, “The Swing”), from quintessentially American paintings (Norman Rockwell, John Sloan) to Eastern classics (Chikanobu’s woodblock triptychs).

Yet, you didn’t have to be an art history major – overheard in the audience before curtain: “Oh, good, they’ve got Norman Rockefeller!” – to appreciate the emotion the works evoke, coupled with the inherent quirkiness of live staging.

But it helps. Though the pageant does draw its share of dilettantes, it also attracts an avid coterie of true art lovers. Three friends, Jean Tokuda Irwin and Maggie Simpton of Salt Lake City, and Carol Snowden of Houston, flew in just for the pageant, as well as to check out the artists showing works at the festival.

“I recognize a lot of the paintings from my studies,” said Tokuda Irwin, an educator for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, “and I’m just blown away by the authenticity and the clarity of how they can reproduce (paintings) and what it takes to do it, creating the part of the painting that’s not human and, oh, the capacity of people to hold that position for so long. Just great. I’ve been in this business my whole life, and it takes a lot to wow me. They make it look so realistic.”

A lot of artifice goes into that realism. Backstage at the amphitheater, carved into the lush Laguna hillside, you might imagine a scene of controlled chaos is taking place nightly. Rather, it’s a businesslike, but exuberant, atmosphere. Row upon row of makeup chairs glowing with vanity lights feature disembodied mannequin heads, painted templates to resemble each cast member. Allyson Doherty, makeup director, painted every single “mock head” painstakingly from the original paintings. She pinned to each mirror a cheat sheet with the exact color, pattern and thickness needed for each character. Once a week starting in February, volunteers practice on their subjects.

Cindy Helliwell, who laughed when asked if she was a professional makeup artist, has been a makeup volunteer for 13 years.

“It’s not that hard, I swear,” said Helliwell, of Fountain Valley. “Allyson can teach you to do it in a half hour. Just look at the head and read the instructions.”

Yet, the “head” on which she worked, 8-year-old Christian Preusse, of Laguna Beach, belied the paint-by-numbers dismissal. Preusse would be portraying “Boy #2” in the evening’s second painting, Homer’s “Snap the Whip.” His face was spackled with a foundation (“Blush coal,” according to the cheat sheet) and Helliwell dabbed the makeup stick in blue-gray, then looked from the mannequin head to Preusse, then back, several times before delicately drawing a 2-inch line down the left side of the boy’s face, between his cheekbone and curve of the nose, which will denote shadows once hooked into the painting and glowing under the hot lights.

Preusse was careful not to move a muscle while Helliwell painted his face. He is used to staying stock still, having practiced for weeks portraying a young boy frozen in mid-stride in the painting.

“You just gotta, I don’t know, make yourself comfortable in the pose,” he said. “They have these things (metal clamps) that hold you in. That helps.”

Depending on the scene, many cast members wear harnesses hidden underneath their costumes, O-rings sprouting from their backs and securing them to hanging hooks. It works on the same principle as mountain climbers snapping carabiners into an anchor on a cliff face.

If Preusse’s pose was “no big deal,” even for an 8-year-old boy with boundless energy, the poses to be struck by 11-year-olds Isabella Holden, of Costa Mesa, and Lucy Luengas, of Aliso Viejo, are complicated.

The girls, caked head to foot in green paint meant to represent a patina of oxidized bronze, were to portray two of the eight children in a statue called the Depew Memorial, a fountain sculpted by Karl Bitter and Alexander Sterling Calder in 1919. The girls must pose with one foot aloft and slightly across their bodies, the other foot plantar-flexed in mid-push-off and their arms linked. That’s the relative easy part, they said. Because the Pageant of the Masters is all about verisimilitude, the fountain’s spigot is turned on for the whole 90 seconds.

“When the water splashes you, it’s kind of distracting,” Luengas said.

Holden: “It’s really cold, the water. But at least they have arm rests and leg rests for you.”

Luengas: “The people that make the sets are great. They hide all the little stuff the audience can’t see.”

Makeup and costuming (some buttons and lapels are merely painted on a muslin tunic in many costumes, in order to maintain 2D appearances) can only do so much in trying to make characters appear flat as a cardboard cutout. Much of the perceptual work falls on Hill, the technical director.

“It’s a lot of scaling and drafting,” he said. “There are foreground areas people are standing in front of or in back of (that need) to support them. It’s a challenge for each set. And the lighting, of course, is the final piece of the puzzle. You can do a lot with lighting.”

A glimpse of the canvas, sans real people, for Homer’s “The Country School” shows only the slightest indentation where that weeping boy and the girl next to him must sit. Hidden in the bench’s back is the hook that will clamp the boy in. Same for the schoolmarm, who has an armrest for holding the book and a metal clasp for keeping her upright.

Still, much of the pose falls on the schoolmarm, 17-year-old Emily Hopkins of Aliso Viejo. The facial expression Homer gives the schoolmarm is so pensive, perhaps even a touch forlorn. Hopkins doesn’t have to get “in character.” She says she’s not an actress, has no desire to be one. It’s easy to stand still, she says, even staring into blinding lights for 90 seconds.

“I’m curious,” she said. “I kind of want to cheat and look around a bit, but I can’t see anything anyway. Maybe that’s better. I don’t get distracted and accidentally move.”

Soon enough, in 90 seconds, at the cue “Recess!” from the narrator, Hopkins not only moves but breaks into a wide grin as they wheel her and her now-squiggly, very much 3-D students off the stage.

Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts

Where: 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

Hours: Nightly at 8:30, through Aug. 31

Cost: $15-$230

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