Pageant of the Masters celebrates 'The Genius'
It may not take a genius to stand still and hold a pose for 90 seconds onstage while more than 2,500 people watch your illuminated figure in the dead of night.
But it may require some guts. Certainly a collective effort – and perhaps a little bit of genius – are necessary to present the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach's Irvine Bowl nightly through the summer.
The 79th Pageant of the Masters – titled "The Genius" this year – starts Saturday and continues through Aug. 31. The Festival of Arts' annual presentation of tableaux vivants – or "living pictures" – brings to life artworks, some well-known, others obscure, in a production that includes costumes, makeup, narration, live music, special stage lighting and other secret ingredients.
"The workings backstage are like a well-oiled machine," said pageant director Diane Challis Davy, who is entering her 17th year at the helm of the production. "All the parts have to work in concert with each other. Over the decades, that's the aspect of the show we've really perfected – volunteers and staff working together to put on this show."
Davy knows firsthand the famous words of inventor Thomas Edison: "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." With an unenviable mix of blood, sweat and tears, she has been working for months with staff and volunteers to bring the multi-dimensional presentation together into one smooth-sailing performance.
"Genius is fine, but you've got to realize your dreams and your designs," she said. "There's a lot of hard work going on backstage. Night after night – it does get easier. We manage to find a lot of joy in the process."
BACK TO THE TRADITIONAL
This year's pageant explores genius and its intersections with art, science and technology. Critical moments in art, astronomy and history are part of the program, narrated by Richard Doyle, who is returning to the pageant for his second year as the voice of the show.
Some of the artists whose work will be re-created on the Irvine Bowl stage include Jacques-Louis David, Johannes Vermeer, Winslow Homer, Michelangelo, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Norman Rockwell, Georges Seurat, Auguste Rodin and Vincent van Gogh.
For its closing piece, the pageant will bring back Leonardo da Vinci's famed 1495-98 mural, "The Last Supper." Last year, the pageant concluded with Salvador DalÃ's version of the momentous final dinner with Jesus ("The Sacrament of the Last Supper," 1955), and Davy and others heard some negative feedback from pageant die-hards and traditionalists.
"We did get lots of feedback – emails and hand-written letters," Davy said. "People wanted us to bring back our traditional 'Last Supper.' Many patrons really want to have more traditional art. In a sense, this year we're going back to our roots."
VOICES BEHIND THE SCENES
In the studio workshops tucked well behind the pageant amphitheater, a crew of professional artists work from January through July to create backdrops, Styrofoam sculptures and other stage props.
Over the years, David Cooke has re-created many famous paintings, including "The Night CafÃ©," an 1888 oil on canvas by van Gogh, which will be featured in this year's show.
"It's neat to paint these things, because you actually do get into the artist's head a bit, when you're looking at every brushstroke," said Cooke, who's in his seventh season at the pageant. "I spend two or three weeks, maybe, staring at a painting. They're all different. There's always something unique. You really learn about the artist. It's like putting a magnifying glass on the painting and then re-creating each brushstroke. That is very illuminating."
Between 400 and 500 volunteers are participating in the pageant this summer, with 160 appearing onstage. Cast members, who range from 5 years old to nearly 80, alternate weeks: One group does seven nights in a row, then the next group does seven nights.
Jeff Scudder of Santa Ana plays the titular figure in "The Critic" (1955) by Norman Rockwell. During the day, he processes pharmacy claims for United Health Care.
"It's fun; it's a great social event to meet new people each year," said Scudder, 43, who's done the show for the past four years. "Most of my friends are in it. We always get cast each year. It's something fun to do, and it's nice that it's a volunteer job, too."
Another volunteer, Rachel Richardson, 16, plays Napoleon in a Waterloo chess set, originally designed in painted pewter by Charles Stadden.
"I've been coming ever since I was really little," said Richardson, a sophomore at Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo. She had no idea that she would be cast as the famed French leader, but she thinks "it's exciting to know that gender doesn't matter."
"It's really about your shape and size," she said. "Because when you're up in the piece, that's what the audience sees. So if you fit what the measurements are, you're good to go."
It's volunteers like Scudder and Richardson who make the Pageant of the Masters the special event it is – one that attracts Southern California residents and people from around the world.
"Without the volunteers, none of us would be standing here today," said Fred Sattler, president of the Festival of Arts board.
Perhaps that's where the true genius of the pageant lies.
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