Our Laguna: 'Make Believe' pageant thrills audience

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With fire-breathing dragons, fair maidens, heroic males and a sparkling script dramatized by a new voice, "Only Make Believe" enchanted the audience invited to the Wednesday night preview of the 2011 Pageant of the Masters.

"We are telling stories about ancient and modern superheroes and strange, mythical creatures," said Dan Duling, pageant script writer for 31 years. "You don't have to believe in fairies, dragons or beasts like centaurs or griffins to be drawn into the artistic fantasies that help them stay alive in our dreams."

Wednesday night was a dream come true for Duling as he had the chance to meet artist Sandow Birk, whose works open the second act.

"In my 31 years with the pageant, I have only been really excited to meet two people who have come to the show: Steve Martin, who truly understands and appreciates art, and Sandow Birk," Duling said.

Birk's attendance was also a treat for scene painter and long-time fan David Cooke, who enlarged four of the artist's works to the stage scale.

"I am waiting to be amazed," said Birk, who had never seen the pageant, let alone the sets that were replicated from his "In Smog and Thunder" collection.

The paintings were just a taste of the 120 pieces in the "collection," which was exhibited in 2001 at the Laguna Art Museum, documenting an imaginary war between San Francisco and Los Angeles — identified as Fog Town and Smog Town in the delightful narration of the pieces.

As adapted by Duling from a script by Birk's team:

"In our information-overloaded world where it's difficult to recall what happened last week, much less last year, who among us has not forgotten, ever so briefly, 'The Great War of the Californias'?

"Thankfully, a lone artist, Southern California's Sandow Birk, took it upon himself to put down his surfboard, pick up his pencils and brushes and venture into the fray, as hostilities between Los Angeles and San Francisco spun out of control."

Birk's works are said to be the only reliable record of the conflict.

"The resulting corporate-sponsored conflagration, fought on land and sea, in museums, Bay Area poetry bars and Angeleno theme parks, pitted northern bohemian elitists against their ethnically diverse neighbors to the south.

"Here in Orange County, which struggled to maintain its neutrality, we owe it to ourselves to never, ever forget."

Birk is a Southern Californian; his wife, Elyse, also an artist, is from San Francisco. They met at Otis Art Institute, from which Birk finally graduated after a checkered college experience.

He was a late bloomer.

"I didn't start painting until I was in college," Birk said. "Then I dropped out three or four times. I traveled and surfed and studied in Paris and England before I finally got my degree in fine arts."

Richard Doyle debuted as the show's narrator, amazingly only the third since 1975. Pageant Director Diane Challis-Davy picked Doyle for the next voice of the pageant, fondly recalling seeing him perform in the 1970s at South Coast Repertory's original theater on Newport Boulevard.

"For me, Richard was the obvious choice," Challis Davy said. "I never had a second thought. The question was, would he accept the role, knowing his busy schedule."

Doyle said for a voice-over performer, the pageant narration is a prestigious job.

"It is a known art event in a very unique theatrical venue," Doyle said.

And the commitment didn't daunt him.

"To people who are live entertainers, the aspect of having to be there every night and perform is not that big a deal. Because I come from the theater, that's not a big thing."

Challis Davy was also impressed by Doyle's knowledge of art, history and literature.

"I think his knowledge will give real authority to the narrator's role," she said.

Knowledge of art is essential for anyone connected with the pageant.

Each year, more than 100 volunteers research art, literature and music for suitable subjects for the show. Challis Davy picks a theme and tailors her selections to fit.

This summer it is "Only Make Believe."

"We are going to venture into the world of dreams and imagination and present works by artists who went 'one step beyond,'" Challis Davy said.

That would describe artist Salvador Dali, whose rendition of the Last Supper closes the show this year.

Tableaux also included covers from archaic science fiction magazine juxtaposed with Alphonse Muchas' posters from the 1890s of actress Sarah Bernhardt in roles ranging from Hamlet to La Dame Aux Camélias.

The posters were shown above the main stage, another of Challis Davy's innovations to gain more space for the show in the constricted Irvine Bowl.

She also uses the hill outside the bowl as well as secondary sites on either side of the stage and the rooftop — where one year champagne bubbles showered the audience.

The walkway in front of the festival orchestra pit has also been used — the audience treated to dancing asparagus and a "wild" woman in a cocktail glass parading inches from the first row of seats.

This year, Challis Davy "painted" the closed stage and wings with the façade of a toy theater.

Most pageant paintings begin with a "blank canvas," a muslin cover that will become the backdrop for the live models. Steel supports provide safety and a comfortable perch for the models frozen in place until the stage darkens — unless of course, the script calls for the audience to get a peek at how it is all done.

Some members of the audience use binoculars to identify the live models from the painted figures in a set.

But why spoil the magic of make believe?

The pageant runs nightly through Aug. 31. For ticket information, call (949) 497-6582 or visit http://www.PageantTickets.com.

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Artist's Opening

Since 1932, talented artists have been showcasing their works in Laguna Beach, developing a following of supporters. Each year, patrons of the artists in the Festival of Arts are treated to a special invitation-only sneak preview of the show and first choice of the exhibits.

Ken Auster sold six of the 30 11-by-11-inch paintings on display in his booth before the gates to the "Artist's Opening" even opened.

Works by 140 artists are included in this year's show.

"We have some new artists and some veteran exhibitors have come up with some new direction," said festival President Fred Sattler, who attended the opening with his wife, Jan, an artist.

Jon Seeman, sculptor of the imposing Breaching Whale installed in Heisler Park, created some smaller works for the show, a departure from his usual monumental pieces.

"I draw my inspiration from early modern abstract painter, geometry and music," Seeman said of his work. "My goal is to create abstract steel and stainless steel sculptures that showcase dynamic arrangements of interactive forms, representing motion, tension, balance and suspension."

Pieces by five artists were been selected for the Festival of Arts permanent collection.

Oil painter April Raber learned earlier in the day that one of her works had been chosen, but she didn't find out which one until she arrived at the festival that night.

Also selected: printmakers Vinita Voogd and Mariko Ishii, sculptor John Taylor and digital artist Murray Kruger.

Among the patrons at the Artists Opening: Mayor Toni Iseman, Council members Elizabeth Pearson and Jane Egly and her guest Nancy Thum.

Also: former exhibitor Kate Riegler, Morris and Stefany Skenderian, Ken Jillson, Kathleen and Bill Blackburn and his sister, Betsy, Steve and Design Review Board member Caren Liuzzi, Barbara Painter and Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rose Hancock.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 302-1459 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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